WASHINGTON – Abraham Lincoln had his stovetop hat. Franklin Roosevelt liked his bowties. And Ronald Reagan had a curious affection for cufflinks.
For Joe Biden, it’s all about the shades.
Biden’s dark-tinted sunglasses – gold-rimmed aviator Ray-Bans are his style and brand of choice – have been a part of his personal style for so many years that they’re now an inseparable part of his political persona. He has joked about them, plastered them on campaign paraphernalia and, in a break with presidential protocol, even worn them at a couple of recent official White House functions.
In Louisiana last Thursday, Biden ambled up to the presidential podium on the banks of the Calcasieu River and, with the iron tresses of the aging I-10 bridge visible in the distance, waxed for half an hour about the merits of his $2.3 trillion jobs and infrastructure plan. Off came his face mask at the start of his remarks. His sunspecs stayed on for the entire speech.
A week earlier, Biden showed up in his famous aviators for an event on the White House’s sun-drenched North Lawn. He took off the eye accessories before delivering his prepared remarks on new face mask guidelines. But as soon as he finished, they went right back on for the Q&A with reporters.
The sunglasses look suits the new president, said Valerie Steele, director and chief curator of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York.
“It has this kind of cool, retro feeling,” Steele said. “A lot of people like them on him. I like them on him, too.”
Shades had previously been more informal presidential accessories
Other presidents have been photographed in their optional eyewear, but almost exclusively for informal occasions.
John F. Kennedy looked casually cool in his dark specs while relaxing on his sailboat. Lyndon Johnson, better known for cowboy hats than fancy eyewear, allowed a photog to shoot him in shades while lounging in a swimming pool. Obama often wore designer sunglasses while vacationing in Hawaii.
But modern presidents have avoided donning sunglasses at official functions for the same reason that they’ve been reluctant to grow facial hair, said William Bike, a political commentator, communications guru and author of a how-to guide called “Winning Political Campaigns.”
“Anything that covers up part of the president’s face can be a subtle indicator that he is covering something up,” he said.
Biden developed an affinity for dark sunglasses long before he showed an interest in politics. He started wearing aviators while working as a lifeguard while a college freshman, he told the Skimm newsletter in 2016. The teardrop-shaped lenses have remained his fashion fetish throughout his career as a senator, vice president and, now, as commander-in-chief.
“The sunglasses make him look like a cool, tough leader, but are part of his natural style,” Bike said.
George W. Bush, who was known to slip on a pair of shades while away from the office, once teased a reporter for wearing sunglasses at a Rose Garden news conference.
"Are you going to ask that question with shades on?" he asked.
Bush later called the reporter and sheepishly apologized when he learned the scribe wore the specs to combat the effects of a degenerative disease that made his eyes sensitive to light.
Former president Donald Trump mocked Biden’s eyewear during last year’s presidential campaign.
“He’ll say whatever it takes – with his sunglasses on,” Trump said, making big circles with his fingers and holding them around his eyes, getting a laugh from the crowd at an Oct. 31 rally in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
But the joke didn’t stick. Biden himself has been poking fun at his aviators for years.
The sunglasses take on a life of their own as part of his political persona
Biden’s Ray-Bans were the focal point of his first Instagram post as vice president. The photo showcased the metal-framed glasses sitting on a desk in the foreground, while a slightly out-of-focus Biden was visible in the back reading a stack of papers.
A couple of years later, Obama and Biden spoofed the then-vice president’s fashionable eyewear in a tongue-in-cheek video filmed for Obama’s final appearance at the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner in 2016. In the video parody, a distressed Obama lounged on a sofa in the Oval Office and pondered his post-presidency future. Across from him sat Biden, multiple pairs of shades spread out on a coffee table between them.
“Which do you like better – these? Or these?” Biden asked.
“Joe, they’re the same,” Obama deadpanned.
“They capture different moods,” Biden shot back.
People have seen Biden in sunglasses for so long that no one bats an eye when he shows up in them at official functions, Bike said.
“He’s wearing them because he likes them, and the public knows it,” Bike said, “just as it knows he’s not wearing them as part of some marketer’s ideas to make him look like something he’s not.”
For Biden, who at 78 is the nation’s oldest president, the sunglasses have another advantage. “Ray-Ban aviators are big and cover up wrinkles and bags under the eyes,” Bike said.
While it may be unusual to see presidential shades during an official function, many people wear them at occasions where they would once have been considered a no-no, Steele said.
“Sunglasses are worn much more ubiquitously outdoors nowadays than they used to be back in the ‘60s,” Steele said. “And I think that’s partly because of the ozone layer and we're just getting a lot more sunlight. That's kind of more dangerous to eyes than it used to be a few decades ago. So I think it's become quite normative to wear them outside.”
In Biden’s case, “he seems to be very confident about who he is,” Steele said, and with the sunglasses, “I think that that comes across as authentic.”
The aviators that Biden prefers were introduced in the 1930s by Bausch & Lomb to help pilots protect their eyes while flying. Their popularity grew in the ‘40s after newspapers photographed Gen. Douglas MacArthur wearing them after landing on a beach in the Philippines in World War II.
They’ve remained popular – if not always fashionable – for decades, Steele said.
“There’s something reassuringly retro about them,” she said. “They seem to harken back in some way to something that – before the time right now, when everything seems so fraught – seems to evoke old-fashioned values or old-fashioned, good things about America.”
“They have very positive associations for people,” Steele said.
Biden apparently keeps a pair of his favorite shades on hand for whatever occasion may arise. Multiple pairs, actually.
He goes through a dozen pairs a year, he told the Skimm, because people keep stealing them for souvenirs.
Michael Collins covers the White House. Follow him on Twitter @mcollinsNEWS.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Biden's ubiquitous shades are showing up at White House functions