President Obama Finally Dresses the Part


President Obama at the 2014 White House Correspondents’ Dinner.

It took over four years but President Obama finally got himself a tuxedo that suits his status.

For those unfamiliar with Obama’s history of unstatesman-like choices in formal apparel,  it began back in his days as a youthful senator.  His tuxedos then were admirably conservative thanks to details like one-button styling and formally trimmed pockets but they also featured modern notched lapels and were typically accompanied by a similarly business-like long tie which alternated between black, white, and silver.  He also preferred to leave his waist uncovered as was  common during the early millennium.  The overall result was an outfit more in keeping with proms and weddings  than in galas for the political elite, but that contemporary image may well have helped endear him to his voting base.  At least it was not the sartorial disaster associated with his attempts at full dress described in the Black Tie Guide and a previous post.

After his election as President of the United States in late 2008, Obama decided it was time to buy a new tuxedo, his first in 15 years.  In a politically savvy move he opted for a union-made model from Chicago-based Hart Schaffner Marx.  But he also allowed himself the indulgence of having it custom tailored, not surprising for someone who dressed so smartly in day-to-day life. Unfortunately, his choices marked a distinct step backwards from his previous kit.  Press reports stated he would be opting for HSM’s Gold Trumpeter model that had the one-button styling and notched lapels of his former jacket but with ordinary flap pockets.  However, the version actually sported by the new President at a Washington formal dinner the evening before his inauguration had been altered to a two-button style.  Going forward, the leader of the free world would be attending the most stately of occasions in what amounted to a tarted-up business suit.

It didn’t help matters that he clung to the common long tie for the suit’s aforementioned debut.  But that acceptable, if uninspired, choice of neckwear paled in comparison to the sartorial gaffe he executed the following evening when he arrived at his inaugural ball bedecked in a white bow tie, an accessory never to be worn outside of full dress.  Educated dressers across the country and around the world were left wondering what the latest POTUS was thinking.  Was his blatant faux pas a result of ignorance of a century of convention or simply a total disregard for it?

In his first few months following his inauguration, Obama continued to alternate between the white or black long tie but also acquiesced to a traditional black bow tie.  Fortunately, the latter option had won out by the summer of 2009 and has remained Obama’s standard neckwear ever since then.  Except, that is, for his second inaugural ball where the infamous white bow tie made a repeat appearance.  Considering that Obama had experienced four years worth of black-tie state dinners since the first appearance, pundits this time could safely rule out ignorance of tradition as a cause for his unorthodox choices.  Clearly he just didn’t care.

With that kind of attitude towards formal customs, I had no reason to think Obama would ever upgrade his plebeian tuxedo.   Thus, when I happened to catch the 2014 White House Correspondents’ Dinner two days ago I was shocked to see stately peaked lapels adorning the President’s black-tie breast.  I was equally surprised to discover later on that this new jacket’s other details are just as traditional as the lapels.

Personally, I don’t think that the President has necessarily had a sartorial epiphany and now wholeheartedly embraces the timeless wisdom of black-tie convention.  Instead, it’s quite possible he simply wanted a break from wearing the same tuxedo month after month and opted for the traditional styling that just happens to be in vogue at the moment.  Regardless, I’m happy to see the change and hope that it will reverse the influence that his previous choices had on impressionable minds.

Switching to a long black tie for the 2005 NAACP Image Awards  (Albert L. Ortega / PR Photos)

Opting for a millennial look at the 2005 NAACP Image Awards. (Albert L. Ortega / PR Photos)

Wearing a striped notched lapel with silver tie at the 2005 NAACP Fight for Freedom Fund Dinner.  (AP)

Wearing a striped notched lapel with silver tie at the 2005 NAACP Fight for Freedom Fund Dinner. (AP)

At the 2005 Legends Ball matching his tie to his wife's dress, prom style.  (AP)

At the 2005 Legends Ball matching his tie to his wife’s dress a la high-school prom. (AP)

The new Hart Schaffner Marx tuxedo debuts at a bipartisan dinner the day before the presidential inauguration. (Getty)

Obama’s new Hart Schaffner Marx tuxedo debuts at a bipartisan dinner the day before the first presidential inauguration. (Getty)

The (in)famous Inaugural Ball outfit. (Life)

The (in)famous Inaugural Ball outfit, January 20, 2009. (Life)

Attending the Alfalfa Club dinner, February 2009.  (C. Page/Chicago Tribune)

Attending the Alfalfa Club dinner, February 2009. (C. Page/Chicago Tribune)

The Obamas host their first official black-tie dinner in February 2009.  (Reuters)

The new president hosting his first official black-tie dinner in February 2009. (Reuters)

Waving goodbye to the long tie at the 2009 White House Correspondents' Dinner.  (Getty)

Waving goodbye to the long tie at the 2009 White House Correspondents’ Dinner. (Getty)

The return of the white bow tie at Obama's second inaugural ball in 2013.  (Getty)

The return of the white bow tie at Obama’s second inaugural ball in 2013.  The uncovered waist is also prominently on display.  (Getty)

The 2014 White House Correspondents' Dinner: At long last, a proper black-tie outfit.  (WHCA)

The 2014 White House Correspondents’ Dinner: At long last, a black-tie outfit worthy of the President of the United States of America. (WHCA)




  1. Jovan

    The last couple times, he finally took a cue from Vice President Biden and wore a pocket square as well. Can we hope for a waistcoat in the future?

    My theory is that he was tired of all the other men (by which I mean civilian attendees) at these black tie events consistently out dressing him. 😛

  2. Duncan Pike

    Ahhhhh… much better. The timeline of photos is quite useful, and a very nice bit of leg work; thank you, Peter.

  3. Cygnus

    I thought the same thing watching the President’s comments last night! It’s a welcome change, but I found myself looking at his bow tie, which seemed too level to be a self-tied model but a bit too asymmetrical to be a clip-on. I couldn’t decide which of the two it was, though I admit I was watching in a browser window on a small screen.

    1. Duncan Pike

      It looks self-tied to me. It is quite possible that it has been tied into an ideal knot, and then sewn in place, and still uses a clasp to fasten each time it’s put on.

  4. Cajetan

    It might be worth mentioning that Obama was lately on visit in Japan where he was guest to a black tie state dinner with the emperor and other high government officials.
    It might be that this event has triggered the recent upgrade…

    1. Peter Marshall

      Thanks for the tip. It turns out that Obama was actually wearing his new tuxedo at that event last month:

  5. Faux Brummell

    Speaking of a white bow tie with a dinner jacket – I recall reading on the Guide that a white bow tie was sometimes worn with a tuxedo by grooms in the ’30s and ’40s. I’m interested in learning more, can you recall your sources for that info? Thanks.


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