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Style And The White House Over The Decades


Associated Press

The way U.S. presidential candidates and presidents dress may not be decisive in determining who wins. But perhaps it’s not inconsequential either. Maybe it shapes public opinion in a subtle way.

“I do think that with people being saturated with media these days how a candidate looks. How they dress. Is fundamental into how we understand them,” said Deirdre Clemente, a history professor at UNLV. 

Clemente's focus is on the 20th Century American culture with a focus on fashion and clothing. She is also the author of "Dress Casual: How College Students Redefined American Style."  

From John F. Kennedy's tortoise shell sunglasses to Barack Obama's basketball wear, presidential casual looks are not by chance. She believes the message is clear.

“What the presidents are doing with this casualness I think that they’re trying to tell the American public I’m just like you," she said, "I think it’s a very distinct message. “ 

Gauze in hand, President Barack Obama walks to his car after the game of basketball Friday at Fort McNair in Washington, D.C. Tim Sloan/AFP/Getty Images

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Clemente said that while JFK seemed to naturally pull off a casual look other presidents like George W. Bush and Richard Nixon often struggled to look casual.

President Richard Nixon bowling/Wikimedia Commons

Other presidents became known for their style like Harry Truman's Hawaiian shirt in the 1950s and Ronald Reagan's casual California rancher wear in the 80s. 

Candidate Hillary Clinton is both known and reviled for her pantsuits, Clemente said.

“There’s all kinds of historical reasons why people hate her pantsuits, but I think she’s somebody who has limited her public appearance in very concrete ways,” Clemente said.

Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton speaks during the Commander-in-Chief Forum in New York City in September, wearing one of her trademark pantsuits. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images 


Clemente said Clinton has gotten flak for her appearance much more than Republican candidate Donald Trump.  

“We feel as a society we can deconstruct women’s appearances much more easily than we can a man’s,” she said. 

Clemente noted neither Clinton nor her rival Donald Trump are seen wearing casual clothing on the campaign trail. 

No matter what presidents and presidential candidates are wearing, Clemente believes we are all paying attention to it, whether we realize it or not. 

"That's what's interesting about clothing even though we don't know or pay attention to the fact that we're looking at what these people are wearing - we are," she said.


Deirdre Clemente, historian of 20th century American culture with a focus on fashion and culture.

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