Inaugural Ball 2013: Insider Report

2013_Inaugural_Ball_ticketsI received an e-mail last week from Laurie in Philadelphia describing a sadly all-too-common scenario among Black Tie Guide readers:

  • the reader is invited to rare black-tie event and conscientiously commits to understanding and honouring the details of the dress code
  • the reader is elated to discover that the Guide makes understanding the code a breeze
  • the reader is crushed to discover that most retailers’ inventory make honouring the code impossible

Like so many others, Laurie ventured to her local shopping malls only to discover sad substitutes for proper tuxedos being enthusiastically pitched by salespeople who wouldn’t recognize a correct tuxedo if it skydived into their store alongside the Queen of England.  She even got into an argument with a JoS. A. Bank salesman who claimed that center-vent jackets had been correct formal attire since the 1980s.  (Such arguements are a common experience for readers, making me wonder how many tuxedo salespeople would like to wring my neck for giving their customers a far better education than their own.)

What was not typical about Laurie’s experience was that it was in preparation for an official Inaugural Ball.  Intrigued, I asked her if she would be willing to provide an insider’s view of such a prestigious event.  She graciously agreed and what she reported back was surprising to say the least.

(Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Pool/REUTERS)

(Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Pool/REUTERS)

First off, the ball accommodates 35,000 people.  Yes, thirty five thousand.  Being a professional meeting planner I wondered how that many people could be be provided with a formal meal and a live glimpse of the president.  Well, it turns out that the “ball” is really more of closed-circuit cattle call:

  • even though they arrived when the doors opened 90 minutes prior to the 8:30 start time, Laurie and her husband still had to spend an hour snaking through a line outside in the bitterly cold winter night (particularly unpleasant for  ladies in gowns and heels)
  • the event was spread over the upper two floors of the massive Washington Convention Center (with the first floor reserved for the 5,000 lucky service members & family invited to the Commander-In-Chief Ball); even with all that real estate guests were still pretty much packed  shoulder-to-shoulder
  • the second floor had a concrete floor, cash bar and Cheeze Its while the more generous donors on the third floor were treated to broadloom, an open bar and a mediocre hot buffet; food had to be  eaten standing up as there was no room for seating
  • the live entertainment alternated between the two floors and was broadcast throughout both so guests could see all the acts (although the Commander-in-Chief Ball had additional performances that were not necessarily broadcast beyond the first floor)
  • oddly, while the President appeared live on the second floor the big spenders on the third had to settle for a video feed

As for the male garb, Laurie reported that there were some men in suits & ties and many in the typical sloppy interpretations of black tie seen at weddings and red-carpet ceremonies across the country: long ties, two-button jackets, five-button vests, uncovered shirt waists and so on.  But what do you expect when the guest of honour himself wore his tired business-suit-cum-tuxedo and repeated his white bow tie gaffe from the first inauguration.  Back then I wondered whether his choices were born of an ignorance of formal etiquette (having not been raised as part of the ruling class like most of his predecessors) or just plain indifference to it.  Having spent the past four years as leader of the free world we can safely rule out ignorance this time around.

(Michael Kovac / WireImage)

(Michael Kovac / WireImage)


  1. Jesse MacLeod

    Sometimes I get depressed by how poorly many guys dress despite the fact they’re fortunate enough to get invited to events that theoretically require Black Tie. But then I remember that it makes me look even better on the odd occasions I get invited and show up in my proper Dinner Suit. Not to be vain or anything like that…

  2. Dave Maver
    1. Peter Marshall

      Good point. Just goes to prove how Obama had no excuse. There’s a great full-length photo at (2nd slide in the slideshow).

  3. Hal

    The most distressing part about Obama’s DJ is surely the fact that it just isn’t that flattering? The two buttons, notched collar and flapped pockets might help to make it more pedestrian but the fact is that its fit means that it does very little for him.

    In several photos it appears to pull at the button, whilst in general a lack of waist suppression means that it does nothing to help him. Given that he appears to have a pretty good physique, this suit looks pretty poor.

    Clearly, clothing is not a high priority for Obama – which I suppose is fair enough. There are certainly other things I’d regard as more important for the leader of what is still the world’s most powerful nation.

    On the white bow tie point, is it a gaff or merely highly eccentric? I’ve certainly seen it suggested (I think by Nicholas Storey in his History of Men’s Fashion) that white bow ties with a dinner jacket are not strictly speaking a mistake; since the dinner jacket’s origins lie with the more informal jackets and smoking jackets men might wear when they removed their tailcoats, the wearing of short jacket isn’t ‘wrong’ (in the way that black bowtie and tailcoat is). Obama’s outfit does seem a good example of why, on any view, it probably isn’t a good look.

    1. RFLowings

      You’re right – white ties with dinner suits are mainly regarded as poor taste due to the distinction between Black Tie and Full Dress, which is a fairly arcane reason to be concerned today.

      What makes Mr Obama’s white bow tie insulting here is he has deliberately used it to differentiate himself in a way that his guests have been instructed not to. Although as elected president he is first among equals, he has chosen to grant himself a unique privilege.

      Which pretty much runs counter to the whole point of the dress code. Not the man’s finest hour.

  4. C. Ray

    Maybe he’s being extra-fancy. White tie has been absent from inaugural balls since 1981. I would like to see a post from BTG on Presidential white tie. Although in truth there isn’t much to say about white tie, except that it’s being done wrong, which makes it a curmudgeon’s topic.

  5. BTFan1965

    Obama wore the exact same outfit on his wedding day, so perhaps he is doing it for sentimental reasons:

    1. Peter Marshall

      Very interesting photo. It’s actually been fairly common for American men to wear white bow ties with their matrimonial tuxedo since the 1950s. However, carrying this practice over into the public arena shows a distinct lack of sophistication, particularly considering the amount of black-tie events he must have attended between his wedding and his inauguration.

  6. omschiefslr

    I think Peter should send a professional letter to which is the Presidents website and let his staff know that the white tie is only acceptable with a full formal kit. Not only does the invitation say, “Black Tie,” the President needs a formal education moving forward. As we all know, it is simple and elegant! He needs to get the White Tie kit correct, too when he dines with the Queen and at other most formal affairs.


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