Frank DeFilippo: Blue, Gray or Tan, Biden Dresses to Suit Himself, Not Always in the Drab D.C. Sartorial Uniform

After a press briefing on the July jobs report, President Joe Biden walked to Marine One on Friday, Aug. 6, bound for a visit to Delaware. White House Facebook photo.

When President Barack Obama wore a tan suit in the summer of 2014, he was scowled at for days as the greatest wardrobe malfunction since Janet Jackson’s support system collapsed before millions of viewers during Super Bowl halftime a decade earlier.

The taupe trope was the most scandalous event of Obama’s eight years in office.

Frank A. DeFilippo

When President Joe Biden wore a tan suit recently, the event received about a two-minute mention, and that much only as a reminder that Obama had appeared in the traditional summer staple when Biden was his understudy.

Biden spoofed the occasion by draping himself in tan during Obama’s 60th birthday week, neatly double-vented for a relaxed look – but are three buttons a trend or a throwback?

Republicans said nary a word. Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) has been spotted wearing a tan suit, a grave violation of Capital Hill’s austere dress code and nothing short of betrayal from Republican monochromatic monotony.

Between their two presidencies, the man in the middle, Donald Trump, seemed to have only one suit and one tie in the White House closet – the suit a regulation dark blue, and the tie, fire-truck red. Trump always seemed more upholstered than dressed.

The difference between then and now? Rush Limbaugh, the bombastic blowhard of conservative orthodoxy, is gone, and in that rigid rulebook Obama could do no right (ha, ha), mainly because of his color, and, incidentally, his party affiliation.

So when Obama’s legacy (or obituary) is written, if the right-wing fuss and fury is an accurate windsock, it will not suggest that the world was going to hell around him, but that he had the gaucherie to wear a tan (khaki) suit, modishly side-vented but a slightly loose drape on his taut frame, in a town where the wardrobe palette comes uniformly in two accepted flavors, blue and gray, with subtle chromatic gradations among the preferred swatches.

The color chart is followed so rigidly and almost unbroken as if enforced by some celestial dress code administrator. That Obama is still mocked, head to thread, for a wardrobe choice is a parable for our manic times.

Ditto Joe Biden.

The power look that originated in fusty Washington is so 1980s. Those ubiquitous but insipid yellow and red power ties that haberdashed the town’s mustard-cutters and their copycats are now in consignment shops (or attics), providing feasts for moths, along with Armani suits, Al Gore’s earth-tone misadventures and shout-out plaids that typified the era that succeeded the golden age of polyester.

Washington is a town that floats on its own gasses. It’s a company town whose only product is the company itself. Shorn of its monuments and statues and buildings and pricey restaurants for seven-figure pin-stripers, Washington is no different from Detroit, Wilmington or any other one-product village. They manufacture cars and chemicals. Washington manufactures itself. The nation’s capital is the source of its own momentum.

Here is a man, Obama, then the most powerful in the world, whose every bodily movement and function was scheduled to the second, who once told a Vanity Fair interviewer that he usually adheres to the blue-gray rule in Washington because it relieves him every day of having to make wardrobe decisions when other urgent matters require his attention. Talk about cogito, ergo sum.

Biden, in wardrobing, appears more tuned to the times. He is frequently tieless, often shows up in khakis a la Steve Kornacki, and the standard blue blazer is his default ready-to-wear garment, universally accepted dressed up or dressed down. Even these get-ups seem overstuffed in an age of newly standardized sneakers and loose gym-wear to sweat out the pandemic.

But dare to be different. Those very mornings, when both Obama and Biden approached their closets where there no doubt hang suits in different hues and patterns – stripes in pins and chalks, blues and grays, plain worsted suits in navy and charcoal, glen plaid suits, gabardine suits, nailheads, flannels, maybe even a tweed herringbone number to give weekends a zip of country flair. And at the end of the suits are two navy blazers, one in single breasted, the other a double. They chose tan.

On the other side of the world, Vladimir Putin would be shrouded in requisite commander in-chief muted gray with a similarly colorless solid tie, as he thumbed his nose at the West while his non-existent tanks and his no-name troops pushed farther into eastern Europe on a heady thrust of nationalist fervor and aggression.

Consider the wardrobe factor: Putin’s poll ratings are consistently above 80 percent; Obama’s and Biden’s were, and are, usually stuck in the mid-40s. Color is contagious.

Kim Jung Un, similarly colorless and unfashionable, usually appears in black, in what resembles a woefully out-of-style Nehru jacket left over from their brief appearance as wardrobe mistakes in the 1960s. Lately he has been spotted with a bandage on his head as he rattles his rockets against the imperialist but well-shod U.S.A.

In the sand-blasted hills and dunes of Afghanistan, the Taliban continues its taunt of America and its takeover of territorial capitals with a heretofore unseen display of efficiency and zealotry as propaganda while Biden is immersed in trying to convince Republican governors that the Delta variant is for real and trying to formulate a coherent strategy on dealing with wars and home and abroad.

To the conservative screaming banshees, you’d think Biden should devote more time to choosing which suit to wear. The Taliban fanatics are usually clad in khaki and black. So just put away the tan suit when discussing Afghanistan.

When Biden delivered White House remarks on July job growth wearing the tan suit earlier this month, the attire choice went viral. The hue of the suit received almost as much attention, or distraction, as the real news of the day – that the U.S. added 943,000 jobs in July and unemployment had fallen to 5.4%. Excuse the naivete, but that sure sounded like news more than the hue of a suit.

There’s a durable fable that tan, or khaki, suits are reserved for weekends at the Hamptons, the yacht basin, or the country club on barbeque night, a preppy staple that Tucker Carlson might wear to dinner with dictator Viktor Orban at a bistro in Budapest. But Carlson would probably choose the less desirable poplin version over the elegant wool.

Yet many presidents dating back to Dwight D. Eisenhower have worn tan with great effect and aplomb – Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush.

Franklin D. Roosevelt, as many photographs show, preferred white. Reagan, of course, could have appeared dressed as a cast member of “American Ninja Warrior” and the star-gazers would have applauded the emperor’s new clothes.

Wearing tan (or white), Roosevelt got us through the Great Depression and World War II, Eisenhower delivered us from D-Day and the Korean War, Bush Senior knew enough to limit the Gulf War and Clinton presided over eight years of prosperity and growth.

Until Bush Junior, tan suits were a charm. But Obama had a different problem. Maybe its because a tan suit looks too damned good on a tall Black man. White folks just might be envious.

According to men’s fashion expert and admitted dandy, Alan Flusser, in his indispensable book, Clothes and the Man, the tan suit is the perfect toast to summer. “(The tan wool) makes an invaluable contribution to a summer wardrobe, as its neutral color allows a limitless variation of summer color and pattern.”

And Joseph Abboud, the name-brand designer who fashioned many of Obama’s bespoke suits while creative director for the men’s clothing manufacturer, Hart Schaffner Marx, might have been addressing Washington’s look-alike male population when he said: “I applaud him for wearing a tan suit. You don’t want to look the same every day of your life. It’s boring as hell.”

Back to reality. Biden reverted to customary tones of diplomatic restraint for follow-up meetings and appearances. He chose, alternately, blue and gray.

Biden’s tailoring – he leans to Brooks Brothers, whose bespoke pieces are top-of-the-line – met the moment. On that celebratory day, he was able to boast of a rebounding economy, and the Senate’s backing of a momentary bi-partisan mini-New Deal bill to rebuild the infrastructure that bind the nation together. Can’t quarrel with that, so argue over the suit.

“A man in all the world’s new fashion planted that hath a mint of phrases in his brain,” Shakespeare wrote in Love’s Labor Lost.

If clothes make the man, to reprise Shakespeare again, Biden had better not mothball the tan suit until summer’s over. Wear it again, Joe. Then the Republican robots will accuse you of wearing the same suit twice.

Frank A. DeFilippo
Frank A. DeFilippo is an award-winning political commentator who lives and writes in Baltimore. DeFilippo has been writing about the comic opera of politics for more than 50 years. He reported on the Maryland General Assembly for 10 years before joining the administration of former Gov. Marvin Mandel (D) as press secretary and speechwriter. Between times, he was a White House correspondent during the administration of President Lyndon Baines Johnson, and he has covered six national political conventions. DeFilippo is the author of Hooked, an alleged work of fiction, and an unpublished manuscript, Shiksa: The Rise and Fall of Marvin Mandel.