In the gilded halls of the Élysée Palace Monday, French President François Hollande presented his country’s highest accolade, the Legion of Honor, to the three childhood buddies — Airman 1st Class Spencer Stone, 23, Army Spec. Alek Skarlatos, 22, and college student Anthony Sadler, 23 — as well as to British businessman Chris Norman, who also helped to subdue the gunman who opened fire Friday on a high-speed train traveling from Amsterdam to Paris. They all posed for photographs, along with the U.S. ambassador to France, Jane D. Hartley. It made for a striking image.
Hollande, 61, and Norman, 62, were both dressed formally in suits and ties. Hartley wore a white sheath with a painted-lace print by the New York-based designer Prabal Gurung. The men looked professional. Hartley looked fancy.
The trio of friends, however, wore flat-front khakis and polo shirts in green, red and gray. As a group, they looked tidy but informal. Young but polished. Their clothes said so much about happenstance and understatement, which in turn spoke eloquently about what unfolded on the train and how they have responded to it. These are the clothes of a casual holiday, not one focused on fancy dinners, formal gatherings or a bit of business on the side. They are clothes that tend to pinpoint Americans in a crowd: tourist fare that is often amiably mocked, sometimes derided. They are the sort of ensembles that young men wear when they are expected to dress up but can’t really see themselves putting on a suit because, really, is all that fuss necessary?
But mostly, the polo shirts and khakis seemed pitch perfect because they underscored a kind of nonchalant but respectful ease that Sadler, Skarlatos and Stone have exuded since being thrust into the media spotlight. They have not played down the danger they faced nor the seriousness of what unfolded in tackling the suspect, Ayoub el-Khazzani. As Hollande noted in his remarks, “There were over 500 passengers on that train. Ayoub el-Khazzani possessed over 300 bullets. And we realize now how close we were to a tragedy and a massacre.” But they have not thrown their shoulders back and thrust their chests out. They have simply absorbed it all with a slight hint of wonder.
Some observers have asked why Skarlatos and Stone didn’t wear their military uniforms. According to a spokesperson for the Department of Defense, “They were on leave at the time, traveling on personal vacation and not carrying uniforms, and would not have had access to their uniforms while in Paris.”
Certainly wearing a uniform to the medal ceremony would have changed the dynamic of the story. Dress uniforms would have acknowledged their training and the institution. But Skarlatos and Stone were not acting as military personnel or agents of a government. They were acting — reacting, really — as civilians. And in their Everyman attire, they sent a message that anyone could have done what they did. Their clothes underscored the power of ordinary people rather than their own singularity.
Their lack of business suits went even a step further. The Western uniform of authority suggests hierarchies and protocols. Who’s in charge? The guy in the suit. For the three friends, however, no one was in charge. There was no waiting to be told what to do. They just acted. One can also imagine that a group of young men, sightseeing through Europe, wouldn’t be bothered with packing a suit or a sports jacket, a dress shirt or a tie. At a news conference Sunday at the ambassador’s residence, they were again informally dressed — in a different set of polo shirts. Indeed, it appears that they mostly just packed stacks of polo shirts.
The drama took place over a weekend. Stone had surgery on his hand. One can imagine they were all a bit too busy to worry about what they might wear on Monday. And so, when they stood smiling with the five-pointed medals affixed to their shirts, there was a look of spontaneity in those highly choreographed photos. They looked like young men who still couldn’t quite believe the power of acting on instinct.
More by Robin Givhan: