Will Obama Put The Cap Back In The Capital? When John F. Kennedy appeared hatless at his inauguration, men in Washington pretty much stopped wearing hats. Will President-elect Obama change all that?
NPR logo Will Obama Put The Cap Back In The Capital?

Will Obama Put The Cap Back In The Capital?

The president-elect wears his baseball cap backward.

Granted, it's a little thing. Arguably inconsequential, especially given the mountain of crises he faces when he takes office on Jan. 20. But Americans have always paid close attention to their leaders and what they wear.

What a president wears matters, says Alyce Cornyn-Selby, executive curator of The Hat Museum in Portland, Ore. "The baseball cap is the one true American contribution to the world of hats."

Americans love it "because you can splash advertising on it pretty easily," says Cornyn-Selby. "NASCAR or beer. It's like a rolling billboard."

And what about when it's worn backward? "People can still see it from behind," she says. And it is often turned around, she adds, so it won't get in the way of activities or cast a shadow on the face during a photo.

Presidential Hats

George Washington wore a military hat. Abe Lincoln sported a stovepipe. Woodrow Wilson donned a top hat. Harry Truman was famous for his fedora.

Some years ago, writing in Smithsonian magazine, Bruce Watson pointed out that for centuries, until the 1960s, most men wore hats. The tradition ended in America when John F. Kennedy appeared bare-headed at his inauguration. Hat sales plunged.

Some presidents since — notably Lyndon Johnson. Ronald Reagan and the two George Bushes — sometimes wore cowboy hats. Bill Clinton occasionally put on a golf cap. But presidential hatwear isn't what it used to be.

Disarming Or Disrespectful?

Now Barack Obama might change all that. He is pictured wearing his Chicago White Sox baseball cap backward. He is following the fashion lead of other contemporary men — Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo, rap star LL Cool J, baseball great Ken Griffey Jr. and that guy in Gilmore Girls who also wore his shirt untucked.

What does it say about a head of state that it is covered with a backward baseball cap? Is it disarming or disrespectful?

Reaction to Obama's laid-back look is mixed. The Huffington Post asked readers if they love, or don't love, the prez's casual headwear. At midday Friday, the survey was running near 50-50.

"It's one of those cool things that private men — of a youngish age — are allowed to do but that presidents-elect are not," says Robin Givhan, fashion writer at The Washington Post.

It is, she says, "too slacker cool."