A book on the relationship between clothing and power examines centuries-old European monarchs, maharajahs and tribal leaders, totalitarian dictators — and the Ivy League Look. “Power & Style: A World History of Politics and Dress,” by Dominique and Francois Gaulme, presents JFK as the centerpiece of its chapter on post-World War II American style and global influence.
The authors write:
Kennedy’s personal style emerged from the Ivy League college tradition. In formal dress, Kennedy always wore a single-breasted, two-piece suit that gave him a young, athletic air. Like many East Coast Americans, JFK abhorred the double-breasted jackets associated with Roosevelt and Truman. His image was one of casualness and energy, unlike the fitted, deliberately elitist, English style of tailoring, Kennedy’s light, comfortable Brooks Brothers look was particularly striking when he met the likes of British Prime Minister McMillan and French President Charles de Gaulle, both stuck in garments of another age.
The chapter includes the photo above, with the authors noting “… magazines showed JFK on the beach in a bathing suit and T-shirt smoking a cigar, in a sweater at the helm of his boat…”
While the authors note that off duty JFK “dressed like all American men in chinos and T-shirt,” I don’t think it’s quite that simple, for he was not just another American man. JFK embodies the contradictions of American democracy, in that everyone may cast a vote, but only an elite few are in the position to be voted for. Kennedy’s clothing items may have been common enough, but not their context. Not only did he choose a grey t-shirt, with its association of athletics, over white undershirt, which looks more like underwear, he allowed himself to be photographed in such garb in the context of sailing his boat off the coast of his family compound. One could say that it’s precisely because Kennedy wielded so much power, and was funnelled through the proper channels of Choate and Harvard, that he could afford to dress so casually.
There’s also something genuine about it. It’s hard to imagine a politician today allowing himself to be photographed on his sailboat, for fear of the elitist connotations. Likewise for a the t-shirt and chinos, which would come across as commonplace slovenliness compared to the mundane business casual garb worn by politicos courting the everyman vote. — CHRISTIAN CHENSVOLD