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JFK eschewing the top hat at his inauguration. Photo: Getty Images
JFK eschewing the top hat at his inauguration. Photo: Getty Images

The Most Important Style Moments in Presidential History

From Thomas Jefferson's pajamas to Bill Clinton's little nylon shorts.

In many ways, politics is the most superficial game in town. If voters like you, they vote for you; if voters vote for you, you get to keep doing your job. And voters might like—or dislike—you for a variety of reasons.

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One of those reasons, often underplayed, is style. Voters care a great deal about how politicians, both female and male, look—what they wear, how they do their hair, if they use makeup. We think of Washington, D.C. as full of men in dark suits wearing solid shirts and red ties, and this isn’t wrong. Congress is more than 80 percent male, and even the most liberal of these men (80 percent of whom are white, with an average age of 60) dress fairly conservatively.

But there’s more going on than that, and in at least the ten cases detailed below, what was going on became a matter of national importance. We're talking about presidential history here! If the clothes make the man, and the President of the United States has been the most powerful man in the world for more than two centuries, then there’s nothing more powerful than his clothes. That’s LOGIC.

Thomas Jefferson’s Pajamas

When TJ wasn't wearing fur, he opted for PJs. Photo: Getty Images

The first documented instance of style, or lack thereof, impacting the fate of the American sovereign state came early. Despite being our third president and one of the architects of this great nation, it just so happens that Thomas Jefferson was a connoisseur of chill, as shown by his tendency to wear pajamas even when greeting the diplomats of other countries. Mental Floss points to an incident in which he welcomed a British minister looking like he just stacked the Z’s up too tall, and the minister was...underwhelmed! Said minister wrote: "I, in my official costume, found myself at the hour of reception he had himself appointed, introduced to a man as president of the United States, not merely in an undress, but ACTUALLY STANDING IN SLIPPERS DOWN TO THE HEELS, and both pantaloons, coat and under-clothes indicative of utter slovenliness and indifference to appearances, and in a state of negligence actually studied." Pajamas: a tradition as American as aggravating the British.

Zachary Taylor’s Hat

Zachary Taylor isn’t exactly a president we sit around singing songs about these days, but it should be known that our 12th chief executive also had a reputation for being a bit of a slob. That reputation was topped off, lol, by the hat he wore on the battlefield during the Mexican-American War, a tattered straw hat. This was actually something that helped him: His humble nature and general lack of pretension, evidenced outwardly by his rumpled clothing and that sloppy hat, are largely what got him elected president.

Nixon and Kennedy before the infamously sweaty 1960 debate. Photo: Getty Images

Richard Nixon’s Sweaty, Sweaty Face

Fast-forward to 1960. Vice president Richard Nixon and senator John F. Kennedy are engaging in the first televised political debate in American history. JFK is an icon, young and handsome and calm and cool. Richard Nixon is suffering from a 102-degree fever and, after hearing that Kennedy forwent makeup, decided to go without himself. And so, on television, Nixon is covered in sweat, while Kennedy looks like a movie star. Guess what happened next. Nixon won! Just kidding.

John F. Kennedy's Lack of Hat

Back in the day—BACK IN THE GOOD OLD DAYS—men wore hats on their heads. That all changed for a variety of reasons: the development of automobiles, shifting social trends, the normal reasons fashions change. But another widespread belief is that Kennedy helped kill it when he decided not to wear the customary top hat to his inauguration. Kennedy would go on to become a major influence on male style dating all the way to the present, and nobody, literally not a single person, has worn a top hat since.

Carter addressing the nation in his much-loved beige cardigan. Photo: Getty Images

Jimmy Carter’s Cardigan

Jimmy Carter was a likable guy. A peanut farmer from Georgia, he beat incumbent Gerald Ford to win the White House, was beloved by the media, and is the only president to ever be interviewed by Playboy. Early in his term, he addressed the public on television wearing what he’d worn to dinner: a beige cardigan. People ate it up: The address was about energy conservation and he was wearing this wool sweater because the heat had been turned down in an act of energy conservation. As Time put it back then, the cardigan "may prove to be the most memorable symbol of an Administration that promises to make steady use of symbolism."

Bill Clinton’s Running Shorts

Skimpy running shorts became a thing thanks to Clinton; VP Al Gore was a fan, too. Photo: Getty Images

Bill Clinton was notorious for his deep and loving relationship with fast food, and one of the ways he balanced out that affection was to go running around D.C. The Secret Service hated it, because you can imagine how hard it is to ensure the safety of a guy who just lets people start jogging with him, but it fit perfectly with Clinton’s rep as your best friend who also happened to become the president of the United States. That image was only enhanced by the shorts that he and vice president Al Gore would wear on their runs, which had more in common with loincloths than they did anything you or I might think of as shorts. Jay and Ellen Diamond’s book The World of Fashion actually credits Clinton with popularizing nylon running shorts, which, what a boon for all of us.

George W. Bush’s Cowboy Boots

George W. Bush was Texas. If you knew nothing else about W. as he ran for, won the office of, and served two terms as president, you knew this. And W.’s way of showing, without a doubt, his Texas pride—he was governor of the state from 1995 through 2000, leading up to his first presidential term—was a penchant for cowboy boots. While hardly the first president to wear cowboy boots in the White House, they were a way for Bush to play down his Yale education and dynastic family and play up his good ol' boy tendencies.

John Edwards’s Haircut

There would come a time in John Edwards’ career where the idea of a scandal centered on a haircut would seem like wishful thinking. But before the affair and subsequent love child, there was the $400 haircut, a sizable blow to Edwards’ reputation as a populist Democrat challenging Hillary Clinton’s establishment reputation in the 2008 presidential primary. The haircut was a significant event: Edwards was running on an anti-poverty platform, and the idea that he was spending what would be a month’s rent in many parts of the country—and about 25% of it in New York City!—didn’t exactly sell him as a champion of the poor.

Obama's dad jeans may just be a part of his enduring legacy. The tan suit? Probably not. Photos: Getty Images

Barack Obama’s Tan Suit and Dad Jeans

Because he’s the sitting president, Barack Obama gets two entries. The first is for his dad jeans, which are one of the many legacies Obama will leave as a two-term president: he’s explored a variety of different washes and fits over the years, but they all fall under the general category of "dad as hell." Critic Robin Givhan wrote that "for a president who has prided himself on his forward-looking philosophy," the jeans were "off message." Little did she know that this was forward-looking, as normcore style took over six years into his tenure.

The second is his tan suit, which he wore during a meeting with the press to discuss foreign policy issues. The tan suit was one of the first presidential style controversies to basically only exist on Twitter—which makes sense, because it was, on a surface level, pretty pointless—but it also showed a president straying from the typical uniform of navy and gray, which is in and of itself a notable occurrence.

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