Barack Obama I: Style Icon

Posted by lapata on December 16, 2006 · 12 mins read

First in a series of posts on the junior senator from Illinois.

Gary Cooper: Perfect. It's a matter of fact. Everything about you is perfect.

Audrey Hepburn: I'm too thin and my ears stick out, my teeth are crooked and my neck's much too long.

Gary Cooper: Maybe so, but I love the way it all hangs together.

--Love in the Afternoon

Gary Cooper just can't resist the mysterious ingenue

Like Cooper's character in Love in the Afternoon, we're terribly jaded: we've lived the capitalist high life and rolled with all sorts of exotic dames, Swedish twins, Spanish princesses, you name it. Frightened Republicans, cranky pessimistic Democrats and The Main-Stream Media alike may ridicule us for our sudden infatuation with the new pair of ankles in town, but what they don't understand is that like Ms. Hepburn, Senator Obama is the real deal. You can get to Hepburn's waif-weight on a steady diet of club-hopping, methamphetamine and cocaine cut with strawberry Quik, or you can get there by gnawing on tulip bulbs in the basement during the Dutch Famine. You could achieve the grace and poise of Hepburn by hiring a personal trainer and doing pilates every day or you could get there by cutting short your training as a professional ballet dancer due to poverty-induced malnutrition. Similarly, you could give speeches as well as Obama by hiring a stable-full of professional speech writers, or you could get there by spending a lifetime reading literature and honing the craft of writing. You could adopt a message of hope, non-partisanship and reconciliation after consulting with a team of highly paid pollsters, or you could hold such a message as a conviction, a lesson learned through personal experience and public service.

The mood around the Obamanan has a lunatic edge, primarily because it is far too difficult for anyone to believe in the notion of the genuine article. Pundits are disturbed by his unrelentingly rock star appeal because it hasn't been hand-crafted by them. Even 'experts' and journalists who are ostensibly on his side are poised and ready to spring into a much anticipated maelstrom of negativity when the time comes. No one wants to be the naive one who canonized the rising star too soon. In anticipation of the fall of Obama ( cause for speculation as early as March 2006 by the NYT), everyone is jumping on the superficiality bandwagon as fast as they can. We are deluged daily by a perplexing array of critiques of Obama's physical appearance (eye candy!), clothing (business casual!) and name (Iraq! Saddam Hussein! Osama bin Laden!). The name bit, an embarrassing act of desperation, results of course from the rightist spin machine: maybe we can get people to think he has something to do with those things! True, many people still do not know who Barack Obama is and give rise to news reports like this and this that make us fear still further for the intelligence of our populace, but lack of name recognition isn't the sort of thing that lasts long around a public figure who appears on Oprah,the Daily Show and Larry King, and introduces Monday Night Football.

Obama graces the cover of Men's Vogue

And then there's Obama and fashion. Maureen Dowd, doing her best come-hither-Barack wink, while simultaneously not wanting to look dumb if he turns out not to be all that, seems to have gotten the ball rolling. With her piece 'Project Obama,' she warns the object of her affections not to get carried away with all the adulation lest he come to appear too light in the loafers for the job of Commander-in-Chief. This time her TV Guide metaphor-du-jour is Project Runway, and she wrings her hands at the prospect of Obama, with his Annie Leibovitz photo shoot for Men's Vogue, appearances on Oprah and a little too much time spent at the gym, ending up as everyone's favorite celebrity guest star. She closes with the dramatic and thought-provoking punchline, "Does Barack Obama want to be a celebrity or a man of history, or is there no longer any difference?"

Obama business casual

The fashionisto in Obama is all the rage now, most strangely in this

exchange between Wolf Blitzer and Jeff Greenfield, which Greenfield now

claims was a joke:

GREENFIELD: The senator was in New Hampshire over the weekend, sporting what's getting to be the classic Obama look. Call it business casual, a jacket, a collared shirt, but no tie....But, in the case of Obama, he may be walking around with a sartorial time bomb. Ask yourself, is there any other major public figure who dresses the way he does? Why, yes. It is Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who, unlike most of his predecessors, seems to have skipped through enough copies of "GQ" to find the jacket-and-no-tie look agreeable.

Ahmadinejad tying his shoes

Whether or not this was, in fact, a joke, clearly the most insulting part of it all is being compared to the distinctly unfelicitous sartorial style of Ahmadinejad, who, politics aside, is a man who wears white socks with leather shoes and whose suits and dress shirts clearly contain no small number of synthetic fibers.

In fact, it is the article in Men's Vogue which takes no interest in Obama's sartorial choices, and the Annie Leibovitz photo spread unveils the Junior Senator from Illinois wearing his own clothing, with no apparent attempts at pre-shoot styling. The combined article and photographs contain so little reference to appearances or the fashion world that one is led to wonder just what the gang over at Vogue is up to. As one skeptical participant in the Men's Vogue discussion boards, sir_elton, reflects plaintively, "Obama didn't look right. He wasn't pressed. Not presidential in my book. Who chose those clothes, anyway? Was that A.L.?"

Obama and his fam

Well that's just it, kids. Barack Obama doesn't need a stylist because the man's got original style. Anna Wintour, editor of Vogue, High Priestess of Style, knows this. The article in MV is remarkable because it lets Obama speak for himself, through his writings, speeches and conversation. The Leibovitz photos shoot him doing the things he does in the clothes he wears (which, granted, are quite tasteful). And, most arrestingly, we learn that his most stylish asset is his command of language. One hears and reads very often that Obama has 'boatloads of charisma'; that he speaks eloquently; that he writes well. But in the context of the language skills and rhetoric of, let's say, all politicians today, that means nothing. The fact is that Obama writes and speaks beautifully.

Can there be any other politician who has as strong a policy regarding semi-colons and lists? From his elegant and looong post to Daily Kos, in which he makes the fascinating argument that liberals should be nicer to the Democrats who voted for Judge Roberts, even though he himself voted against him (and the way the list is embedded in a set of double dashes-- it just gives you the shivers):

I shared enough of these concerns that I voted against Roberts on the floor this morning. But short of mounting an all-out filibuster -- a quixotic fight I would not have supported; a fight I believe Democrats would have lost both in the Senate and in the court of public opinion; a fight that would have been difficult for Democratic senators defending seats in states like North Dakota and Nebraska that are essential for Democrats to hold if we hope to recapture the majority; and a fight that would have effectively signaled an unwillingness on the part of Democrats to confirm any Bush nominee, an unwillingness which I believe would have set a dangerous precedent for future administrations-- blocking Roberts was not a realistic option.

And how many people quote the poetry of Borges to discuss their turn toward religion ('a choice, not an epiphany')? How many people quote the poetry of Borges at all? And this quote is from a love poem:

"I offer you that kernel of myself that I have saved, somehow—the central heart that deals not in words, traffics not with dreams and is untouched by time, by joy, by adversities.

"I think Borges is talking to a mistress or lover" Obama said. "But that kernel that is untouched;that doesn't traffic in the trivial or the mean or the petty;that sounds like God to me."

(In the previous line of the poem, rather confusingly in this context, the narrator states,

I offer you the loyalty of a man who has never been loyal.

This last being, no doubt, a priceless thing to offer, but probably the sort of association one should avoid as a politician. But he didn't quote that part, and he acknowledges it is not a poem about religion, but a love poem, and it probably doesn't matter that it was allegedly written for his comely young apprentice, Adolfito Bioy-Casares, by an elderly Borges, in English, in honor of their 'English Friendship'.)

And when have we heard a public figure intelligently discuss the role of religious imagery in the rhetoric of politics, instead of just pumping more and more hackneyed phrases and tired cliches into the atmosphere?

"If we scrub language of all religious content, we forfeit the imagery and terminology through which millions of Americans understand both their personal morality and social justice," he argued. "Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, William Jennings Bryan, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King;the majority of great reformers in American history;were not only motivated by faith, but repeatedly used religious language to argue for their cause. So to say that men and women should not inject their 'personal morality' into public-policy debates is a practical absurdity."

Obama is indeed a man of style, but that style stretches far beyond a make of clothing, an aspect of his physical appearance, or an over-abundance of charm. It's not Project Runway style, it's Chicago Manual of style. And we just love the way it all hangs together.


Land of Lime Obama | December 16, 2006

[...] Lapata has a fabulous post at Chapatimystery on the man of the hour, Barack Obama. Enjoy. [...]

aa | December 17, 2006

great, so obama's positions are supposedly arrived at through "conviction." supposedly. but that doesn't change the fact that his posiitons are still lame. of course, nobody wants to discuss positions when there's fashion to discuss. yay.

tsk | December 19, 2006

"It’s not Project Runway style, it’s Chicago Manual of style." made me actually laugh out loud. i'll buy you a beer for that one while i'm in town. brilliant turn of phrase.

sepoy | December 19, 2006

yeah, THAT was the line. But you will need to buy lapata a beer, not me, for that. You WILL buy me a beer, soon.

lapata | December 20, 2006

Does that mean I don't get a beer?

ASUBoy75 | December 29, 2006

Ah Obama: The newest anti-christ!

Akbar | July 23, 2009

"...... but that doesn't change the fact that his posiitons are still lame...." "I don't know, not having been there and not seeing all the facts, what role race played," Obama said at a White House news conference.

Qalandar | July 23, 2009

To be fair to Obama, he also used the occasion (the post-Gates arrest press conference) to make the point that Blacks and Latinos faced racism from the police and were disproportionately likely to be arrested etc.; he also said the police had "acted stupidly." I don't think he should have stuck his neck out further, given that -- while race might well have played a part in Gates being reported to the police by the passerby who thought he was breaking into his own home --it is not fair to assume that the Cambridge police arrested him on those grounds. I mean, by all accounts, Gates was rude and confrontational, and whether right or wrong, that wouldn't be wise even for a white male to do vis-a-vis cops. The cop in question has a good record, and even teaches a course on racial profiling (his African-American boss, has come out in support of him):

Akbar | July 23, 2009

"Gates was rude and confrontational, and whether right or wrong, that wouldn't be wise even for a white male to do vis-a-vis cops. " Welcome to the Police state. "Very little of the mainstream reporting I've seen on this event makes the crucial point that it is not illegal to tell a police officer that he is a jerk, or that he has done something wrong, or that you are going to file charges against him. And yet too many commentators, journalists and ordinary people seem to accept that if a citizen “mouths off” to a cop, or criticizes a cop, or threatens legal action against a cop, it's okay for that cop to cuff the person and charge him with “disorderly conduct.” Worse yet, if a cop makes such a bogus arrest, and the person gets upset, he's liable to get an added charge of “resisting arrest” or worse. We have, as a nation, sunk to the level of a police state, when we grant our police the unfettered power to arrest honest, law-abiding citizens for simply stating their minds. And it's no consolation that someone like Gates can count on having such charges tossed out. It's the arrest, the cuffing, and the humiliating ride in the back of a cop squad car ."

Qalandar | July 23, 2009

Fair enough -- my point is that (i.e. the cop business; not the passerby reporting the incident) might be a separate question from the race one. Personally, there is not a single country that I can think of where I would feel comfortable calling a cop a jerk or an asshole (unless I were the offspring of someone really powerful in that country): in that sense we are in a world of police states...

Qalandar | July 23, 2009

Aside: the odd thing is that because of the modern media and the threat of sensationalism/bad publicity, sometimes one is better off insulting the very powerful rather than the nobody. I was reminded of Jarnail Singh when I heard about the Gates incident: this journalist threw a shoe at Indian Home Minister Chidambaram at a press conference; Chidambaram immediately told the cops to let him go. Not only did nothing happen to Jarnail, he even got his 15 minutes of fame showing up on every TV channel. I am sure Chidambaram must be having nightmares about this dude: even if he were to get injured in a car accident, who would believe the Home Minister had nothing to do with it?! Now imagine what would have happened had Singh thrown a shoe at a cop, even if the cop had first punched him? One shudders to imagine...

Salman | July 24, 2009

At one point a few of my books and folders fell to the floor. When I asked them if I could pick them up they responded with a no. When I asked why, one agent said, “Because you may use these items as a weapon against us.”

Qalandar | July 24, 2009

Since this is the summer I am finally catching up with this awesome series, can;t resist this: "What's the most dangerous thing in the world? A nigger with a library card." -- Brother Mouzone (The Wire)

Qalandar | July 27, 2009

Must say that the dispatch tapes released cast the Cambridge police department in a much poorer light:

Akbar | July 27, 2009

"I am finally catching up with this awesome series....The wire. Come on Qalandar, you can do better than that. It is just a blame the victim , sideshow!

Salman | July 30, 2009

On Gates from a "Think Black" perspective.

Salman | July 31, 2009

"First, all such tales attempt to stage racism as a crude morality play, with individuals as absolute victims and absolute villains, rather than as a system of oppression that works primarily through institutions. The victim must have no priors and no drugs. And unless the perpetrator is photographed with a billy club in hand and uses racial slurs that are recorded on tape, we are supposed to give him the benefit of the doubt. For an individual, that is fair. For a system, it is farcical. While it may be intriguing to speculate about what two people may or may not have been thinking, feeling and intending at any given moment, the proof of racism is in the odds. Black people in America fall foul of not just the law of the land but the law of probabilities as well. They are more likely to be stopped, searched, arrested, convicted and executed. A ridiculous black man and a ridiculous white man do not stand the same chances when put before a man with a badge, gun or gavel. The figures bear this out, and at the end of the day, nooses and burning crosses shouldn't be necessary to demonstrate racism's reach. Second, the fact that racism might affect a Harvard professor is amazing only if one buys into the idea that black people who have reached a certain status should be exempt from racism. If you believe that, then the problem with Gates' arrest is not racism. It's that he was treated like a regular black person. The issue moves from 'If it happened to him it really can happen to anybody' to 'It shouldn't have happened to him because he is a somebody.'" Beer and Sympathy by Gary Younge