The polo shirt has been linked with all kinds of iconography and stereotypes over the years, from Izod to Ralph Lauren, Nantucket prep to casual Friday, tennis to royals on horses. But as of Monday, it had another association that may trump them all: hero.
The image of the three 20-something Americans who helped foil an armed gunman on a high-speed train to Paris from Amsterdam — Airman First Class Spencer Stone; Alek Skarlatos, a specialist in the Oregon National Guard; and their friend Anthony Sadler — all wearing polos and khakis at the gilded Élysée Palace in Paris as President François Hollande, in a suit and tie, pinned France’s highest honor on their shirts was on the home pages of news websites everywhere (this one included). The contrast between the formal palace and dress of the government officials with the more relaxed, though unquestionably neat and respectful, clothes of the young recipients made for an indelible visual.
It told a story of vacation interrupted, unexpected bravery and bilateral cooperation. It drove home the fact that the men acted when they were off duty, effectively backpacking through Europe — you know the narrative — away from home (and their closets). As Mr. Hollande said, they “were simply passengers.”
Shrug if you want, and think, “Who cares about pants given what was at stake?” But apparently many did.
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The clothes were the telling detail in many reports about the event. “Wearing polo shirts and khaki trousers, the Americans arrived at the Élysée Palace,” NBC News wrote. They were “dressed modestly in polo shirts and khakis,” according to The Washington Post. And so on.
And the clothes were (largely) an occasion for cheering for the Twitterati.
@jeromegodefroy said it was the “First time the Legion of Honor is being awarded at the @Elysee to guys in polo shirts. And it’s a very good thing.”Continue reading the main story
I can’t remember another time when what was worn by a recipient of the Legion of Honor had as much impact. By contrast, the more conventional suit and tie of Chris Norman, 62, a British businessman who also challenged the gunman on the train, and who also received the French award, was not mentioned.
The usual backlash — the criticism of “inappropriate” dress that tends to surround the wearing of informal clothes to a state occasion (see: the flip-flop scandal of 2005, when some members of the Northwestern University women’s lacrosse team wore flip-flops to meet President George W. Bush) — has been muted, for obvious reasons. It’s hard to criticize the fashion choices of those who just risked their lives to save hundreds of other people.
Especially because I’m sure the point was not to make a statement with clothes. Two of the men are in the active or reserve military, after all, and few institutions respect sartorial rules like the military.
I doubt, for example, that the three men stood around and thought: “Oh, hey, let’s all wear polos and khakis and upend tradition! What an opportunity!” They probably did the best with what they had at hand. By the time they were given the news of the award, it was the weekend, and, as anyone who has ever tried to shop on a Sunday in August in Paris knows, pretty much any suit-selling shop would be closed. The options were limited. The clothes were clean and pressed, and the shirts tucked in.
According to First Lt. Keenan D. Kunst, the acting chief of public affairs with the 86th Airlift Wing, based in Ramstein, Germany, who was with the Americans at the embassy in Paris, the clothes were provided in a last-minute scramble by friends and associates in France once the men learned they were receiving the honor. All they had were “T-shirts and shorts, which they definitely would not have worn,” he said.
Whatever the back story, however, the result has created something of a halo effect around a garment. And in elevating the basic uniform of suburban backyard barbecues to the highest echelons in Europe, Monday’s moment may represent the ultimate triumph of the whole smart-casual concept.
It’s not that I expect all future generations of Legion of Honor recipients to start showing up in polos and khakis. But more broadly, when it comes to formal occasions and what is acceptable, a precedent of a sort has been set.
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