How Five American Presidents Dressed To Impress

Link Copied


How Five American Presidents Dressed To Impress

Words by Ms Lili Göksenin

20 January 2021

A new year, a new age (of Aquarius) and a new American president: today, Mr Joseph Robinette Biden Jr will be sworn in as the 46th President of the United States, and a new era of American history will begin. What kind of president will Mr Joe Biden be? Time will tell, but perhaps his suit on his Inauguration Day will serve as a hint of what’s to come.

American presidents (and leaders, in general) tend to use personal style to send a message about their leadership intentions. Mr Donald Trump’s billowing Italian suits, Mr Bill Clinton’s Ray-Ban-saxophone moment and, for the Brits, Mr Boris Johnson’s messy, rumpled get-ups – each of these choices are (though designed to look nonchalant) carefully considered to portray a particular aspect of power, whether that’s cultural, fiscal or masculine.

Suits are a given for all presidents, so what better way to analyse how style and power go hand in hand? We asked Mr Davide Taub, head cutter at Gieves & Hawkes, to help us understand how men of power use their tailoring to do (at least some of) the talking for them.


Mr John F Kennedy, president from 1961-1963

A Democrat from Massachusetts and a graduate of Harvard University, Mr John F Kennedy’s style was very much a product of his wealthy, preppy upbringing. The youngest American president ever, Mr Kennedy exuded a youthful energy throughout his campaign – a power and presence he put to use to propel him into the top spot. Handsome and rakish at a time when many world leaders were not, he was seen as a revitalising force for the White House and the country.

“Somebody like him was very conscious of his image,” says Mr Taub. It was the 1960s, after all, the dawn of hippy culture and the apex of the Civil Rights movement. “He was desperately trying to get disparate parts of American culture together,” adds Mr Taub. “He looks hip. The rock ‘n’ roll era was ending and the slick minimalist look was starting to appear.” Whether consciously or unconsciously, Mr Kennedy was channelling the same tailoring styles being popularised by Black jazz musicians. “You see those pictures of Miles Davis in very minimalist, slim, slick looks,” says Mr Taub, noting the new narrower lapels and skinnier ties, and the shorter silhouettes likely brought over from Italian tailoring. But it wasn’t too avant-garde. “The older generation weren’t going to think he was throwing out all the rules,” says Mr Taub. “He wasn’t going to offend anyone on Wall Street.”

Get the look


Mr Richard Nixon, president from 1969-1974

Mr Richard Nixon, who famously resigned before he could be impeached, was a Republican senator from California before finally fighting his way to the top. He actually ran for president twice, initially losing to Mr Kennedy in one of the first presidential campaigns to be impacted by a newfangled technology: television. In fact, his dismal appearance during the first presidential debate ever to be broadcast is seen as one of the main reasons he didn’t win. Not only was he tired from the campaign, he was recovering from a knee injury and, importantly for our purposes, he wore the “wrong” colour suit (grey, which did not translate well on a black and white screen).

His lack of style writ large is a defining feature of a presidency that ended in disgrace. “This picture is the most difficult one to think of anything to say,” says Mr Taub. “It literally looks like a ‘tailored suit,’ it’s the Wall Street suit – single-breasted, two buttons, notch lapel, two pockets, that’s what you’re ‘supposed’ to wear as a uniform.” But upon further thought, Mr Taub thinks that, as noted above, perhaps this lack of message was a message in itself.

“He’s the grey man, you know? It reminds me of John le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. If you didn’t know who he was… there were probably hundreds of these Nixons in the halls of intrigue. Men in grey suits are all identical and you don’t know what they’re doing.” The lesson, perhaps? If you want to be a crook, don’t dress with flair.

Get the look


Mr Jimmy Carter, president from 1977-1981

“Look,” says Mr Taub, “it’s a beautiful suit.” When he is told that Democrat Mr Jimmy Carter was famously a peanut farmer before becoming the leader of the free world, at first he’s surprised, and then it clicks. “It’s much more familiar and less threatening,” he says of the style, highlighting what appears to be the soft flannel fabric, and the light colour.

He was booted from office after only one term largely due to his handling of the Iran hostage crisis, but since leaving Washington, DC, Mr Carter has dedicated himself to a life of philanthropy and volunteerism. Even into his nineties (he’s 96 now), he continues to build houses with Habitat for Humanity alongside his wife, Rosalynn (93).

“He reminds me of Bill Gates,” says Mr Taub, “who never wears a suit. But if Bill Gates wore a suit, that’s the kind of thing he should be wearing.” The louche fit, the drape of the fabric, the big 1970s-era lapels all come together in a two-piece that seems rather elegant for a farmer from the South. “It shows a relaxed attitude to dressing. As it should be. We should enjoy clothes, rather than to see clothes as a burden.” Alas, it was not a look that garnered the wearer a second term of power, so copy with caution.

Get the look


Mr George W Bush, president from 2001-2009

Skipping ahead a couple decades, we meet Mr George W Bush, the Republican out of Texas (via Connecticut), whose legacy may be defined by endless wars in the Middle East. The joke – and the serious criticism – of Mr Bush was that he was a bit of a bumbling son-of (his father, Mr George HW Bush served one term as president from 1989), so this suit, too big, too floppy, seems to fit the bill.

Mr Bush worked hard to cultivate a persona designed to appeal to Middle American voters while maintaining ties to the all-important money men of the conservative party, often pairing a suit with cowboy boots in a perhaps a too on-the-nose nod to both sides. And, alas, while this suit might look today like a purposeful appeal to those who might not be able to afford custom tailoring, Mr Taub thinks it was par for the course. “I honestly think it was just the silhouette of the time. All the suits of his contemporaries would be the same.”

“This suit is about the serious business of having dinner with his pals, smoking cigars and counting cows – you know, serious man stuff.”

Get the look


Mr Barack Obama, president from 2009-2017

After the anti-intellectual era of the Bush terms, Mr Barack Obama’s oh-so-erudite, often poetic persona was a breath of refined air. Mr Obama was all about going high (as his wife, Michelle, would say), and he did not shy away from the fact that he was excellently credentialled and well-educated. Mr Taub remembers seeing men like this on television in France, intellectuals and politicians, the smart talking heads of policy and statesmanship, and they seemed to have something in common.

“They wore a dark-grey or blue suit and pale-blue shirt with an open neck. They all did it.” This, perhaps, was the beginning of the new look of the intelligentsia, one that Mr Obama adopted at less formal moments in his presidency. “It’s intelligence and power and culture all rolled up in one. He was a thinker, a poet, a man of the people and someone who could appreciate going to an art gallery.” The slimmer cut of the suit – a sea change in American menswear Mr Taub credits to “metrosexuals” – and the nonchalance of the shirt, sans tie, come together to show a man who maybe doesn’t need the power uniform because he has something else: smarts.

Get the look

The men featured in this story are not associated with and do not endorse MR PORTER or the products shown