January 20, 2009

Barack Obama’s Fashion Faux Pas: Whatever It Was, It Was Not White Tie

By Julian Dunraven, J.D., M.P.A.

Honorable friends:

The magical aura of change and hope that seemed to bewitch the nation today was not quite strong enough to ensorcell Wall Street, which continued its consistent, if volatile, fear driven trend downward. But today, I am told, is not about policy or economics; rather it is about fun and fashion. Fair enough. It is rare that I get to talk about etiquette in politics, so I will take advantage of the opportunity. Besides, while I am sure that virtually all fashion editors will be critiquing Michelle Obama’s evening gown, however lovely the rest of us may think it, and ignoring her husband entirely, someone needs to say something about that ghastly conglomeration Barack Obama tried to pass off as white tie attire.

I suppose I need to give him credit for at least attempting white tie, which is the strictest type of formal evening wear, and something few of our overly casual citizenry, including presidents, even try anymore. Because of that unfamiliarity though, few will ever realize how badly he botched his effort and wound up looking more like an inexperienced prom king than a president, an appearance only reinforced by his pathetic attempts at dancing. One would think America’s first couple could be bothered to learn at least a simple waltz before the inaugural balls. Nonetheless, for those gentlemen who perhaps aspire to wear white tie correctly one day, allow me to point out our new President’s faux pas.

White tie, properly speaking, involves a plain fronted, stiff white shirt with French cuffs and a wing-tip collar. Mr. Obama’s collar was full, quite improper for the occasion. The coat for white tie must be black, have tails, and satin peak or shawl lapels. Mr. Obama’s jacket lacked tails entirely, and notched lapels, while barely passable for black tie, are far too similar to the daily business suit to ever be appropriate for the ultra formal white tie style. The pants for white tie must be black with a braid down the sides. Mr. Obama’s trousers had only a satin stripe. Naturally, white tie also requires a white piqué waistcoat and bow tie, and gold and or mother of pearl cuff links and button studs. The President got that much right at least.

In contrast, the less formal black tie tuxedo, used for private entertaining such as weddings rather than public occasions and balls, consists of a white shirt with a pleated front, French cuffs and full fold-down collar. The jacket should not have tails and may have shawl, peak, or notch satin lapels. In the summer, the jacket—and only the jacket—may be white. That is as exciting as is permissible. The black pants must have a satin stripe down the sides. As the name suggests, it requires a black bow tie with a black waistcoat or cummerbund with black and silver cuff links and button studs. Colors are never permitted, no matter what a gentleman’s date is wearing, unless he wishes to look like an organ grinder.

Both white and black tie have daytime equivalents as well. However, I won’t complicate things further with those. It suffices to say that the president managed only a bizarre and awkward amalgamation of the two styles, though I am glad he did not go so far as to include colors or the tacky variation of ties cheap haberdashers so carelessly foist upon us these days. I have only one further suggestion for the well groomed man: visit a barber or stylist before putting on formal evening wear. Sideburns should either be present on both sides of the head or not at all.

If today really was about fun and fashion, and if Wall Street was paying attention, perhaps it explains the decline. How can a gentleman be expected to manage the nation’s economy if he cannot even manage to properly dress himself?

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