Obama’s disaster in denim

Is the flap over the president's "mom jeans" a sign of perverse progress or simply our culture's hopeless snark?

Topics: Broadsheet, Fashion,

Last week, President Obama jumped the shark. Or so you might conclude from a trip through the blogosphere. His teleprompter crashed, creating a clattering reminder that he might not be the natively gifted speaker of his campaign’s mythology; he threw a short, wimpy pitch at the White Sox game, and got the name of the ballpark wrong (“Cominsky Field”), too. But the presidential gaffe that garnered the most attention was his wearing of “mom jeans” in public. “We can finally stop talking about the first lady’s penchant for showing off her toned arms,” wrote Ellen Warren in a widely disseminated Chicago Tribune article (“Was President Barack Obama wearing ‘mom jeans’?”) “and the national conversation can turn to something substantive: her husband’s unflattering, baggy blue jeans.” An article on EW.com was arguably more charitable, or at least less feminizing, calling the pants “dad jeans.” Wrote Tanner Stransky, “I suppose President Obama is indeed a father, so we should allow him such a strike against humanity…But my oh my. I wasn’t ready to see him in such an ill-fitting pair of what look like 501s.” Newsday picked up the story and offered readers a chance to weigh in with an opinion poll: “Mom jeans or not?” “I’m not sure they were ‘Mom’ jeans, but Michelle shouldn’t have allowed this to happen,” reads one option.

The jeans, let it be said once again, were awful: The wash too light and the waist too high, they created an unflattering fullness in the butt, an unfortunate effect with which most women have personal experience. But Obama’s embarrassment-in-denim was interesting not for the britches themselves, nor for what they indicated about his cool quotient (or current lack thereof), but for the fact that the moment was commented upon at all. Male politicians usually get a dispensation for their sartorial ignorance, particularly when it comes to casual attire — they almost always select an outfit that seems just right for an afternoon of cleaning out the garage. The press never criticized the dorkwear Bush donned while in Crawford (grey socks with baggy biking shorts, straw cowboy hats.) Nor Bill Clinton’s terrible jogging shorts. (“Short” is the operative word.) On the other, more positive end of the spectrum, we never heard much about Donald Rumsfeld’s dapper sense of style. It’s female politicians, on the left and right, who are disparaged or applauded for appearance — think of Hillary Clinton’s “sexless” pantsuits and hairdos, Sarah Palin’s “sexy” red shoes. Men have been allowed to exist in some parallel male universe, where the concerns are substantial and the clothing beside the point.

Until now. Can we conclude, from the fun made at the President’s expense, that we have entered a new metrosexual moment, one in which men are criticized for their appearance in the way that women have always been? Is this progress implying, perhaps, a perverse sort of equality? Or does the incident demonstrate our culture’s penchant for superficiality and snark? Some would argue that Obama set himself up for the flak by transparently painting a cool-cat image for himself — the trim-fitting suits and pink ties; the staged photo-op in which he emerged from the ocean topless and in board shorts — and that, when you pay such attention to image, it’s fair to be attacked on those grounds. Whatever the case, the great jeans debacle is shaping up to be Obama’s cleavage-on-the-Senate floor moment. When women were calling for equality during the campaign primary, this is not what we had in mind.


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