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Like it or not, style matters in politics. The message a leader gives off with a cardigan, a pantsuit, or a pair of jeans can indicate political ideology or personality—or even start the first American retro craze. (The fashion industry thanks you for that, William Henry Harrison.)
So on this Election Day, we're bringing you a list of all 43 American presidents ranked according to personal style. A note about methodology: We looked for the most unique uses of fashion in the White House. When the clothes were nothing special, we turned to the facial hair. And when that wasn't enough to sway the ranking, we considered First Ladies and general lifestyle swagger. Spoiler alert: JFK didn't come in at number one.
Benjamin Harrison is, unfortunately, the worst. "The human iceberg" had a handshake "like a wilted petunia" and an embrace like a "cold fish." People complained that he had a way of agreeing with you, while making it feel like he was disagreeing. He didn't drink for religious reasons. He had no problem handing over the country to big business, though. Seriously, you might not know it, but you hate Benjamin Harrison.
Sometimes it seemed like Coolidge was playing a stereotype of a sour New England Yankee. He didn't like talking to strangers. He didn't like attending events. He dressed formally, and even wore a hat when shaving. When, at a party, the hostess told Coolidge she'd bet a friend that she could get three words out of him, "Cool Cal" glared at her and hissed "You lose." During the roaring twenties, people thought it was funny to have a president who'd rather be napping.
Nixon is on the wrong side of history regarding style. He despised hippies, but in the past five decades, Vogue has referenced their look, as opposed to the sweaty-guy-in-a-suit look, at a guesstimated ratio of 10:1. His biggest fashion legacy has been those weird masks people sometimes wear during Halloween to incite fear and mistrust.
Wilson was a stern, grimacing minister's son, and he dressed like it. Wilson was so stiff that after he suffered a massive stroke, it took people a while to notice. Also, he had atrocious teeth.
Rumor had it that Buchanan was gay, but this didn't make him any more stylish. (Hear, hear for upending stereotypes?) Buchanan was a boring dresser, and boring talker, and an all-around bore. To his credit, he was drunk a lot of the time, which was fine. Just imagine him sober.
As a Georgian peanut farmer, Jimmy worked his "one-of-the-people" angles—especially with his wardrobe. One of the best examples went down early in his term, during a fireside chat from his West Wing study on national television. He wore the beige cardigan that he had sported that same night for dinner. It was a hey-you-guys-let's-have-an-informal-but-transparent-tête-a-tête move, making him look like your beloved, wise grandpa or Mr. Rogers. It went over well with the country, but really, guy, it had to be a cardigan? Cardigans are the dry toast of cold-weather wear.
There was something strange going on with Monroe's style. Everyone noticed it. He dressed like an 18th century gentlemen, well into the 19th century. Habitually wearing clothes that are decades out of date must have been some kind of statement. It was confusing, but props for picking a style and sticking to it.
"His Accidency" was not elected, but came into the office when William Henry Harrison dropped dead. Tyler was a stiff, gaunt, meticulous Virginia aristocrat, deeply uncomfortable around people with dirty fingernails.
James K. Polk
Polk introduced the mullet to the White House. Very unfortunate.
James A. Garfield
Garfield wasn't very fashionable, but he reportedly gave the best bear-hugs of any man ever to occupy the office. Props for hugs.
Herbert Hoover was that awkward engineer you know. The one with no interest in clothing, with bad posture and strange social skills. The one who wants to talk to you about zinc-mining. There were many impressive things about this can-do Iowa Quaker, but his clothing was not one of them.
Johnson was a vindictive bigot and a whiny bully who, like Kanye West, picked fights and compared himself to Jesus. But he was also our only tailor president, and a good tailor is really hard to find.
During his presidency, Gerald offered nothing special in the fashion department. However, in law school, his side hustle was modeling for fashion magazines, including the dreamy cover of Cosmo above.
George W. Bush
Even though Bush, Jr.'s administration had a fairly stringent dress code in the White House (suits e'ryday, no jeans, et cetera) and he was in fact an Ivy League rich kid, Dubya successfully gave off the impression that he was a salt-of-the-earth, down-home Texas country boy. It was partially thanks to ranching around in Wranglers on his off-hours. He's the poster child for successful image consultancy.
Fillmore looked like Alec Baldwin at his grumpiest. He was a meticulous, careful dresser, but it just doesn't show it the photos. Even at the time he seemed like a nobody: one girl joked that she was never sure whether the president was named Millard Fillmore or Fillard Millmore.
Lyndon B. Johnson
Here's a recording of a conversation this man once had with his tailor: "See if you can't leave me an inch from where the zipper [burps] ends, round, under my, back to my bunghole, so I can let it out there if I need to." Not a classy fellow, but at least he knew what he wanted.
Of all the sweet-but-boring Ohio presidents, McKinley was the sweetest and the most boring. Even at a time when men's clothing was becoming sober and standardized, McKinley's suits stand out as especially dull. The one interesting thing McKinley ever did happened during the Civil War, when he braved heavy fire to bring buckets of hot coffee to his fellow soldiers. A thoughtful caffeine run goes a long way in American's hearts and style rankings.
John Adams was smarter than you. He knew it, and you should too. When he joined Ben Franklin (who he hated) in France, and Franklin was having a really, really, really good time, Adams just sat around correcting Franklin's French grammar. He had a cool wife who stood up for women's rights, but even Abigail couldn't help sour old Adams seem stylish.
John Quincy Adams
Our skinny-dippingest president. Quince swam naked in the Potomac every morning. This was fine because there wasn't anything particularly interesting about his clothes anyway.
Ulysses S. Grant
It's hard to tell if Grant had zero polish, or was playing on a higher level than everyone else. He was just so consistent and mild. But this steadiness is exactly what made him a brilliant general. He just kept coming, wearing down the (better-dressed) Robert E. Lee while puffing his never-ending cigars.
Rutherford B. Hayes
The most interesting thing this guy did was ban alcohol from the White House. His wife served lemonade instead. He only makes it this high on the list because of his decently full beard. But mostly he's the worst thing that's ever happened to the name Rutherford.
William H. Taft
Poor Taft. Remembered mostly for being fat, the man topped off at about 340 pounds. But he dressed well for his size—the era's bulking three-piece suits helped—and he was such a sweet, friendly guy.
By many accounts, Pierce was our most handsome president, and looked dignified in a high collar and cravat. Just try to forget that he was drunk most of the time, fell off his horse in front of thousands of soldiers, and almost gave away the country to slave-owners.
George H.W. Bush
Always a buttoned-up peddler of the preppy look during his presidency, the first Bush continued to set fashion standards into old age with a colorful run of fancy socks. They're basically iconic now, and an overwhelmingly popular style of signed socks is currently sold out on GOP dot com.
Harry Truman was part of the first televised inauguration, and he gave the orders to drop the first A-bomb. But did you know that he was also the one-time owner of a Kansas City haberdashery and dressed in impeccably tailored suits for the duration of his time in office? True story.
Washington was like a presidential dress-up doll. He was tall and striking, looked good on a horse, and knew how to dress for the occasion. His personality was equally stiff: Founding Fathers used to dare each other to go slap him on the back and say hello.
Dwight D. Eisenhower
President Eisenhower was once General Eisenhower and as such, the man had to wear a uniform. But he didn't wear just any uniform. Dissatisfied with the field jacket offered to him, he designed one himself. According to an aid, Eisenhower wanted the jacket to be "very short, very comfortable, and very natty looking." The "Ike jacket" became standard issue for U.S. troops beginning in November 1944. Then the WHOLE US ARMY adopted the look, and, still today, you can purchase the jacket on Amazon. And that's the power of style. Or the style of power. Or both.
Reagan, "the dandy from Hollywood," scandalized all of Europe when he wore a gray-and-blue glen plaid suit on a 1982 trip. Speaking to Time magazine, John Fairchild, the Women's Wear Daily publisher at the time, backed the president's choice up, saying, "Good for him. The President didn't look like a stuffy old goat. There's some sunshine, some California in that suit." He wore the suit often and with panache.
America's current President is a bit of a normcore hero or villain, depending on your personal feelings about dad jeans. First Lady Michelle Obama, however, is a tireless champion of young American designers and two time Vogue cover star.
Bill terrified a nation with his jogging short-shorts in 1992. But there's an athletic trend going strong right now and it forgives—nay, extolls—all that pasty upper thigh in the name of fitness.
Martin Van Buren
Veep said he looked like "fat Wolverine," but Van Buren was no Hugh Jackman. Short and bald, with puffy muttonchops and scheming personality, "the Sly Fox" was no one's idea of stylish. But Van Buren took a group of fashion misfits, who wore deer-tails on their hats, and turned them into the Democratic party.
William Henry Harrison
Harrison inspired the first retro craze in American history. In 1840 he ran for president, pretending to be a backwoods frontiersman. His campaign got half the country to dress up in fringed leather hunting shirts and moccasins. Harrison also gave out tons of hard cider, which he swigged from a clay jug during speeches. He dropped dead a month after taking office, but not before bringing fringe back.
Zach Taylor wins big points for modesty. When America invaded Mexico, all the other generals put on their fringed epaulets and bicorne hats. Not Taylor. He led the fighting in a dirty old coat and a sweet straw sombrero. He gets a bonus for nickname swagger: "Old Rough and Ready."
"Little Jemmy" wouldn't be anywhere near the top of this list if it weren't for his bomb-ass wife Dolley. Dolley was voluptuous, sophisticated, and charming where James was tiny and studious. She defined the position of First Lady, knew how to rock a turban, helped popularize ice cream, and—when the British burnt Washington and her husband fled—she had the presence of mind to save their best art.
Andrew Jackson was a maniac, and he looked the part. Sword-scar on his temple, bullet in his shoulder, terrible temper, violent politics. Tall and painfully lean, Jackson knew to dress for his shape. With his slim, dark clothes, flowing capes, and a wild mane, Old Hickory looked like some kind of superhero avenger for the common man.
Ted is every sickly, asthmatic nerd's fantasy. Through sheer force-of-will he made himself a cowboy, then a soldier, then a president, then a lion-hunter. Sure he could be annoying, sure he never shut up, sure he was—at bottom—a violent, arrogant, imperialist phony. But no one better understood the power of a make-over.
"Uncle Jumbo" was a big dude, who ran on having a thicker neck than the other guy. His clothes were not that stylish, but he had swagger to spare. When the Victorian morals police claimed he'd fathered a child with an unmarried woman, Grover just shrugged: "Yeah, I did." Then, as a 49-year-old, he married beautiful, stylish, savvy, 21-year-old Frances Folsom in the White House. No other president has pulled that off.
There were a lot of things wrong with Jefferson, but style wasn't one of them. From his hilltop mansion, to his collection of French wines, to his brilliant inventions, to the fact that there was always pineapple at his parties, TJ's hard to argue with on the fashionable life front. Plus, the boy could write.
Lincoln shows what a little style can do for an gangly guy. He stood 6'4" when the average man was 5'8", with big ears and hollow cheeks. But he played the western rail-splitter image perfectly. And he knew how to take fashion advice. Abe grew his famous beard when an 11-year-old girl wrote him criticizing his face and noting that "all the ladies like whiskers."
Warren G. Harding
Those eyebrows don't lie. Warren G. Harding defined dashing in the 1920s. More of a matinee idol that a mastermind, Harding knew he was too dumb to be president. Instead he focused on writing dirty poems to his mistress. The recently uncovered letters ("I love your poise / Of perfect thighs / When they hold me / in paradise / I love the rose / Your garden grows / Love seashell pink / That over it glows…) make his time in office totally worth it.
John F. Kennedy
JFK had excellent hair and wore a suit well. He was also the first president to eschew a hat and adopt the two-button coat, which was a huge departure from the previous standard, or a three-button coat with a hat on top. But he beats the rest of the men on this list because of one Jackie Onassis, whose embodiment of the word "class" bathes her husband in a stylish glow still today.
Franklin D. Roosevelt
It's not just that FDR was handsome as a young man and distinguished as a president, or that he had impeccable taste in mansions and yachts, or that he looked perfect with that cigarette holder and a highball. It's that FDR never really had to remind you how good he looked. That calm charisma is even more impressive considering he was wearing heavy metal braces under his clothes to help him cope with the polio that handicapped him.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Chester A. Arthur
"Elegant Arthur" won't top many lists, but he's by far our most fashionable president. In an age of earnest, bearded Ohioans, Arthur was a flashy Manhattan dandy, always ready with a joke or a bribe. Renowned for his 80 pairs of pants, his artfully folded handkerchiefs, and for pulling off the difficult muttonchops-to-mustache pipeline. So what if Arthur only became president after a madman shot Garfield? He looked better in the White House anyway.