July 30, 2012
A president’s legacy includes his landmark legislation (or lack thereof), his Supreme Court nominees, his wars begun or ended—and, of course, a commemorative library with the papers, effects and artifacts (including, recently, Mickey Mouse) that are arranged to sympathetically tell the story of that legacy. Apparel winds up as display artifacts too. Seeing a genuine item worn by a historical figure, the president of the United States of America, who stepped into that pair of gabardine trousers or put that tricorn atop his head (or whose fashionable wife wore that apricot silk ziberline dress), provides the kind of rare, humanizing experience that is difficult to come by from documents, photos or books.
At the Smithsonian, for example, you can see George Washington’s wool coat and breeches from 1793, the year he was inaugurated as our first two-term leader. (Alas, the museum does not have the black velvet suit and silk stockings he wore during that inauguration.) The collection also carries Abraham’s Lincoln’s signature top hat, the very one he wore that fateful night at the Ford’s Theatre in 1865. (Morbidity tourists can see the bullet that went through that hat a few miles away, at the National Museum of Health and Medicine.) There’s nothing that humanizes a fallen leader more than seeing the texture of what he wore in his last moments.
On the other end of the humanizing spectrum, there’s this moment of sartorial intimacy from Lyndon Johnson, who in 1964 was recorded custom-ordering pants from the White House. Enhanced by some scrappy animation from Tawd Dorenfeld and produced by Put This On, this video animates a call LBJ put through to Joe Haggar Jr., at the Haggar clothing company in Dallas, Texas (which opened back in 1924, popularized the term “slacks” and still operates today). For three minutes, we hear the no-nonsense leader of the free world profess his gruff affinity for the company’s pants, order six more pairs in varying shades of green and brown to be worn “after work,” and provide some very graphic anatomical details (bunghole, anyone?) so the pants would fit him perfectly. (Audio is possibly NSFW.)
It may be the most candid and crass you’ve ever heard a president (including a burp, natch). A written description won’t do it justice— listen for yourself. Put This On said it best when it described the recording as a “majestic fantasia of bungholiana.” Which makes me wonder: Does this call, or the word bunghole for that matter, find its way into Robert Caro’s four-volume biography on the 36th president of the United States of America?
A transcript of the conversation is also available, but it’s worth listening to the audio first.
Sign up for our free email newsletter and receive the best stories from Smithsonian.com each week.