Presidential Style: Barack Obama

For Memorial Day, let's take a look at what 44th U.S. President Barack Obama wore, something requested by a few readers and inspired by the relative lack of complete information available online. (Such as the false assumption that he wore slim fit suits.) He was occasionally controversial in what he wore but overall had a pretty consistent and safe sense of style.

We've got eight years to unpack, so let's get started.

Inauguration Day and Beyond

The second inauguration, wearing the same Brooks Brothers overcoat as the first. (Sonya N. Hebert)

His inauguration attire was good, if safe. On this day, and for all of his career as President, Barack Obama would wear a two-button suit. In this case, one by Hart Schaffner Marx. He also donned a black full length overcoat with fly front (this model, which is still sold), red scarf, and black leather gloves -- all three by Brooks Brothers, showing respect for an American brand. Donald Trump, coincidentally, wore an identical overcoat for his inauguration in 2017. Both made a wise choice as this is a pretty timeless and versatile design. Much has been made about the fit of his suits being "too loose", but I think we are accustomed to seeing slim fits so much that anything looser is seen as ill-fitting or not stylish. Though Obama's political beliefs may have been more liberal than previous President George Bush, his attire remained rather conservative.

By choosing an American made brand from the state he represented as Senator -- Hart Schaffner Marx of Chicago, Illinois -- he gained a few political points. These suits are made to measure, though the association is one they capitalized on for ready-made clothing upon him being elected. The partnership is credited with helping bring them back from the brink of financial collapse. Later on, he would also use the services of Georges de Paris, a bespoke tailor who had clothed every American President from Lyndon Johnson to George W. Bush. Sadly, de Paris passed away in 2015. Martin Greenfield is another bespoke tailor who has clothed Obama since February of 2011. Like de Paris, he has made suits for many other Presidents; Donald Trump is one, though this was prior to his presidential run.

His suits all have button two jackets with medium width notch lapels and belted trousers. Some trousers have single reverse pleats, which are likely from Hartmarx since they appear to favour that style in their Chicago Fit. Their suits are said to have "inch and quarter cuffs", which are proportionately a bit short for him. Those of average height or taller should at least have cuffs an inch and half tall. Other suits, from de Paris and Greenfield, have the usual double reverse pleats associated with full cut American suits. Obama compromised by getting a few flat front trousers (which may be the same ones with plain hems) from Greenfield as well, explaining that his children found pleats un-hip. I assume the suits with pick stitching around the lapels, breast welt, and pocket flaps are from the latter two tailors, since Hartmarx doesn't appear to use it for any of its suits regardless of quality level.

All the suits' shoulders are soft and slightly extended beyond his own, with either natural or lightly roped sleeveheads. The natural style extends the shoulder straight beyond the seam rather than having a raised bump to accentuate the shoulders as with roping. It is different from a bald sleevehead which falls down from the seam and is accompanied by very little to no padding in the shoulders. The latter is often found on American sack jackets (though not as much as it used to) and Neopolitan tailoring.

All three house styles embody the updated American cut, which differs from the equally American sack cut made popular by Brooks Brothers and J. Press. It is a fairly nondescript style, comfortably fitting and with little waist suppression despite having darts in front, not meant to make a statement. Though this cut traditionally has a single vent like its sack suit cousins, double vents have become far more popular in the United States since the mid-2000s. Accordingly, Obama's first few suits from Hartmarx have single vents, with later suits from de Paris and Greenfield having double vents as a small update. Along with this change, his bespoke suits have a slightly closer fit, marginally higher button stance, and higher gorge height in comparison to what he previously wore from Hartmarx. Sadly, no shirt cuff shows below his jacket sleeves as is traditional. Judging by photos of him with arms bent, part of that issue may be the length of his shirt sleeves.

Nearly all his suits are solid navy, charcoal, and medium grey, appropriate for the highest office in the land. There was at least one earth-coloured suit that was not well received, but we'll get to that in another section. The Hartmarx suits are said to be made from a blended suiting of 97% wool, 3% cashmere. This could be the same kind of "soft Italian fabric" that Greenfield used, since cashmere is sometimes blended with wool for a softer hand. (The author of that article may have mistaken the fabric's origin for the jacket's since, to my knowledge, Obama has not used any Italian makers.) Unlike past Presidents, he does not opt for any pinstripes or chalk stripes. There is at least one herringbone in charcoal, which is his only concession to patterns. In an interview with Vanity Fair, he claimed his limited wardrobe streamlines decision making.
“You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits,” he said. “I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.” (Source)
A humourous moment with McKayla Maroney. (Pete Souza/The White House)






Though the style and fit of his suits are nothing particularly special, his shirts and ties are pretty well chosen. His ties, which he has worn nearly every colour in, mostly consist of classic solids, dots, and stripes worn in a four-in-hand knot and have a traditional width of about 3.75". Even when wearing the occasional purple or pink tie, they appeared fairly sober thanks to his preference for simple designs. This is probably the best way to pull off ties that aren't the usual business colours of red, blue, and black. Some of his ties became narrower as fashions progressed to something more like 3.25". His shirts, solid white or pale blue broadcloth with the occasional stripe, nearly always have a moderate spread collar with longer points and little tie space. This style flatters his face and neck pretty well. Most appear to have a French front for a cleaner look, though this is compromised by a pocket on the left breast. While a typically American detail, breast pockets are best left to sport shirts since they can peek out behind a lapel and disrupt its line. There's really no point to it when there are, at a minimum, four pockets which can be used on a tailored jacket. Perhaps in line with making his choices more streamlined, all his shirts appear to have one button rounded cuffs rather than the double (French) cuffs our current President prefers. Rather than use cuff links, he instead decorated his left lapel with an American flag pin. (Though, sadly, not in the actual buttonhole it is meant for.) The fit was quite full in the beginning, but over time they became pared down a bit along with his newer suits. It's unclear who exactly makes the ties and shirts.

He apparently knew about his shoe situation. Guess there was no time for a resole on the campaign trail. (Callie Shell)

The dress shoes he was often photographed in during his 2008 campaign were apron front bluchers, a style that has negative connotations with shoe enthusiasts for looking cheap or unsophisticated. They may be the same ones seen in an infamous campaign photo where it appeared he had literally walked holes in them. Paul Grangaard, then-CEO of Allen Edmonds, theorized Cole Haan may have made the 2009 inauguration shoes of a similar style. Allen Edmonds had, unsuccessfully, tried to get him in a couple different pairs of their shoes to keep up a long-running tradition of Presidents wearing them for their inauguration. However, an aide did eventually purchase two pairs from them, one being the Hyde Park -- a patent leather, balmoral (oxford), plain toe evening shoe for black tie affairs. Johnston & Murphy also made two pairs of "Custom Select" shoes for him. One being a run off toe (also known as bicycle toe) and the other based on the ankle boots made for President Abraham Lincoln. The former shoe was complete with decorative punching arranged in curve on the side. I am not personally fond of the run off toe, but it was executed about as well as can be. He also had a pair of black half-brogue bluchers made by Adriano Stefanelli, an Italian cobbler best known for making the Pope's slippers. Michelle Obama has also been a customer of his. The maker of the brown shoes worn with both his casual attire and notorious tan suit are unknown.

Barack Obama's good looks are likely a big part of why he is considered stylish in a suit to the average person. As Martin Greenfield explained, he has a 40" chest with a 33.5" waist. Being tall with lean muscle in addition to those measurements makes him not only easy to dress, but gives him a more conventionally attractive body type.

The Infamous Tan Suit

As mentioned earlier, this tan/khaki/beige suit received a lot of negative attention. It's unclear exactly what prompted that reaction. Was it the shade? Was it the drab grey striped tie and white shirt he wore it with? Was it that he wore it for a press briefing addressing some rather serious matters? Who knows, as all of those explanations have been suggested. Certainly, a pale blue shirt and a tie with actual colour would have punched things up a bit. At least his shoes were well chosen, being dark brown rather than his usual black. GQ suggested that it should have been a cotton suit rather than wool, but tropical weave worsted wool is a perfectly acceptable summer fabric. Obama joked once that his tan suit would be more comfortable in the heat, referencing this controversy. The choice of tan wool suiting may seem odd to fashionistas, but it resists wrinkles better than cotton or linen which may be why it was selected. He appears to have had this suit as far back as June of 2012, when wearing it for the wedding of Laura Jarrett and Tony Balkissoon. Here, he wore a gold striped tie that worked a little better.

Worn for a summer wedding in Chicago, 2012, which is definitely an appropriate time if any. He appears to have picked up on Biden's taste for pocket squares here. (Pete Souza/The White House)

Here, a controversial choice for the August 28, 2014 press briefing. (Evan Vucci)

Notably, past Presidents have worn tan suits with very little push back if any. Ronald Reagan, in particular, owned both tan and brown suits which did not affect his popularity at all. In fact, he was sometimes credited with making them fashionable again. Suits are worn less in the 2010s than they were in the 1980s, so back then earth colours may have been seen as a refreshing change from the monotony of grey and blue business suits. This was, after all, the decade when the taupe suit became popular.

Formalwear Dos and Don'ts

At the 2010 Governors Ball, this time with a tasteful piece of neckwear. (Pete Souza/The White House)

Many clotheshorses were understandably disappointed with his choice of dinner suit (tuxedo) for his inauguration ball's black tie dress code. Specifically, that the tie was not even black and the dinner suit itself was a glorified business suit, complete with notch lapels, two buttons, and a centre vent. No waist covering, that is a cummerbund or waistcoat (vest), was worn. Although it had been reported earlier that he was getting a single button style from Hartmarx, it became a two button for some reason. It is unclear why he would choose such a pedestrian style, similar to the business suits he had ordered during his campaign, considering it was made to measure. The white satin bow tie from J. Crew, matching Michelle's dress, furthered him looking like a prom date rather than an important leader. Black and white satin neckties further downgraded the look, but a black bow tie would eventually make its appearance and bring him a bit closer to good taste.

Meeting Queen Elizabeth II in an incorrect shirt, 2009. (CNN)

His white tie game wasn't better by much and would sadly never improve. Before being elected into office, he wore a correct wing collar (albeit an attached, flimsy one) at the 2008 Gridiron Club Dinner. Unfortunately, he inexcusably left off the waistcoat and wore a shirt without a stiff marcella front. Later on, though he would wear a waistcoat, he took things down even further by using the same soft fronted, spread collar shirt he wore for black tie complete with incorrect double cuffs. These are the same amateur mistakes committed by previous President George W. Bush when meeting the Queen. Unlike black tie, there is no flexibility for collar type and lack of waistcoat here. Detachable wing collar in a tall, wide swept shape, stiff marcella front shirt with single link cuffs, and a marcella bow tie -- all white -- are the only acceptable accoutrements. The fit was also off, trousers not sitting high enough and the waistcoat edges peaking out along the bottom. The waistcoat points should come down to the same length or be marginally shorter than the dress coat points.

Continuing to wear the improved dinner jacket at the 2016 White House Correspondent's Dinner. (Just Jared)

However, Obama eventually debuted a one button peak lapel dinner jacket with double vents at the 2014 White House Correspondent's Dinner. At last, he looked far more like the head of state he was. There may not have been a waistcoat, but the improvement everywhere else more than made up for it. Some argue that vents are not appropriate on a dinner suit at all, but double vents are a more elegant compromise and have been considered acceptable for decades.

Business Casual

In Cleveland, October 2010. (Saul Loeb/Getty Images)

Business casual attire is sometimes necessary for a head of state, depending on the circumstances. When Obama wears a sports coat, it's always the same style as his suit jackets. In fact, they probably are re-purposed suit jackets, namely the navy jacket that has regular matching buttons, meant to substitute as a navy blazer. I imagine the grey trousers are also taken from his suits. The shirts are often checked fabric with a moderate spread or button-down collar. He never wears button-down collars with a tie. Though he prefers pleats on his suit trousers, his odd trousers include a number of flat fronts. They are mostly earth colours, consisting of both cotton chinos and wool worsteds.

Sans Tie or Jacket

Speaking in Milan, May 9, 2017. (Andreas Solaro/AFP)

One of Obama's most controversial sartorial moves was when he attended a press conference in a suit without a tie, collar button unfastened. Despite being on the weekend, many expected him to uphold Presidential standards in being fully dressed. He would also go tieless during his presidential campaigns or when attending charity events. Later, last May of 2017, he was spotted wearing a navy suit and shirt with two buttons undone when speaking at a conference in Milan. While I admire his efforts at a cooler, post-presidency wardrobe, a light sport coat would have been the preferable choice for a comfortable spring outfit. That, or a cotton suit instead of what's obviously a wool city suit.

In the Oval Office posing for what is definitely a staged photo. (Politifact)

Sometimes, however, he ditched his jacket while wearing a tie. These moments mostly seem confined to the campaign trail, town hall meetings, on the weekend without outsiders, and on vacation, contrary to some assertions. For both campaigns, he would sometimes appear with sleeves rolled. This is intended to give a more "down to earth" impression and Obama is hardly the only politician to employ it. The idea is that they are literally rolling up their sleeves and getting to work.

"Dad Jeans"

The jeans in question. (Travis Lindquist/Getty Images)

Obama couldn't even catch a break for his off-duty wardrobe. Unlike pressed trousers, jeans can be cut fairly close without worrying about keeping a crease or maintaining a straight line.  As traditional as I am in some respects and as much as I give leeway for looser fits, these jeans are just poor in every respect. Saturday Night Live popularized the term "mom jeans" in 2003, but many commentators would give rise to "dad jeans" referring to his style of baggy, stonewashed denim. It's worth noting that his other casual wear, such as polo shirts and t-shirts, were frequently just as loose. Clearly, he had gotten used to a certain style of comfort and was not about to stray from that. But given his athletic physique, he certainly could have done better. Despite wearing these prior to being elected, the real criticism would not begin until he threw the first pitch for the Major League Baseball All Star Game in 2009. It was to everyone's surprise in 2017 that he began wearing something more flattering, in a better fit and dark wash. Can we hope that the black velcro sandals are also gone for good?

Looking pretty good in slim boot cuts, March 2017, but let's lose the white t-shirt. (Jose Luis Magana)

Conclusion

Barack Obama is perhaps a little overrated in his style, as I don't believe he thinks that much about it. His business attire is guided mostly by people paid to handle these affairs from what I can gather and goes his own way when it comes to anything below that in formality. That said, the ease with which he wears his suits is something everyone should aspire to. It's what probably helped many see him as stylish even with his misfires. Even I find myself inspired by the simple but effective ties he wore throughout all 8 years. It was a pretty consistent image, at the very least, and that surely resonated with Americans.

Copyright Disclaimer: All photographs are used in this post under fair use for the purposes of education, comment and critique, consistent with 17 USC §107.

Comments

  1. Nice, a really comprehensive guide. He's got oodles more style than Drumpf even if he's not trying to.

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    1. With respect to Trump's style, he's not afraid to wear cufflinks and a pocket square at least. That's all that can really be said though.

      Delete
  2. As I recall Obama's first campaign, and into his first term, he did appear to wear suits just slightly too large. It was commented on quite a bit over on the "Ask Andy" site. He admitted he was not a "clothes guy", but he's in good shape, eventually someone measured him right and he squared away very nicely.

    NCJack

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    1. His six MTM suits from Hartmarx definitely do not fit as well or have the high quality his bespoke wares do. If he's a 40 Long they may have used that size as a base and merely adjusted a few things. They probably could have started from a 38 or 39 Long instead. In 2011 he ordered six suits from Martin Greenfield and the difference is noticeable. I cannot tell which suits are made by Georges de Paris though. If anyone has insight into that it would be appreciated.

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  3. Didn't he wear black suits too? I swear I saw him in a few. I'd be surprised if any president didn't wear them.

    It was stupid how people tried to make what he wore into a partisan issue. "A TAN SUIT! I'M GETTING THE VAPORS!" I didn't like a lot of his policies but that was ridiculous of them imply that he disrespected the office or something by wearing tan.

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    1. No, he did not wear black suits while in office. Only shades of grey and blue. Dark navy is often confused for black, but I find looking at the lighting of the image compared to the fabric helps.

      As for your second point, some people can't separate the men from their clothes. I only touched upon that subject in my article about the "The Crown" and Edward, Duke of Windsor because he has long since passed away.

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  4. "In the Oval Office posing for what is definitely a staged photo."

    HAHA! That's good. I wonder if he wore that cell phone clip under his jackets and that's part of the reason they fit lose around the waist.

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    Replies
    1. Possibly, but I think it has more to do with his preference for comfort over that. Most jackets without a lot of waist suppression should be able to conceal a phone holster. Now... pistol holsters are another thing. I've fit a few security guards and plainclothes officers and they are quite picky about the jacket being loose enough to not "imprint" their pistol through the fabric!

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  5. "Obama compromised by getting a few flat front trousers (which may be the same ones with plain hems)"

    Flatfront shouldn't have cuffs so that's a good choice.

    "I assume the suits with pick stitching around the lapels, breast welt, and pocket flaps are from the latter two tailors, since Hartmarx doesn't appear to use it for any of its suits regardless of quality level."

    I once read that the suits are like $1500. That's ripoff if they don't have any kind of stitching.

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    1. That's a bit of a myth. People have gotten flat front trousers with cuffs for a very long time. I think the reason some started saying pleated trousers should have cuffs, then began claiming is because they were often worn together during the so-called "Golden Age" of menswear. After all, cuffs are wrong with formalwear even if the trousers have pleats.

      To a degree, that comes down to personal preference even if it serves the purpose of keeping the edges crisp. A couple made to measure customers asked me specifically to leave off pick stitching, or any kind of top stitch at all, because it looked weird to them. Held fast even when I explained the benefit! They're probably not used to seeing it, as both were older customers. (With respect to you.) I've also seen some very expensive suits without pick stitching, like Brooks Brothers Golden Fleece.

      Delete

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