Presidents Day: Power Dressing In A T-Shirt And Chinos

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

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43 Comments on "Presidents Day: Power Dressing In A T-Shirt And Chinos"

  1. Always entertaining when politicians court voters through garb rather than policies. America and perception at it’s finest.

  2. Pale Male | July 9, 2013 at 2:36 pm |

    I think not much more “genuine” than a Ralph Lauren ad. Everything JFK was artfully considered and staged as if he were a Hollywood Star. I like the image, but like so many it was carefully cultivated.

  3. I agree with John, but the subtitle of the book indicates it’s not just an American problem. Constructive self-criticism is good, but a lot of people seem too eager to scapegoat “‘Merica” for tendencies that are, in fact, universal.

    Sorry, forgot this was a style blog.

  4. Jack Kennedy was your Duke of Windsor.

  5. Pale Male | July 9, 2013 at 4:33 pm |

    Fred Astaire was our Duke of Windsor.

  6. @Redcoat

    Our Duke of Windsor was The Duke of Windsor.

  7. I don’t think I have seen JFK in a “T-Shirt” more than once. I think the author means polo shirt. In fact in those pictures aboard the Honey Fitz JFK is in a polo shirt..

  8. A. E. W. Mason | July 9, 2013 at 5:15 pm |


    Very good points all. JFK did have style, and style which probably existed apart from what was scripted for him while president. It is sad to see how politicians dress today. To see a “class” picture of the G-8 heads of state is to see 7 men in ill-fitting business suites, some with “puddle-pants” and/or “Khrushchev sleeves,” if you know what I mean.

  9. Well, I remember those days and I never got the impression that JFK was wearing anything other than what he owned and would normally wear. He was probably told to spruce up a bit (“don’t wear the sweater with the ragged hem, no matter how much you love it”) for photo ops, but there was far less stage management at the time. Plus, he was taught how to dress growing up, so not much was needed.,

    AEW Mason got it: today’s pols look like they consult (with idiots) on how to dress to play fetch with the dog. I love it when they go to Iowa and all wear the store-new plaid flannel shirts and jeans, with the crease marks still in them.

  10. Richard Meyer | July 9, 2013 at 6:42 pm |

    Polo shirt is right. The late, great George Frazier was right as well; ” A John Kennedy in sneakers and old khakis had style; Richard Nixon in a brand new Brooks Brothers bespoke suit could not have less” . The man makes the style. JFK’s two button low roll lapel jackets were different in the early 60’s. Once Jackie spruced him up, he had his clothes made by the finest Amarican tailors, H.Harris and Chipp.

  11. @Richard Meyer – I think Mr. Frazier was right. Some people just look cool.

  12. Dominique and Francois demonstrate they Aknow absolutely zero regarding the informal nuance of Kennedy style.

  13. Richard Meyer | July 9, 2013 at 8:11 pm |

    @ ocbd and Squeeze: You are both correct.

  14. Roy R. Platt | July 9, 2013 at 8:31 pm |

    “It’s hard to imagine a politician today allowing himself to be photographed on his sailboat, for fear of the elitist connotations.”

    There were a number of photographs in the news recently of John Kerry on his (or probably his wife’s) yacht.

  15. It’s hardly true that all English tailoring/styling is “fitted.” The classic Brooks sack is a certain take on English soft tailoring.

    One man’s opinion: JFK would have looked better in a J. Press vested sack suit complimented by a pinned club collar shirt. Hearty melange woolen flannels and English Fresco featuring a dry, crisp finish.

    Accompanied by foulards and challis galore.

  16. And a combing of the hair that leveled the volcanic, overly styled coif.

  17. Jack Armstrong | July 10, 2013 at 8:05 am |

    @ Roy R Platt: Here are the photographs of John Kerry on his wife’s yacht. He’s no Jack Kennedy.

  18. Roy R. Platt | July 10, 2013 at 8:44 am |

    John Kerry might remind some of the old story from Newport (that was in either a Lucius Beebe or Cleveland Amory book) about a sightseeing bus guide who, on a tour of the Newport cottages, would announce in front of one cottage, “The man who lives here made one hundred million dollars in one day”. Then one of the passengers would always ask “How?” and the sightseeing bus guide would say, “He married it”.

  19. @RR Platt

    …while Kerry certainly acquired wealth through marriage, his personal background – pre Heinz – was hardly modest. His father was an attorney, his mother related to the affluent Forbes family, and numerous other direct family can be traced to positions of power and blue blood ancestry. He attended the Fessenden School, St. Paul’s, Yale (skull & bones), Boston College Law, co-founded a private law firm, was Lt. Governor of MA, and has been in the US Senate for 35 years. And so on. Call me crazy, but something tells me he can afford his own boat (and second/third home).

    …in my opinion, the suggetion that he’s some sort of unaccomplished lap dog is completely inaccurate.

  20. Trust me, if JFK were outfitted at Squeeze his very specific personal requirements could not have “bettahed” the Chipp or Harris triumphs.

  21. A. E. W. Mason | July 10, 2013 at 4:48 pm |

    While I appreciate what Kennedy achieved with the cut of the two-button suites he sported, I never liked his habit of buttoning both buttons or the bottom button only. It made his jacket look as if it were being pulled too tight around his waist area, thus eliminating the drape. He sometimes did this while putting his hands in his coat pockets. I think of this as a British affectation. Perhaps it was all a part of his “at-ease” look, which, I grant you, he did beautifully. He frequently wore French cuffs, which I like and think are appropriate for business. Many “Greatest Generation” men, upon achieving a certain rank in business or law, would take to wearing French cuffs, feeling as if they had “graduated to them.”

  22. AEV: Correct, and he also stepped up and did Nam.

  23. JFK’s “both buttons buttoned” look was possible because he wore bespoke suits with paddock model jackets.

  24. A. E. W. Mason | July 10, 2013 at 7:48 pm |

    @ Henry,

    Exactly. It’s a graceless look in my view. As someone commented on the link you provided, in the middle picture of JFK the effect is to accentuate his paunch. It looked better on him when he was a skinny kid in his 20’s, as the other pictures attest.

  25. @Jack Armstrong – that was a misguided and terribly unfunny joke – referencing the shameful and completely debunked “Swift boat” gang – yes?

    If not, I’d love to hear which other GOP funded commercials and smear campaigns you also believe to be fact. Let me guess: current global warming is just a ‘natural cycle’ or, even, a hoax? Still rant about Chappaquidick after a few scotches? Which African country was Obama born in again?

    Hate Kerry, question his sterling record, but voted for Dubya – a guy who failed attendance and physical requirements of the part time Air National Guard, never saw combat, and was discharged – twice? How’d I know….

    Kerry’s a liar, but Bush’s 8 years of non stop lying (never mind all the previous lying about drugs, DUIs, his experience…) that directly led to the death of thousands of American soldiers, 10,000+ civilian casualties, and 12 years of unfunded wars was ok because you…..well….you just like the guy, right? Church, cuttin brush, cowboy boots, low taxes, freedom, etc.

    Beautiful stuff Jack! Kerry being on his boat over the 4th is definitely something for us all to be really, really pissed about….

  26. @ Jack Armstrong. 120 days in country trumps never having served. As for his service, like most events in the world of politics, it’s as cloudy as who really killed JFK?

  27. Actually – assuming Wikipedia is some sort of “last word” or verifiable ‘source’ – nothing on the Wiki page linked to is ultimately “cloudy” about his record at all…..

    It cites the trumped up, right wing financed, election fueled controversies, but it makes very clear, in the end, that his record and countless awards and medals were all earned, verifiable, and far from disputable. It’s shameful, and embarassing for all of us as Americans, that any one would lend any creedence to such baseless and politically motivated attacks…..especially when compared to the record of the man Kerry was running against for President.

  28. AEV: Assuming is some sort of “last word” or verifiable ‘source’ -you no doubt read their final word on the subject as follows.

    “At this point, 35 years later and half a world away, we see no way to resolve which of these versions of reality is closer to the truth.”

    Personally, I’m not doubting his record, but I’m not surprised others do.

  29. Didn’t Kerry marry into money twice? I have no opinion on his military record. I do have an opinion on his being SOS, it’s a brilliant strategy for the 2016 election for Hillary. Who else could make her tenure at State look credible by comparison. 😉

  30. JFK and GHWB two best dressed presidents ever

  31. @M Arthur –

    The point is that either “version” of his record is still heroic, significant, and respectable by any standard – to debate which of his medals were the hardest to earn, which are rarest/most unique, how many times he really put his life on the line, how many colleagues he saved, etc. is rediculous…..esp., again, when compared to W.’s record…or, even, the military records of nearly any other Presidential candidate across the last 25 years.

  32. Pale Male | July 11, 2013 at 1:39 pm |

    Kerry married money. So did Bobby Kennedy and Sargent Shriver — just to name two of the Sainted Kennedy Clan.

  33. Main Line Philly | July 12, 2013 at 1:47 am |

    Some of us are still trying to look like him. Certainly haven’t found any better style icon in 50 years.

  34. No one was a better advertisement for the white Oxford–knee length Bermuda (khaki) shorts combo. Seersucker and madras have their place, but that simple summertime pairing is matter of habit for some, including me.

  35. Difficult to say for certain but I don’t think JFK ( and brothers ) ‘staged ‘ their clothing. They basically dressed that way. However, old man Joe Kennedy was one of the first to recognize that they had entered a very visual era and that being photo and telegenic was the ticket. So the clothes and style they wore were promoted/enhanced as an image, call it what you wish. The rest as they say, is history. No doubt the ‘old’ Brooks Brothers were coining it. These days there are many suppliers producing wannabes but none cut quite the same dash, except perhaps people like Mercer and Sons. Much of their nonchalance was simply down to the ‘confidence’ of money, some education, and of course connections. We’re not allowed to say that anymore but it is un-arguable.

  36. MacMcConnell | February 18, 2019 at 7:30 pm |

    There are plenty of images of Joe and the boys in DB suits prior to politics.

  37. CC,
    Chinos=commonplace slovenliness?
    There are many parts of the country where anything but jeans smacks of undiluted elitism.

  38. Old School Tie | February 19, 2019 at 6:52 am |

    Were those the Abercrombie chinos? I bought a pair of the re-issue last year. They’re alright, not in the same league as my pleated 50th anniversary RL chinos, but they’re alright.

  39. Evan Everhart | February 19, 2019 at 12:58 pm |

    @ S.E.:

    Let us say instead that modern and traditional English tailoring are certainly more fitted than traditional American tailoring, and have been since they began to diverge from one another after the 1st World War, though that date can be argued and pushed back and forth, of course (and is ultimately not too germane to the point being dissected and discussed). The fact remains that American tailoring is based upon ease; of movement, and of structuring, though to achieve that ease, actually, more skill is required, ironically.

    English tailoring of the 19th century is by and large very similar to American tailoring preferred and espoused by the elite of our fine nation (and actuated by Brooks). In the end, we both share the same cultural and stylistic DNA.

    On the second point addressed; while I think it would have been nice to see JFK dressed as you described, it absolutely would not have reflected his personality and character at all and that would have demoted the otherwise tasteful and stylish wardrobe modifications to mere affectations and costumery for him in particuar….In the case of JFK, as with all men of style or personal gravitas or what have you; the personality really does make the man, and the clothes are merely another expression of this, a totemic veil which reveals the inner self on so many levels to those “in the know”.

    I cannot imagine him having the same presence or certain “something” which he had and which is evident even in film and still photographs, if he were essentially dressed like Dean Acheson. I love Dean Acheson’s style, but it was his, and reflected an entirely different sort of man than JFK was (just as I cannot imagine JFK in many of Mr. Acheson’s wilder GTH items or outfits).

    Just an observation inspired by yr previous comment, but I do thank you for the interesting mental image which you engendered! It made me smile!

    -And yes, everyone would look much better attired as you said, at least sometimes anyway.

  40. It helped that JFK was young, slim, and fit.

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