Obama 'Suits Up' For Inauguration Day

All eyes will be on the First Lady Michelle Obama's fashion choices at Monday's inaugural events. Presidential fashions do make history — think Ronald Reagan's brown suits, or Jimmy Carter's cardigans.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

OK, the first lady always generates attention for her fashion choices. As we mentioned elsewhere in our broadcast, she made news last week by getting bangs. People do not necessarily pay as much attention to that guy that the first lady may bring around to various events, but presidential fashions can make history. Think of Ronald Reagan's brown suits or Jimmy Carter's cardigans. NPR's Rachel Ward takes a look at this president's sartorial statements.

RACHEL WARD, BYLINE: If there's any brand associated with the presidency, it's Brooks Brothers. And the company will not let you forget it.

KELLY NICKEL: We've clothed 39 out of 44 presidents, and we can lay claim to clothing at least five that we know of on Inauguration Day.

WARD: That's Kelly Nickel, Brooks Brothers company historian. She says the company is so closely linked to the presidency, that their sales people use this anecdote to push their navy and grey suits.

NICKEL: Well, sir, the reason we don't sell black suits is because Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in one.

WARD: Good reason, except it's not true. The real reason, according to Nickel, is that for a long time, black suits were just too formal for everyday work. So the company didn't make them. The company does make a few items in President Obama's wardrobe. For his first Inauguration, he pulled on a Brooks Brothers coat, gloves and scarf.

But that sort of appearance is mostly about pride for a company like Brooks Brothers, not reaping big profits.

NICKEL: There are certain pieces that you can see that someone might wear that might move the market, but certainly not to the extent that maybe a Michelle Obama could.

WARD: If there is an item in the president's kit that's made a splash with consumers, it's his suit, the off-the-rack, worsted-weight, single-breasted, two-button comes from a sentimental favorite: Chicago-based clothier Hart Schaffner Marx. In 2008, the Chicago Sun-Times reported that people were actually calling the retailer up, asking for the Obama suit.

That suit is from the Gold Trumpeter collection, retails for about $1,500, and it's the backbone of his overall approach to style: solid, understated.

RICHARD DORMENT: A fairly traditional cut, a fairly traditional approach to things like colors and accessories. I mean, he's almost wearing black shoes. He's almost always wearing a blue or red tie.

NICKEL: He really veers towards things that cannot be argued with

MICHAEL HAINEY: It's not dramatic. It's not flashy. It's a guy who dresses to go to the office.

WARD: That's Esquire senior editor Richard Dorment, Brooks Brother's Kelly Nickel, and GQ deputy editor Michael Hainey. As Richard Dorment explains...

DORMENT: He takes a very traditional, straightforward approach to getting dressed in the morning, which, you know, given the amount of things on his plate, you can certainly forgive him for.

WARD: Such a straightforward approach, in fact, that in 2012, the president told Vanity Fair that he only wears grey and blue suits, to pare down the number of decisions he has to make in any given day. There is a little room for improvement, though, according to Dorment.

DORMENT: He wears his cell phone on his belt.

WARD: And that's not exactly a fashion faux pas, but...

DORMENT: It's certainly not something you see a lot of men with a keen sense of style doing.

WARD: And he could be more adventurous, says Michael Hainey of GQ.

HAINEY: I'd love to see him in a grey, pinstripe suit. You know, I think he could sort of branch out a little bit. You know, it's winter. He could look great in flannel.

WARD: But above all else, says Esquire's Richard Dorment...

DORMENT: The best advice that I can offer the president is to make sure that nobody's talking about he's wearing, because the last thing we need in the current political rhetoric are armchair fashionistas commenting on what he's wearing on any given day.

WARD: And if he's in the market for socks, Kelly Nickel reminds us, he could always go back to Brooks Brothers.

NICKEL: This is an over the cap, so while he's walking, this is not going to bunch up near his ankles. It's going to be comfortable. And these are $24.50. But if he buys three, we can make him a deal.

WARD: Yup. It still comes down to the economy. Rachel Ward, NPR News, Washington.

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