All week on Brow Beat we’ve presented tales of special pieces of clothing as told by their wearers, excerpted from Worn Stories by Emily Spivack, out now from Princeton Architectural Press.
In 2011 I was invited to the White House to read poetry for President Obama’s “Celebration of American Poetry.” During the day I did a poetry workshop with Michelle Obama for 70 high school students in the State Dining Room, and in the evening I did a formal reading in the East Room, where I read traffic reports to the president of the United States. Of course, the biggest question was what I would wear.
My suit was designed by the avant-garde designer Thom Browne, under his Brooks Brothers–owned Black Fleece label. He pretty much does what I was doing by reading traffic reports at the White House: He takes the traditional patterns that Brooks Brothers is known for—in this case paisley—and pushes them way too far. (Coincidentally, Obama was also wearing a Brooks Brothers suit when he met me, but of a very different sort.) During the day session with the first lady, I wore a Thom Browne pastel suit, which references the insane pastels of the preppy Newport set. For this suit, Browne created a pastiche or patchwork of traditional preppy colors and literally made a remix of them.
It was clear that Brooks Brothers needed to revitalize its brand and shake up the staid traditions, hence Browne was called in to bring the company into the 21st century and to add a big dose of impurity. Clearly that meant not ditching its classic line but spinning off another line based on what it had become famous for.
I figured that the Obamas—preps to the core—would in some way recognize the paisley and the pastels but be befuddled by the size of the paisley or the way that the pastels were unconventionally stitched together. And that, in fact, was the case. Upon our introduction, the first thing the president said to me was, “That’s a great suit! You know? I’d wear a suit like that. But my staff would never let me.” To which I replied, “Mr. President, this is one instance where it’s better being an artist than being the president of the United States: Artists can wear anything they want.” And then he glanced down at my saddle shoes and exclaimed, “You’re wearing golf shoes!” Which in part was true, that being the genius of Thom Browne, to take something familiar and recontextualize it to the point of it being “wrong.” And that is exactly what I aimed to do with my performance: to straddle tradition and radicality, being both and, at the same time, being neither; to embrace contradiction, keep people guessing.
That evening Jon Stewart took the piss out of me on The Daily Show: “American poets, young and old, spoke out at the White House tonight about a variety of subjects from support for public libraries to memories of a favorite teacher to how hard it is to find a nice blazer on short notice. Uh ... it’s tonight? Does that wallpaper come off?”
A year and a half later, Thom Browne exploded across the world when it was revealed that he designed Michelle Obama’s 2013 inauguration dress. I like to think that I played some small part in that decision.
Excerpted from Worn Stories by Emily Spivack, out now from Princeton Architectural Press.