Review: Policy's important but so are Obama's clothes

Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama speaks in the pouring rain  in Chester, Pennsylvania, in October 28, 2008.
Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama speaks in the pouring rain in Chester, Pennsylvania, in October 28, 2008. April Saul / Philadelphia Inquirer / MCT

WASHINGTON — President-elect Barack Obama radiates a certain stylistic sophistication that's at once Kennedyesque in its reverence for clean-cut, American style and modern in its confident embrace of a look that's both effortless and urbane.

Just as President John F. Kennedy's affinity for looser two-button suits and his eschewing of hats revolutionized 20th-century menswear, Obama's post-baby boom approach to work wear — worn with hip-hop generation self-assurance — could transform how Americans view presidential fashion in the 21st century.

"Barack gives you this very simple slate. When you see him speak, you think of the man, not what he's wearing. But what he's wearing is important because it's the canvas he drapes himself in," said Jim Moore, the creative director at GQ magazine. "There's a very modern thinker there. He's not the pattern-mixing guy, not even the khaki guy. You'll very rarely even see him in jeans. He has an urbane, citified kind of palate. He has a vitality to him, and his image transcends race."

Obama's tall, slim frame is a designer's dream, and they've salivated over the idea of designing his inaugural attire. The president-elect buys his trademark dark suits and white shirts off the rack, but he's also been photographed wearing luxe Italian Ermenegildo Zegna suits and pieces from Chicago-based Hart Schaffner Marx, the midmarket suit-maker that designed Obama's inaugural tuxedo.

"He has a simple, modern style that fits him perfectly, but his own charisma comes through," Moore said. "He's mastered the art of the workplace uniform, making it look cool and modern. It's effortless cool. Simple clothes, solid colors. He just gets it all right."

The ability to be both "cool" and stylistically "just right" has elevated Obama to the ranks of pop-cultural icon and fashion muse, and he's already begun to influence haute couture and street fashion. He appears coolly confident on the covers of Men's Vogue and GQ as well as Ebony — as one of the "25 Coolest Brothers of All Time" — and Vibe, a hip-hop magazine that dubbed him "B-Rock."

Obama is an Ivy League-educated biracial man who enjoys egg white omelets and arugula, listens to Jay-Z on his iPod and introduced white middle managers to the "fist bump." As such, his fashion and cultural impact occupies a space both within and beyond scholar W.E.B. Du Bois' concept of black "double consciousness," the idea that African-Americans live a dual existence of self-identity and mainstream perception.

"He hasn't done anything fashion-wise that is terribly radical, but the idea of a black man in a sharp suit has struck people," said Mark Anthony Neal, an African-American studies professor at Duke University and the author of several books, including "New Black Man: Rethinking Black Masculinity."

"It's difficult to read Obama into a hip-hop generation narrative, but those are his generational peers," Neal said. "It is the maturation of the hip-hop generation, and it speaks to the fact that he is not just a political figure, but also a pop-cultural icon at this time."

Designer Donatella Versace dedicated her spring-summer 2009 menswear line to the president-elect, and during her Milan fashion show models paraded down the runway in pinstriped suits with relaxed trousers and shirts with rolled-up sleeves, a reference to stylistic preferences during the Camelot era and Obama's similar inclination.

Paris' Fashion Week included a yellow, sequined Obama mini-dress by designer Jean-Charles de Castelbajac that was emblazoned with the president-elect's image, and designers in Paris and Milan debuted structured yet comfortable casual wear with "Obama" and "I have a dream" woven into the fabric.

The same themes reappear at shopping centers in Prince George's County, Md., and urban centers across the country where vendors sell T-shirts, belts, wallets and ball caps with pictures of Obama, often juxtaposed with images of Martin Luther King Jr. and snippets of the civil rights leader's famous "I Have a Dream" speech."

Students at historically black colleges across the country, including North Carolina Central University in Durham, have been so inspired by Obama that they've urged classmates to trade in baggy pants for more form-fitting slacks.

"For the African-American community, they hope it is influential to a younger generation that will look to him and pull their pants up," said Holly Price Alford, an assistant fashion and design professor at Virginia Commonwealth University and the author of Who's Who in Fashion.

The historic nature of Obama's presidency, his iconic status in youth culture and the viral marketing of the president-elect as the personification of cool have helped ensure that he'll have a lasting impact on the world of fashion, said Elizabeth Currid, an assistant economics professor at the University of Southern California and the author of "The Warhol Economy: How Fashion, Art and Music Drive New York City."

"The fact that we see him popping up in fashion and pop culture is more a function of the people who support him," Currid said. "It's a combination of culture and commodification. He is truly inspirational, and he has his finger on the pulse of groups that are able to turn Obama the politician into something cool, which then becomes a product."


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