D.C. Atwitter Over Obamas' Audacity of Informality

Mrs. Obama goes sleeveless, and men in the Oval Office go jacketless.

February 25, 2009, 6:55 PM

Feb. 25, 2009— -- Call it the audacity of informality.

First, GOP firebrand and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich lamented the informal rhetoric and body language of President Barack Obama's address Tuesday in an equally informal Twitter message during the speech.

"Nobody messes with joe and the smiles and nancy handshake resembled a democratic pep rally not a state of the union," Gingrich typed in a capital-letter- and punctuation-free "tweet," apparently reacting to Obama's "Nobody messes with [Vice President] Joe" Biden reference, among other things.

"sophomoric and silly," Gingrich wrote.

Then came the tut-tutting from Democrats and Republicans alike over first lady Michelle Obama's sleeveless purple frock.

Hip 26-year-old designer Jason Wu, who fashioned FLOTUS' white, off-the-shoulder inaugural gown, called her "the ultimate muse." But some were murmuring that the first lady revealed not merely bare arms beneath the dome of the nation's shrine to democracy but an unseemly lack of reverence.

"It was an unusual choice," a Democratic Capitol Hill staffer confessed to a male reporter oblivious to the nuances of Capitol garb.

ABC News' Cokie Roberts, author of "Ladies of Liberty: The Women Who Shaped Our Nation," said she fielded an e-mail from a staunch feminist fan of the first lady's who nevertheless added, "but enough with the sleeveless dresses."

"It does raise some hackles. I'm a little curious about it because it's cold in the House gallery," Roberts said. "I suppose that the sense of sleeveless dress being somewhat inappropriate comes from churches. ... There does seem to be some sense of decorum having to do with covering your shoulders."

During the election campaign, the Obamas' celebrated "no-drama" style became a visible asset for the once-working-class Chicago couple. Michelle Obama's J. Crew dress drew applause from an audience on "The View" enduring the closest thing to a depression since the Great Depression.

But in Washington, aptly pegged as a city of "northern charm and southern efficiency" by Mark Twain, breaking with the capital's stodgy sartorial traditions is enough to give the city's pleats-and-gold-buttoned-blazer-crowd the vapors.

Dancing a few steps to pander to the middle-American viewers of "Ellen" during the campaign was one thing, but bare arms and Oprah-esque phrases like "I get it" during a congressional address are quite another.

What's next? White House casual Fridays?

Fashionistas, a largely liberal lot, have hailed the arrival of the Obamas to Washington as the best thing since Jack and Jackie Kennedy. To them, Obama's single-breasted suits and crisp white shirts evoke the simplified elegance of JFK, while Michelle's fashion-forward frocks recall a no-frills latter-day version of Jackie's Oleg Cassini gowns and pill box hats.

An apparently unapologetic Michelle Obama graces the latest cover of People magazine in a pink -- what else? -- sleeveless dress, confessing that she carries a personal and a professional Blackberry.

Perhaps some of the eyebrow-raising is due to a cultural change embodied by the first couple. Who can imagine Laura Bush thumbing a shout-out to her Texas posse during a White House tea?

While the casual style may have helped the youth vote relate to the first president in recent memory to choose shooting hoops over the old man's sport of golf, much of Old Washington -- especially Red Washington -- is not impressed.

Former Bush 43 chief of staff Andy Card was aghast on seeing a photo of a jacketless, shirt-sleeved President Obama in the Oval Office, saying, "There should be a dress code of respect. The Oval Office symbolizes the Constitution and -- I'm going to say -- democracy."

That drew this snarky response from MSNBC's Keith Olbermann: "Yes, that is what stands between democracy and a president determined to exterminate it --a tie. Not ignoring the Constitution, lying or getting 4,000 Americans pointlessly killed in Iraq, nor even calling his Karl Rove 'turd blossom,' or locking Colin Powell out of a Cabinet meeting because he was a couple minutes late, or barking at one of his top aides, 'You think you're up to getting us some cheeseburgers?' It is the tie, Mr. Card."

A tieless president is likely not a complete departure, Roberts said.

"I suspect that Bill Clinton didn't wear a coat and tie in the Oval Office," she said.

Indeed, Clinton is famed for other Oval Office departures that had little to do with his sartorial formality.

However new it is, for the fashion industry, visible changes in presidential style can seriously sink the bottom line. As surely as Clark Gable decimated t-shirt sales after unbuttoning his shirt to reveal a bare chest in "It Happened One Night," JFK sent haberdashers into something of a tizzy by bearing his lush locks and abandoning the presidential headwear worn during the century from Lincoln to Eisenhower.

"He really killed the hat industry pretty single-handedly," Roberts said.

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