Every once in a while, there emerges a news story that finds itself in the awkward and unenviable position of having to justify its own existence…through its own words. Such a story is often found in the style section of a newspaper. It often has to do with clothing. It often has to do with politicians.
Yesterday’s New York Times analysis of Obama’s post-campaign wardrobe choices and, you know, What They All Mean—“Several things happened when Mr. Obama surrendered, if briefly, the formality of his suit”—was textbook in this regard. (Though, alas, only in this regard.) Clothing focus? Check. Politician-as-subject? Check. Existence-justification? Check.
Actually, in this case, it’s more like existence-questioning. The article seems to acknowledge, tacitly, its own journalistic superfluity, apologizing for itself even as it puts forth an enthusiastic effort in the way of sartorial scrutiny:
Americans like to see their presidents being athletic, or at least game. On a man of his age and build, almost any type of casual attire would convey this impression. But Mr. Obama’s off-duty clothes tells us he doesn’t yet feel entirely free to relax and that, unlike John F. Kennedy in his sailing shorts or Ronald Reagan in his ranch clothes, he doesn’t have an informal style that can be endowed with meaning.
He doesn’t have an informal style that can be endowed with meaning. In other words, the whole premise of this article, dear reader, is moot. But there are column inches to be filled. There are readers to be entertained (if not informed). So what’s an intrepid fashion critic to do, faced with a silly premise on the one hand, and a looming deadline on the other? One bold choice: spend a few hundred words trying to endow “an informal style that can’t be endowed with meaning” with, you know, meaning.
In other words: When in doubt, flesh it out! With quotes! Interview a sociologist to speak to the complex relationships between presidents’ wardrobe and their messages. Interview the Barneys menswear fashion director about the “choices and forms of expressions available” to Obama when it comes to couture. Interview the creative director of GQ, who once did a photo shoot with Obama. Throw in said creative director’s totally relevant comment that Obama “could probably wear a Size 40 rather than a 42.” It doesn’t matter, really, whether your sources support your argument; even if they blatantly question your premise, just throw it all in there!
Mr. Obama sometimes wears jeans, as he did for a rally on Oct. 28, but his jeans are the loose, jingle-the-change-in-your-pocket type. He belts them at the waist, and when he wears them with white sneakers and a windbreaker, one could almost say he had stolen the look from Jerry Seinfeld’s character on the television series.
Mr. Seinfeld was unaware of the steal. “I don’t know that I can make a proprietary claim to that look,” Mr. Seinfeld said doubtfully.
Then continue all the doubtfulness with an even more explicit challenge to the most basic aspect of your premise, that “President-elect Barack Obama has been looking pretty casual of late.” This adds to the drama, you see, which implies Meaning. Cite Stephanie Cutter, a spokeswoman for the transition, as saying “that she did not think Mr. Obama had relaxed his look since the election and that what he wears is really driven by his schedule.”
Ignore the dissonance, and push aside the contradictions, in the hopes that your reader will come away thinking only: How awkward! How fun! And how very, very meaningful!Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.