Presidential candidates hardly ever win accolades for their fashion sense. Barack Obama and Mitt Romney know this well, each having been accused repeatedly of wearing “mom jeans.” The term was popularized in 2008 by Saturday Night Live, but the style of pant — faded, high-waisted, ill-fitting, FUPA-creating — has been, with few exceptions, a staple of presidential candidates’ style on the trail for decades. Let’s take a look back.
3. 1955: John F. Kennedy sails with Jackie in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, wearing khaki shorts.
If JFK owned or wore jeans, they certainly weren’t part of his public persona.
5. August 26, 1962: John F. Kennedy sails in Hyannis Port.
His casual look consisted of khakis, fitted sweaters, and what one might today call a statement sock. His style, never plagued by mom jeans, remains revered and aspirational. In 2007, designers like Michael Kors and Thom Browne told Time’s Kate Betts that JFK’s effortless style — suits tailored in London, partly tucked-in shirts, an allergy to formal felt hats — influences their approach to menswear today.
7. September 17, 1978: President Jimmy Carter and Vice President Walter Mondale go casual for a meeting at Camp David.
When Israeli and U.S. officials met to draw up the Camp David Accords, President Carter (second from left) and Vice President Walter Mondale (behind Carter) wore jeans.
Carter was famous for his jeans, but perhaps less so how they looked than the fact that he wore them at all. The Associated Press, reporting on Carter’s first visit to his hometown as POTUS in 1977, noted:
For his Saturday stroll, Carter was dressed in blue jeans, a navy blue shirt and a heavy gray wool cardigan.
“Look at his jeans,” a woman tourist exclaimed at the president’s informal attire.
Note that MOM JEANS were not a Thing at this point in time.
And in 1991, the Orlando Sentinel reported a study that showed blue jeans translate to trustworthiness. “We found that when men were dressed in suits, people regarded them lower in character than when they were dressed in jeans,” a researcher told the paper, thus explaining every election winner in the recent past who wore jeans. Politicians must have heeded the study, because the era of political mom jeans really started to take off.
9. June 21, 1995: Jimmy Carter
Carter held onto his rustic (or “momcore,” however you see it) denim through the ’90s, even for high-profile talk show appearances that weren’t taped in disaster zones or dusty plains, and therefore didn’t absolutely demand a tough, denim-based look.
11. February 18, 2008: Jimmy Carter rides his bike in Plains, Georgia.
Carter also set a precedent for Obama’s famous mom jeans bike ride, which we’ll get to ahead.
13. 1980: Ronald Reagan
Jeans were a staple of Reagan’s causal wear. Naturally, since he served as president in the ’80s, he was praised for his now-momtastic tastes, and compared to style icons like Her Madgesty. In July of 1988, the Sydney Morning Herald wrote: “MADONNA and Ronald Reagan might seem an odd couple, but how about Princess Di and James Dean? The thing they all have in common is an ability to perpetuate denim as a fashion fad.”
(Also of note in this story is this sentence: “The current fads in denim are for the acid-wash and dry-wash effects, in which the garments are washed with small pumice stones soaked in bleach, to add abrasion to the seams.”)
15. December 1, 1982: Walter Mondale and his family
Prior to his 1984 presidential bid, Mondale posed for this holiday-time photo with his wife Joan, three children, and three pets. Of course this attire looks in step with the times (as in, hipsters of today, everyone in ‘82). Any fashion gaffes/inelegant snow-scene sweaters must have been easily excused/overlooked thanks to the adorable two cats plus puppy.
17. August 8, 1991: George H.W. Bush wears jeans to fish.
George H.W. Bush was a jeans trendsetter in the late ’80s. “George Bush Sets New Style in Designer Jeans,” blared an AdWeek headline in October of 1989, for a story about a new Gitano jeans ad campaign. “[W]ith George Bush pre-selling the country on Bushismo, that family thing, welcome to the new ad Family Feud,” the article read, crediting the George H.W. Bush era with transitioning jeans ads from sexy to family territory. (Think: Instead of topless girl wearing jeans with her ass out, a family wearing jeans with a dog frolicking in a field.) Bush Sr., like presidents before and after him, was a mom jeans kind of guy.
19. January 19, 1998: Bill Clinton paints a high school on Martin Luther King Jr. Day with 300 volunteers.
Clinton famously said of his junior high school years, “I was a fat band boy who didn’t wear cool jeans.” In the early ’90s, the media viewed his jeans as an attempt to appear average, and relate to voters. Though he’s become certifiably cool with GQ-approved fashion sense well into his adult years, he never seemed to graduate to “cool” jeans during his presidency. But again, in the days before personal style blogs, an accepted widespread culture of narcissism, and nonstop documentation of every celebrity’s outfits, this seemed less notable than the fact that he was wearing jeans at all.
21. July 30, 2010: Bill Clinton hits Rhinebeck, New York, a day before Chelsea’s wedding.
Well into his cool period (it’s like Picasso’s Blue one, but less angsty), no one was going to accuse Bill of doing things like pants-wearing — one of many trivial things that in presidential contexts easily become nontrivial — wrong. Especially the day before Chelsea’s wedding, which was as close to an American-made Kate Middleton spectacular as this country was going to get this decade, and therefore beloved in all ways by all, Clinton’s mom jeans included.
23. April 22, 1999: Al Gore celebrates Earth Day with a visit to Shenandoah National Park.
So remember how Al Gore became cool AFTER he ran for president and lost? And while/before he was running, we all thought he was a huge stuffy dork, probably at least in part because he wore pants like this? Well, we were ALL wrong, because Gore was so “in” in ‘99, it seems, that he got his hands on the Margiela for H&M line 13 years early!
You regular people who are not Al Gore can get your hands on these pants on November 15.
27. July 21, 2000: George W. Bush meets with members of the press at his ranch in Crawford, Texas (a year before taking office).
In a 2010 article headlined “Why politicians should NEVER wear jeans!” the Daily Mail criticized the likes of Barack Obama, Tony Blair, and David Cameron for wearing jeans, some of which looked fine to me but they hated anyway. (Cameron specifically looked like a “valet parking attendant” in his denim bottoms, they contest.) “Can any leader get it right?” the paper lamented, continuing, “Well, George Bush’s jeans may be riding a little high in the saddle, but at least he is a Texan — who instinctively knows the right way to wear denim, which is with boots, attitude and a matching helicopter.” See, if Bush had worn his jeans with jogging sneakers, he’d have been lambasted for being a dork. But since he pairs his (arguable) mom jeans with cowboy boots and a western style belt he is excused from such ridicule. Goes to show how the media is definitely biased in favor of unfashionable jeans (and, apparently, one-percenter toys like helicopters) if they are worn by cowboys — now cowgirls as Cindy McCain learned the hard way. Anyway, it’s the same thing that’s worked on Ralph Lauren’s runways for years.
29. January 9, 2002: John McCain aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt.
Another politician who was way ahead of his time in jeanswear. Get a replica of these on American Apparel right now.
See how fashion labels try to discredit trendinistos like McCain? American Apparel has the gall to describe this “heavyweight, non-stretch jean you can wear and wear” as “unlike anything else that’s been on the market for the last 15 years.” Clearly, as we see throughout this post — not just in our decade-old (ahem!) McCain photo — that’s not the case.
33. July 3, 2004: John Kerry plays touch football at a campaign stop in Independence, Wisconsin.
“Monochromatic colors offer very little contrast and may be considered boring unless there is diversity within the design,” Corwyn Thomas, owner of men’s brand Corwyn Apparel, told a Cincinnati paper in ‘04, when asked about Kerry’s style. So Corwyn Thomas might describe this casual denim look as “boring,” which it totally is. These jeans, though dorky in and of themselves, aren’t even dorky enough to be embarrassingly parental-looking, and therefore not boring. Kerry’s jeans failed to become a Thing that election cycle.
But jeans would become very important in four years…
35. August 20, 2007: John Edwards campaigns in Iowa City.
What some call “work jeans” were a staple of Edwards’s campaign trail wardrobe. He liked to visit Katrina victims in New Orleans — Habitat for Humanity sites, things like that — the Times noted. And for those appearances, jeans are a must. Edwards’ were hardly stylish (outside of modern-day American Apparel standards) but he smartly paired them with work boots instead of big white sneakers, which made them less of an embarrassment. However, mittromneywearingjeans.tumblr.com is quite offended by his taste in pants nonetheless. The site accuses Edwards of having “no idea what an inseam is.”
Well. It doesn’t get more DAD than this.
Despite widespread ridicule of this epically not chic photo of Obama riding bikes with his daughter, he kept styling himself like a Saved by the Bell stand-in.
39. February 15, 2009: Obama’s mom jeans reappear.
During his first visit home to Chicago post-inauguration, Obama again boldly went where he had boldly-but-evidently-not-embarrassingly-enough gone before, pairing the faded denim sails he deems pants with perfectly white sneakers and socks. But we media let this outfit — even though it was shaping up to become one of his favorite looks — slide, UNTIL…
41. July 14, 2009: Obama throws out the first pitch at an All-Star game in St. Louis.
The mom jeans that rocked the world. The mom jeans that would assign all jeans worn by presidential candidates a “mom” descriptor, no matter how mom-like they actually are.
The criticism of the pants got so heated that the POTUS was forced to explain himself on national television. “I am a little frumpy,” he told NBC. “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. It just doesn’t fit me. I’m not 20.”
43. January 4, 2012: Mitt Romney appears with John McCain at a campaign stop in New Hampshire.
Mitt Romney’s jeans, Obama’s having become such an important cultural meme, could not avoid “mom” categorization, even though they’re just about as chic as George Bush’s celebrated denim style of 12 years ago. Romney is thought to wear Gap jeans in a skinny fit, purchased by his wife. The fact that he doesn’t perform athletic feats in them — bike riding, baseball throwing — only helps his fashion cred. Such actions, as we’ve clearly seen time and again with Obama, only emphasize the datedness of a bad pair of pants.
Frankly, I don’t think Romney’s jeans have been so bad. Then again, all his spray tanning seriously detracts from the most dad-like elements of his style, anyway. Really, what that tells us is that his fashion persona might be more Real Housewife than mom-like or anything else.