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In High Style, Obama Returns to the World Stage

Now that the internet has turned us all into middle-school kids shooting Snapchat spitballs and gossiping in homeroom about the burning issues of the day — How come Melania pulled the “got to fix my hair” trick to get out of holding Donald’s hand in Rome? Was that moony look Justin gave Emmanuel at the G7 summit in Sicily proof the Canadian prime minister is crushing on his French counterpart? Did you notice that Francis smiled at the first lady and gave the 45th president papal side-eye? — it is almost a step up to devote a column to Barack Obama’s open-necked shirt.

It has been roughly four decades since semiotics became a cultural buzz word and one since the internet effectively supplanted the written language with an image-dominated one. In that time we have all become fairly practiced players in the game of reading signs. If the truth that clothes are coded with meaning has become a no-duh proposition, the question then arises of how much significance to read into what others are wearing and how much we unconsciously assume.

This brings us to Mr. Barack Obama’s recent trip to Milan.

Putting aside for the moment the former president’s sometimes unfortunate golf duds and denims, what we had in No. 44 was most likely the best-dressed American leader since No. 35: John F. Kennedy. Only the third president to hold office in the age of mass media — Harry S. Truman’s was the first televised inauguration — Kennedy had a way of dressing that was clearly devised to play up his film star looks.

Only 43 years old when elected, Kennedy was a natural pace setter, widely traveled and with the sophistication you might expect from someone of his education and of his class. He favored crisply tailored khakis, snug polo shirts when at leisure, hipster Ray Bans in nearly all settings and two-button jackets instead of the more constricting three-button coats then favored by traditional politicians.

He also broke with presidential custom by often going bareheaded in public, and for obvious reasons. No one with that thatch of hair would think of squashing it under a hat.

If Kennedy set the sartorial template for the modern presidency — or anyway, the Obama one — he was far from the first politician to have manipulated image using clothes. In Mr. Obama’s case, his wardrobe communicated authority and ease in equal measure, calling little attention to itself in a manner that demonstrated respect for the job. GQ once called Mr. Obama’s way of dressing “a case study in uniform style,” noting that whether at “global conferences, photo ops and even BBQ joints,” he drew from a wardrobe arsenal of notch lapel suits colored gray or dark navy, wore crisp white dress shirts that balanced his megawatt smile and settled early on quiet solid color ties.

However you judged his politics, Mr. Obama’s uniform was unfailingly appropriate to the setting. In that he hewed to an abiding sartorial rule: dress for your environment. It’s a simple enough proposition and yet one that many seem to ignore. Thus, when he turned up for the recent Global Food Innovation Summit event in Milan wearing a slim dark suit over a white dress shirt with two buttons left open, social media lit up with reports of his going “full Italian,” so effortlessly and ineffably cool did he appear.

Never mind that most Milanese men are too hidebound to be seen wearing open-necked shirts anywhere except in a convertible on the way to Portofino. Like President Kennedy, the first jet-set commander in chief, Mr. Obama seized on an element of European style — sprezzatura, the art of studied carelessness — and gave it a TED-talk spin to make it something all his own.

What was called the full Italian was more likely the full-international, a fusion style that contrasted sharply with that of President Trump, who happened to be muscling through Europe at the same time in his shoulder-padded power suits.

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