Who Wore it Best? Denim in the Oval Office

Levi Strauss & Co.
February 12, 2015

“Chosen well, jeans can suggest the wearer is confident and modern,” wrote Christina Binkley in a 2009 Wall Street Journal article on the rise of power jeans. “Traditionally cut blue jeans carry a whiff of the laborer about them, so denim on a leader suggests a willingness to roll up the sleeves and dig in. There’s also something of the rebel in a pair of jeans. In the boardroom, that can read as creative.”

Just five decades ago, it would have been unfathomable to see the leader of the free world don a cloth as casual as denim. Case in point: JFK, who was most definitely — as Amy Odell points out in Buzzfeed’s Presidential Mom Jeans Retrospective — more of a Dockers® guy. In recent decades, though, presidents have come to embrace the power of blue jeans to convey favorable characteristics.

Aside from the sense of personal identity a good pair of jeans can provide, denim will always have an inherent power to convey — or transform — identities, unite communities, and make a symbolic statement in the public eye.

But the debate over which Chief Executives wore their blue jeans best — and whether denim has a place in the oval office — will march on. Here are a few notables:

  1. Jimmy Carter. For the first denim-clad Presidents, wearing jeans harkened back to farming roots. Former peanut farmer Jimmy Carter was our nation’s first Chief Executive to embrace the trend — much to the disbelief of the Georgetown elite. While you could say Carter was simply being himself, his dress code also played to his outsider image, and emphasized his opposition to Ford, Nixon, and the status quo.
    jimmy carter
  1. Ronald Reagan. When Ronald Reagan was in office, he was known to wear jeans during off-hours, often styled with a button-down and a straw hat. Like Carter, the look was rooted in the President’s identity as a California rancher. Just six years before winning his first term in office Reagan purchased ‘Rancho de Cielo,’ his wild and isolated property in Santa Barbara California, which he credited with providing him more serenity than any other place. Denim was his working essential at the ranch, particularly for tasks like clearing brush and supplying wood for the house’s two wood burning stoves — a job that Reagan did himself.
  1. George H. W. Bush. Presidents’ images were shaped by wearing denim — but it could also be said that denim’s image was shaped by the President’s who wore it. Bush the Elder was cited by Ad Week in 1989 as perpetuating the idea of jeans as family-friendly attire, in contrast to the more rebellious and fashion-forward denim styles of the the 1980s.
  1. Bill Clinton. In the 1990s, Clinton and Gore were cited as two of the first Presidents to dress more casually on the campaign trail. Their look was criticized seemingly trying to get voters to view the duo as youthful candidates compared to their older opponent. When the Silicon Valley innovators and Hollywood moguls that voted for Clinton chose denim over suits — so did Clinton. The ‘Comeback Kid’ often wore denim while working at the Oval Office, at least on weekends.
    bill clinton
  1. George W. Bush. George Bush, Jr. might have been photographed off-duty in a denim and cowboy boots ensemble — a style that synched perfectly with his Texas good ol’ boy image — but cowboys in the White House? Not so much. Bush gave an Executive Order at the beginning of his first term outlawing staff or guests in the Oval Office from wearing jeans — a sartorial selection that Clinton had tolerated.
    George W. Bush
  1. Barack Obama. Who could forget the media firestorm that rained down on the POTUS when he wore his “mom jeans” to the 2009 MLB All Star Game. Obama defended his denim to the public, saying he’d been “unfairly maligned,” and that the loose fit was necessary to keep him from feeling constrained whilst throwing the first pitch. “Those jeans are comfortable, and for those of you who want your President to look great in his tight jeans, I’m sorry — I’m not the guy.”