When you’re the leader of the free world, you don’t have time to spend on style. So US presidents have usually stuck to the prevailing fashions of their eras, from colonial breeches to the 20th century’s boxy wool suits. Even so, a few managed to leave a mark on American fashion—and not always for the better.
Seen as the paragon of presidential fashion, John F. Kennedy revolutionized men’s style with his love of two-button suits, Ray-Bans and Ivy League sweaters. Before him, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Borsalino fedora and long cape resembled a dandy detective, and when Dwight D. Eisenhower couldn’t find an army jacket comfortable and natty enough, he designed his own. The short-length “Ike jacket” is still the uniform of various federal agencies. Ronald Reagan had all his suits made in Beverly Hills, and famously met Margaret Thatcher in a blue-and-green plaid number that sent pundits reeling.
Going back even further, “Dude President” Chester A. Arthur was a clotheshorse who owned 80 pairs of pants and dropped the equivalent of $15,000 at Brooks Brothers upon his election. And George Washington started the presidency off by eschewing the trappings of royalty for common dress.
Sadly, for every sartorial hit, there’s a spectacular miss. Notoriously sloppy dresser John Quincy Adams wore the same top hat for 10 years, while James Monroe still donned Revolutionary War powdered wigs and breeches despite being elected in 1816, giving him the look of a Colonial village re-enactor. Zachary Taylor wore suits so shabby he was mistaken for a farmer, and William Henry Harrison campaigned wearing fringe adorned faux-outdoorsman outfits and leather moccasins.
Much later, Lyndon Johnson was taped graphically describing the crotch-length needs for his pants, while Bill Clinton’s ultrashort running shorts left us blinded. And again there’s Reagan, who was inexplicably photographed on Air Force One wearing a shirt, tie and sweatpants.
Our outgoing commander in chief left a stamp on White House fashion too. Despite describing himself as “a little frumpy,” President Obama has been praised for his slim suits, hip Oliver Peoples sunglasses, and cool confidence in casualwear. And yet … remember those misshapen dad jeans he wore in 2009? Or the scolding that rained down when he wore a tan summer suit during an August 2014 briefing? Hey, at least it wasn’t frumpy.
As for our possible next presidents, both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have made style news. She’s got an arsenal of designer pantsuits, and he would be the first POTUS to wear his own brand of suits — whose jackets he never buttons. It’s an odd habit, sure. But it’s certainly not stranger than wearing the same hat for 10 years. That’s just gross.