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John F. Kennedy had his boat shoes. Reagan wore cowboy boots and Richard Nixon chose formal wingtips to frolic on the beach. But, last week, while on holiday in Hawaii, President Barack Obama may have boldly gone where no president before him had gone while on vacation: he wore flip-flops. In public.
Since the photographs of this landmark event (which took place in a local ice cream shop) surfaced earlier this week, news outlets, style watchers, and even historians have labored extensively over the appropriateness of Obama's footwear choice.
"I can't say I've seen a president's toes before," presidential historian Jane Hampton Cook, author of an upcoming children's book "What Does the President Look Like?" told the New York Post. "But I don't think this is a big deal. Your footwear belongs to the occasion. If you're on the beach buying your daughter snow cones, I don't think you can beat him up for this."
June Ambrose, a celeb fashion stylist and author of the recent book "Effortless Style," agrees: "When he’s serving in office he’s in the right attire. It’s not like he came to address the State of the Union in flip-flops. This is his personal time and I think he’s entitled to have a human experience. This is what keeps him grounded and very in touch with what’s going on in this country."
[Related: It's official: Barack Obama never wears shorts to play basketball]
The Obama White House is certainly no stranger to fashion controversy. Last year, when Michelle Obama dared to wear shorts to explore the Grand Canyon on a hot summer's day, the blogosphere went wild with commentary. (Were they too short? ZOMG!) And let us not forget "arms-gate" 2010 when stylistas and journalists could not stop talking about the ramifications of a first lady going out without sleeves.
All this said, many experts feel these more casual, down-to-earth sartorial choices may be wise ones for the Obamas, flip-flops included. "To me wearing oxfords on the beach like Nixon is a little bit removed from reality. Barack Obama is the first for everything—there are so many things that he has done that aren’t traditional in this office. He still has a BlackBerry. He’s a very modern day president and he's completely revolutionizing the image of the White House." Ambrose says approachability may have scared off previous presidents but that is what attracts people to Obama. "He feels very accessible, and these little statements are very relatable to the American people."
In 2005, members of Northwestern University's lacrosse team famously wore flip-flops when posing with then-president George W. Bush in the White House. Photo by David Bohrer, White House
And while President Obama never wore thong sandals in office, flip-flops and the White House have created a scandal before. In 2005, Northwestern University's national championship women's lacrosse team made headlines when the girls were photographed wearing flip-flops as they posed with then-president George W. Bush. Fashion expert Meghan Cleary told the New York Post that while adults were mortified, "It was very much a generational thing, since the girls thought nothing of it," she said. "They wore them all the time on campus and thought it was perfectly fine." Perhaps Obama's comfy and casual flip-flop choice is just one more reason why college students helped elect him into the White House.
"Someone who is of a different time won’t understand the flip-flops," said Ambrose. "This is a modern day perspective. I think that anyone who’s going to have a strong opinion is someone who’s completely old school, and this is the new school. Obama is continuously breaking the rules and creating waves in his own way, and I think that’s really refreshing. But I think we need to focus our attention on other things that are a lot more important and pressing in the world than the fashion statement our president is making."
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