Stately Style: Barack Obama

Barack Obama waving in a black suit
Image credit: History in HD on Unsplash

For many Americans and people across the world, Barack Obama’s election as the 44th president of the United States represented a moment of unfettered joy and optimism. There was, and is, so much to like about the man. Among the varied notches in his belt, Mr Obama can count celebrated leader, loving family man, gifted orator, avid reader, podcasting MVP, and rock-solid three-point shooter

A somewhat dicier area for the former president, however, is that of style. On the one hand, Obama is just about the coolest guy on the planet. He’s a handsome, jet setting, erstwhile smoking friend to Beyonce, for goodness’ sake. What’s more, he turns 60 today and doesn’t look a day over smouldering.

But, alongside his rep as Mr Cool (as he was dubbed by The New Yorker back in 2012), the former president has had his fair share of fashion blunders. While Michelle Obama long ago proved herself a bonafide fashion icon, her husband has a somewhat less impressive hit rate. Remember all those basic sneakers? The infamous dad jeans? That Highgear Enduro Compass watch?

Barack Obama in casualwear
Former president and king of dad style, Barack Obama
Image credit: The White House / Public domain

On one occasion, a perceived clothing blunder even escalated into a full-blown controversy. 

On 28 August 2014, the President wore a tan suit to a White House briefing on America’s response to ISIS and the Russian intervention in Ukraine. If it were any other day, the light suit would likely have gone unmarked. After all, other presidents, like Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, had worn them before. It was also seasonally appropriate since Labor Day was still a few days away. Plus, the suit’s pedigree couldn’t have been safer. It had been made by George de Paris, the French tailor known unofficially as the Tailor to the Presidents for having made suits for presidents stretching all the way back to Lyndon Johnson (De Paris died in 2015, aged 81).

Ronald Reagan wearing a tan suit 1988
Ronald Reagan wearing a tan suit in 1988
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

On this occasion, however, a perceived disjunct between a casual suit and a serious matter resulted in a sartorial insurrection that played out in news- and social media for days to come. During the press conference, Twitter saw more than 4 000 references to Obama’s suit. Peter King, a Republican Representative from New York, said in reference to the incident: ‘There’s no way I think any of us can excuse what the president did yesterday.’ Words like ‘unpresidential’ and ‘monstrosity’ did the rounds, as did the phrases ‘yes we tan’ and ‘the audacity of taupe’ (references to Obama’s famous campaign slogan and second book, respectively).

Barack Obama on the day of the tan suit controversy
President Obama on the day of the infamous tan suit debacle
Image credit: The White House / Public domain

These days, such an example of a slow news cycle might well be wished for, and indeed the former president has often joked about ‘tan-gate’ since. There’s also a certain irony in Obama being the subject of a controversy involving an out-there suit choice. As POTUS, he famously stuck to a deliberately limited palate as far as formalwear was concerned. He told Michael Lewis in a 2012 Vanity Fair profile that ‘You’ll see I wear only grey or blue suits […] 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.’

The tan suit, to the extent that it was a misstep, was a rare one for a man who has shown a clear awareness of the message his clothing sends. Typically, Obama wears things that gel with his politics. When he accepted the Democratic nomination as a presidential candidate and again later at his inauguration, the former Illinois senator wore suits by the Chicago-based menswear manufacturer Hartmarx. Then, in the realm of casual wear, consider his fondness in recent years for Allbrids, the sneaker brand from New Zealand whose main selling point is their sustainability and eco-friendliness. 

Barack and Michelle Obama at Biden inauguration
Barack and Michelle Obama at Joe Biden’s presidential inauguration
Image credit: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff / CC BY 2.0

If all of this doesn’t necessarily inspire much confidence in the style department, fear not, for Obama has shown some real fashionable flair in recent years. The office of the presidency may have taken its toll on his hair colour, but retirement seems to be agreeing very well with his wardrobe. The dad denim and tacky trainers seem largely to have disappeared, evidently replaced by slim-cut chinos, form-fitting polos and button-ups. Not to mention those sockless Stan Smiths from his visit to Kuala Lumpur in 2019. Then there’s the viral bomber jacket from the New York brand rag & bone that he wore to a college basketball game that same year. It featured a custom presidential touch in the form of a discreet number 44 embroidered on the sleeve.

It’s a great jacket and it bodes well, suggesting that these days Mr Cool is building a closet to match his cognomen.