Icons / March 2017

State of Dress: John F. Kennedy

Sartorial traditionalist or rakish rule breaker? Josh Sims investigates why history remembers America’s 35th president as its most elegant.

John F. Kennedy. Photo by Verner Reed/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images.

Asked to think of a stylish US President and it’s almost a knee-jerk reaction to say John F. Kennedy. There’s good reason to do so: Kennedy broke the mould as to expectations of what a president should look like. He was youthful and handsome. He looked comfortable in his clothes both at work and at leisure. All the same, JFK - a style icon? Maybe...

Perhaps part of the mythologising of Kennedy’s style - and, more importantly, his hoped for impact on society - over the decades following his death comes down to the powerful branding inherent in those three initials. ‘JFK’ resonates so much better than ‘John Fitzgerald Kennedy’, as does the John and Jackie package; surely much of Kennedy’s supposed stylishness was reflected glory, glinting off his wife, a genuinely sophisticated and innovative dresser. That they looked good together - that they became the first mass-market celebrity White House couple - ensured an almost endless supply of photographs that, whether true or not, would underscore Kennedy’s reputation as a dapper dan too.

But the fact is that much that is trumpeted of Kennedy’s style was true of many men of his generation. He dressed, simply, as men of his class and education did. Ivy League style may have much in its favour. Indeed, there’s a case for saying that preppy is the most influential and enduring of all menswear uniforms of the 20th century: much of what Kennedy wore off duty - the button-down shirts and white pumps, the army surplus khakis and grey marl sweatshirts, saddleback shoes and leather aviator jackets - may rightly have become part of the menswear canon, but they were no more than any of his kind were wearing. Likewise his dress when on duty - the narrow ties, slim-fitting suits and loafers - may have been alien to his father, but there was nothing progressive about them to his peers.

This, remember, was the 1960s: a pop cultural revolution was just around the corner. Look to many presidents that followed it and several had their own style, even if none are remembered for it: seek out pictures of Jimmy Carter on his ranch, in his denims and beaten-up cardigan; of George W. Bush out fishing in his windcheater; or, most strikingly, of Ronald Reagan - a Hollywood man who understood the power of the image - in white T-shirt, beanie and orange-tinted aviators, more Steve McQueen than Steve McQueen.

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Josh Sims

Josh Sims is a writer on menswear, design and much else for the likes of Wallpaper, CNN, Robb Report and The Times. He's the author of several books on menswear, the latest 'The Details', published by Laurence King. He lives in London, has two small children and is permanently exhausted.