Inaugural Suits of US Presidents

Inauguration & the Suits of the Presidents of the United States

With the presidential inauguration of Barack Obama taking place today, I thought it was a good opportunity to take a closer look at the suits and outfits worn by US presidents throughout history on their inaugural day – you will probably be surprised to see how the outfits developed over time. The very first was George Washington in 1789 in New York City wearing a morning coat with ruffled shirt, knee length trousers, matching waistcoat, over the calf silk hose and buckle shoes.

George Washington in Morning Dress at the First Inauguration in NYC April 30, 1789

George Washington in Morning Dress at the First Inauguration in NYC April 30, 1789

 

Andrew Jackson wore a very different outfit with a black tailcoat, trousers and vest, combined with a white starched shirt and big black bow tie.

Andrew Jackson at the first capitol inauguration in 1829 with tailcoat, high cut waistcoat & black bow tie

Andrew Jackson at the first capitol inauguration in 1829 with tailcoat, high cut waistcoat & black bow tie

On the other hand, Lincoln wore a frock coat in 1865, which was an upcoming trend at the time.

Lincoln in frock coat and black bow tie at his second inauguration in 1865

Lincoln in frock coat and black bow tie at his second inauguration in 1865

Ulysses S. Grant wore once again a black tailcoat with a black bow tie and for his ball, people were not allowed to wear overcoats, hats or canes, which must have been the exception to the rule back then.

Inauguration Oath of Ulysses S. Grant in tailcoat and black bow tie with stiff cuffed shirt and cufflinks 1873

Inauguration Oath of Ulysses S. Grant in tailcoat and black bow tie with stiff cuffed shirt and cufflinks 1873

Inaugurational Ball on March 4, 1873 for Ulysses S. Grant

Inaugurational Ball on March 4, 1873 for Ulysses S. Grant

Chestur Arthur was one of the first presidents to adopt the stroller suit but if you look closely, you will notice that his jacket had rounded quarters similar to a morning coat but much shorter in length.

Chester Arthur Sep 20, 1881 in Stroller Suit with open quarters

Chester Arthur Sep 20, 1881 in Stroller Suit with open quarters

William McKinley wore a double breasted frock coat with partially silk faced lapels. Of course, during the speech he took off his top hat.

William McKinley in frock coat & black bow tie at his first inauguration, March 4, 1897

William McKinley in frock coat & black bow tie at his first inauguration, March 4, 1897

Theodore Roosevelt wore a turndowncollar in this picture paired with a necktie and a frock coat. While common nowadays he was fashion forward back then because the bow tie and stiff wing collar were considered more traditional back then.

Theodore Roosevelt in frock coat with striped necktie and turndown collar at Oath of Office, September 14, 1901

Theodore Roosevelt in frock coat with striped necktie and turndown collar at Oath of Office, September 14, 1901

Top hats were reserved for the wealthy while the general public wore bowler hats or Homburg hats.

Theodore Roosevelt in carriage on Pennsylvania Avenue on way to Capitol, March 4, 1905].

Theodore Roosevelt in carriage on Pennsylvania Avenue on way to Capitol, March 4, 1905].

Roosevelt Inauguration Day in 1905

Roosevelt Inauguration Day in 1905

Taft was a big president and he liked to wear fur. At his inauguration we can see him wearing a fitted fur lined overcoat with fur collar and cuffs as well as a top hat but without gloves.

William Howard Taft Inauguration, March 4, 1909

William Howard Taft Inauguration, March 4, 1909

The dress code remained unchanged.

President-elect Wilson and President Taft, standing side by side, laughing, at White House prior to Wilson's inauguration ceremonies, March 4, 1913

President-elect Wilson and President Taft, standing side by side, laughing, at White House prior to Wilson’s inauguration ceremonies, March 4, 1913

 

Woodrow Wilson and wife riding in back seat of a carriage to second inauguration with top hat and velvet collar on March 5, 1917

Woodrow Wilson and wife riding in back seat of a carriage to second inauguration with top hat and velvet collar on March 5, 1917

 

President Wilson, with top hat and speech in hand, delivering his inaugural address, March 5, 1917

President Wilson, with top hat and speech in hand, delivering his inaugural address, March 5, 1917

President Harding in a light colored overcoat with fur collar.

President Harding waving to crowd from inaugural stand on east portico of U.S. Capitol, March 4, 1921

President Harding waving to crowd from inaugural stand on east portico of U.S. Capitol, March 4, 1921

Just look at the splendid top hats…

Woodrow Wilson, Warren G. Harding, Philander Knox and Joseph Cannon, in convertible, March 4, 1921

Woodrow Wilson, Warren G. Harding, Philander Knox and Joseph Cannon, in convertible, March 4, 1921

Coolidge in morningwear.

President Coolidge, Mrs. Coolidge and Senator Curtis on the way to the Capitol, March 4, 1925.

President Coolidge, Mrs. Coolidge and Senator Curtis on the way to the Capitol, March 4, 1925.

 

Chief Justice William H. Taft administering the oath of office to Herbert Hoover on the east portico of the U.S. Capitol, March 4, 1929

Chief Justice William H. Taft administering the oath of office to Herbert Hoover on the east portico of the U.S. Capitol, March 4, 1929

Franklin Delano Roosevelt in a fur collar and polished top hat.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Herbert Hoover in convertible automobile on way to Capitol for Roosevelt's inauguration, March 4, 1933

Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Herbert Hoover in convertible automobile on way to Capitol for Roosevelt’s inauguration, March 4, 1933

FDR with a evening overcoat with cloak and velvet collar – it is too bad that these kind of overcoats have almost vanished completely.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt inauguration, 1937 with shiny top hat and evening overcoat with cape and frog closure

President Franklin D. Roosevelt inauguration, 1937 with shiny top hat and evening overcoat with cape and frog closure

 

Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes administering the oath of office to Franklin Delano Roosevelt on the east portico of the U.S. Capitol, January 20, 1941

Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes administering the oath of office to Franklin Delano Roosevelt on the east portico of the U.S. Capitol, January 20, 1941

Harry S. Truman swearing the oath. For more information about his wardrobe take a look at this post.

Chief Justice Harlan F. Stone administering the oath of office to Harry S. Truman in the Cabinet Room of the White House, April 12, 1945

Chief Justice Harlan F. Stone administering the oath of office to Harry S. Truman in the Cabinet Room of the White House, April 12, 1945

Eisenhower in 1953 wearing a roomy, double breasted overcoat.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower inauguration, 1953 in double breasted overcoat

President Dwight D. Eisenhower inauguration, 1953 in double breasted overcoat

Eisenhower in morning dress, reacting to the cheering of the spectators.

Eisenhower in Monring Coat

Eisenhower in Morning Coat

Dwight D. Eisenhower in Stroller suit taking oath of office in a private ceremony in the East Room of the White House, January 20, 1957

Dwight D. Eisenhower in Stroller suit taking oath of office in a private ceremony in the East Room of the White House, January 20, 1957

John F. Kennedy in full morning dress with top hat.

JFK with top hat and overcoat

JFK with top hat and overcoat

JFK in morning coat giving his 1961 inauguration speech.

John F. Kennedy in morning dress delivering his inaugural address, January 20, 1961

John F. Kennedy in morning dress delivering his inaugural address, January 20, 1961

JFK wearing the evening equivalent of the morning coat outfit to the inauguration ball: white tie with wing collar, stiff fronted shirt and piqée vest with studs.

Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy

Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy

Chief Justice Earl Warren administering the oath of office to Richard M. Nixon on the east portico of the U.S. Capitol, January 20, 1969

Chief Justice Earl Warren administering the oath of office to Richard M. Nixon on the east portico of the U.S. Capitol, January 20, 1969

Nixon with a shawl collar tuxedo and cummerbund at the inauguration ball.

Nixon in black tie at the inaugurational ball with shawl collar tuxedo, cummerbund & studs

Nixon in black tie at the inaugurational ball with shawl collar tuxedo, cummerbund & studs

President Ford wearing just a plain suit with a striped tie.

Inauguration of President Ford in a solid suit with a boldly striped tie

Inauguration of President Ford in a solid suit with a boldly striped tie

Reagan was the last US president to wear a stroller suit for his inauguration in 1981.

Reagan was the last President to wear a stroller suit on his inauguration day in 1981

Reagan was the last President to wear a stroller suit on his inauguration day in 1981

In 1985, he switched to a regular suit.

Ronald Reagan, Nancy Reagan

Ronald Reagan, Nancy Reagan

George H. W. Bush is a dark suit with silver tie in 1989.

Bush senior in Suit 1989

Bush senior in Suit 1989

Bill Clinton in a dark suit with plain tie in 1993.

Clinton 1993 in a dark suit

Clinton 1993 in a dark suit

George W. Bush junior

George W. Bush junior

Obama in 2009 & 2013

Barack Obama, Michelle Obama, Sasha Obama, Malia Obama

Barack Obama, Michelle Obama, Sasha Obama, Malia Obama in 2009

U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts administers the oath of office to U.S. President Barack Obama during ceremonies in Washington

U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts administers the oath of office to U.S. President Barack Obama during ceremonies in Washington

Conclusion

The inauguration used to be a much dressier and more formal event where top hats and proper morning dress were obligatory. Sadly, ever since Reagan’s second inauguration, US president have only worn plain solid suits with uninteresting neckties and I would love to see a stroller or even a morning coat at such a celebratory event in the future.  What do you think? Do you think a suit is enough or would you prefer a slight change in dress for such special occasions?

23 replies
  1. Thomas Jollans
    Thomas Jollans says:

    I disagree with your conclusion. From your list, it does not look at all as if the inauguration “used to be much dressier”. With the possible exception of JFK’s formal morning wear, it looks to me as if presidents have generally stuck to the dress code prevalent in politics/business at the time.

    I think this is perfectly fine – at the inauguration, the president should arguably dress in the way that it is customary for statesmen to dress at ceremonial daytime occasions. These days, that arguably, for men, means a plain dark suit with a white shirt and uninteresting tie. While I would welcome a more interesting presidential wardrobe of course, I think it’s important that, as a symbol of the democratic nature of the office, the president’s wardrobe should stay well within custom accepted in parliament and in business.

    • Sven Raphael Schneider
      Sven Raphael Schneider says:

      Dear Thomas, thanks for sharing your opinion. As you point out, conventions were different back then and people wore different things, nevertheless a morning coat or stroller are dressier than a regular suit.
      Also, when Ford gave his inaugural speech, he wore a suit but 8 years later, Reagan wore a stroller and it looked decent. Of course a poliitician should not dress like a king, nevertheless I don’t think that a morning coat would be out of touch, especially since this is a single festive event in a term.

  2. Landry
    Landry says:

    Dear Raphael,

    First of all, allow me to congratulate you on this Great blog. One of the few that I truly enjoy reading. I fully agree with your conclusion and I would definitely like to see more formal dressing. Today, wearing a suit is the highest level of formality and it is sad.
    I’m actually disappointed by President Obama dress at the inaugural Balls more than I am for the inauguration ceremony itself. Four years ago, I thought to myself, okay he wore a white tie with a notch lapel suit, let’s forgive him especially in these times when not many men wear formal dress in the first place. But repeating the same mistake today is just disappointing. It is not just him though. I’ve seen former President of France, Nicolas Sarkozy, once in Germany wearing a belt and oxfords with a white tie.

    Landry

  3. Hal
    Hal says:

    I like Taft’s coat and hat. Sadly, I can’t imagine I’ll ever get my hands on a fur trimmed coat or silk topper at a price I can justify to myself.

    On the subject of top hats, is it just me or does the hat band of Coolidge’s extend most of the way up it? Only the top quarter or so appears to have the shiny quality one would expect. Does anyone know why that is?

    As for the dress of presidents, I agree that the use of standard business or lounge suits is hardly surprising. Politicians want to appear to be rather like the rest of us. They don’t want to appear to be stuffy or remote from ordinary people. In the UK we have an old Etonian Prime Minister who often doesn’t wear a tie and won’t wear morning dress to weddings for fear it will make him look like the privileged individual undoubtedly he is: such is the strange dance of controlling public image.

    As for Obama’s outfit at the ball, I’ve just looked that up. The white bow tie with dinner jacket is eccentric, the quality of the dinner jacket itself disappointing. Obama clearly isn’t someone overly concerned by clothing as part of his image. And Landry, I can see the objection to wearing a belt with white tie but oxford shoes are perfectly acceptable, surely.

  4. Cajetan
    Cajetan says:

    “Fancy dresses” are worn these days, too. The difference to the good old days is that they look ugly, have a brand, and are manufactured by children in underdeveloped countries. Oh, one more difference, the money spent on these dresses wanders to some overly rich “designers” in France, Italy, or some place else; it does not support some earnest, middle-class craftsman/woman in your neighborhood (like seen in Astairs’ classical “Swing Time”)…

    Personally, I think the President is paid well enough to buy some good-looking clothes!

  5. Sven Raphael Schneider
    Sven Raphael Schneider says:

    Cajetan, we were not talking about dresses but how presidents dress in general. At a yearly salary of $400,000 the president could certainly buy decent clothes, however I am not even sure he has to pay for his own clothes.

  6. Charles Stanford
    Charles Stanford says:

    RE the apparent mourning band on President Calvin Coolidge’s top hat – he assumed the presidency, as vice-president, upon the sudden death of President Warren Harding in 1923. One expects his first inauguration was performed quickly and privately. He was elected president in his own right in 1924 and the photo above is from his formal inauguration, held in 1925. One can only assume that he, out of respect and deference to the recently dead president, was observing a sign of mourning for President Harding.
    Looking at the various photos (thank you Sven) there were really only two presidents who seemed to have a heightened sense of style – Presidents Woodrow Wilson and John Kennedy. I believe it is safe to suggest they were dressing in a more formal fashion by choice rather than the seeming habits of the others, by convention, given there are many photos of both of these men in formal dress at various occasions, e.g., Wilson at Versailles Treaty signing, Kennedy at his wedding.
    I’ll also give a nod to President Ronald Reagan, who, for his first inauguration, listened to his wife, Nancy, who insisted on formal attire for the event. It was well-publicized at the time that Mrs. Reagan was the person who made the decision to request formal wear for the gentlemen.
    Lastly, regarding President Barack Obama’s choices – he famously wears an American maker (who used to be headquartered in Chicago) for all of his suits, Hart Shaffner and Marx (now Hartmarx). I’ve never considered them to be of very high quality but, given the pressures of politics now and how every decision is scrutinized, the choice is understandable. I’m quite sure President Obama’s tuxedo was made by Hartmarx. However, there is no excuse for the white tie – in 2009 or 2013! I attended one of the inauguration balls in 2009 and remember thinking when he walked out on the stage, “what is he thinking?!?!”

    • Sven Raphael Schneider
      Sven Raphael Schneider says:

      Charles, thank you for your insightful comment. I was not aware of the connection between Harding and Coolidge’s mourning band – I just knew that it was one…
      In regard to Obama’s suit choice, Oxxford would be another American manufacturer of suits in the US but they are better quality. Some people may think it is elitist for a president to wear an expensive suit, at the same time he represents the USA and the cost of a suit, even if it costs $5,000 is so marginal compared to the other expenses he incurs. At the same time, there are few things as impressive as a well fitting suit.
      Personally, I think Obama should have a custom suit. Obviously, his clothing advisors don’t know what they are talking about or maybe he does not listen to them. That being said, I would love to advice the White House on proper formal wear some day.

      I know your statement about Wilson and Kennedy was based on these pictures alone but Truman was also well dressed imho. Have you taken.

      Thanks for pointing out that Reagan’s wife was the one behind the formal dress, I did not know that.

  7. Garrett
    Garrett says:

    I totally agree with the writer. An inauguration would be perfectly acceptable occasion to wear a stroller or morning dress. Especially when the United States still retains morning dress for official government functions. The United States solicitor general and other lawyers from the U.S. Attorney General all appear before the Supreme Court in morning coats, minus the top hat.
    The President can and in my opinion, should dress more formally for these events, he is a representative of the people and represents the Unites States most visibly and should dress the part. Unfortunately, I believe the days of the top hat are dead, (at least here in the U.S.) though it is a perfectly acceptable component of morning dress, I believe it is seen as “too costumey” in todays increasingly informal culture.

  8. Hal
    Hal says:

    Thank you, Charles Stanforth, for the answer to my question about Coolidge’s hatband. My knowledge of US history clearly isn’t up to snuff.

  9. Charles Stanford
    Charles Stanford says:

    There was a recent article, I believe in Vanity Fair, that interviewed President Obama. One of the things he talked about was a study that showed that even mundane choices in our daily lives, e.g., choosing the clothes to wear on any given day, requires a significant amount of brain activity. The president stated very clearly that he has made the choice to wear only navy blue or dark grey suits, white shirts, and simple ties so that he doesn’t have to think what about what to wear. In other words, he has more important decisions to make each day and doesn’t want to clutter his mind with what he would term mundane issues. Also, as I mentioned before, he famously chose Hartmarx for his clothes because it is both an American company and American made. And the fact it was headquartered in Chicago also influenced his decision. Thankfully he’s tall and in good physical shape so, even though his clothes are not custom made or even made-to-measure, as least I’ve never read anything that says he buys anything other than off-the-rack, he does wear his clothes rather well. But, still, a white bow tie with a tuxedo? Sadly I have a feeling that was his personal choice and not an advisor. But Michelle sure looked great!

    • Sven Raphael Schneider
      Sven Raphael Schneider says:

      Sounds like a perfectly reasonable explanation to me. However, although Hart Marx is headquartered in Chicago, the suits are made in Des Plaines, IL.. On the other hand , Oxxford tailors all their suits are right in Chicago. So based on that and the fact that their suits are way superior, I think he could take a step up and get navy and charcoal suits there.

  10. rodes
    rodes says:

    The President has a fine figure for clothes. He would have done well to wear a stroller, or black lounge, for it is so close to the customary lounge suit that no undue attention would have been called to the occasion. I always look for the right moment to wear this semi-formal day coat for it is old world, yet modern and deserves a return to favor.

  11. JW Browning
    JW Browning says:

    Finely written article, as are all that I have read on this blog. I agree 100% with your summation. This event is a very special one and is not an average day at the office for the President. A return to top hats and morning dress would be superb in my humble opinion.

  12. D Newman
    D Newman says:

    Great article. I understand many of these comments but I agree with your summation completely. Formality appears to be lost to many in the modern era and this is the perfect event to return to it.

  13. Cormac
    Cormac says:

    A rich discussion here. I would add one observation: There is an old saying that in a democracy the people get exactly the leaders they deserve. This goes for the leaders’ clothes as well. As Mr. Jollans observed, Presidential wardrobes have generally been long on convention and short on novelty. They reflect the dominant cultural values of their times as, indeed, Presidents themselves do.

    Mr. Obama’s comments (related by Mr. Stanford above) perfectly sum-up the pose of dismissiveness towards all things sartorial that characterizes American males of our times. His wince-inducing appearances in both black and white tie is convincing evidence that he likewise shares his constituents fear of formality.

    Regarding the implied question of whether the preferences of Mr. Obama or his predecessors reflect political calculation or personal taste, the obvious answer is “both.” Take Mr. Obama. A natural outsider whose whole life can be viewed as a quest for acceptance by his country, he is unlikely to have an appetite for being deliberately “different” through his dress. He is also politically astute enough to know that those Americans who are most likely to perceive him as “the other,” white working-class males, are also the demographic most likely to bridle at both male elegance generally and formal wear specifically.

    Indeed, when we reflect on the exceptions to the rule of mediocrity identified above, we find the same melding of personal background and political branding.

    Wilson was the snobbish son of a churchman steeped in the myths of Southern gentility, president of Princeton University and an Anglophile of the first order. He instituted the State of the Union address as a sort of rep version of the UK’s Queen’s speech at the opening of Parliament and introduced the notion of Government as a technocratic enterprise best carried out by experts. His preference for “dressy” clothes was no doubt legitimate, but it also fit with his political image as a incorruptible, above the fray reformer.

    JFK, who adopted Wilson’s “best and brightest” elitism, combined the immigrant scion striver’s taste for visible markers of success with a lifetime of affording the very best tailoring. His wardrobe reflected what he was comfortable in personally. But he also knew his wardrobe was part of the prince charming/male Cinderella narrative that powered him to the White House.

    Mr. Reagan was a Hollywood actor from the elegant days of studio-enforced style. But he was also the leader of political movement built around nostalgia and a promise to return to the conventions of previous generations. His stepping things up to a Stresemann (or stroller if you must) played to both his stardust image and his cultural pose.

    I think these examples demonstrate is that the only time leaders rise above the norm sartorially in a democracy is when doing so reflects the politicians’ endearing public persona in an authentic way.

    (Sorry for running on…)

  14. Tyro
    Tyro says:

    I would like to see stroller/Stresemann make a reappearance on public occasions, but the truth is that by current sartorial standards, it looks less formal– Reagan meant well, but if you look at some of the photos from the 1981 inauguration, you can see he’s wearing plain gray trousers (rather than striped), so it looks like he’s wearing a blazer and gray slacks, a step below “business suit” in formality.

    It’s also that we regard the inauguration as an event related to “the business of governing America”, rather than a daytime celebration like a wedding, so business suits are going to be the norm. The celebration-wear is for the evening’s Inaugural Balls.

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