August 30, 2013 6:08 pm

What to wear when meeting the US president

At largish receptions attended by the ‘Potus’, it is wise not to wear black tie lest you be mistaken for a waiter

David Tang, entrepreneur and founder of ICorrect, offers advice on questions about property, interiors – and modern manners for globetrotters

Where have you been? My run of lifetime luck continues as I get to meet the POTUS. Please help! I don’t know what to wear. I am only advised black tie is not required. Your wise counsel would be, as always, sincerely appreciated.

More

David Tang

You would need to elaborate on the circumstances of your rendezvous. There is “meeting the Potus” and there is “meeting the Potus”. If you are going to be in a reception of an ocean of people and might only get the chance to shake his hand, and perhaps pressing and not letting go his flesh long enough for a desperate snap, then I’d say it wouldn’t matter what you wear. Nobody would notice nor give a hoot. At these largish receptions, you would be wise not to wear black tie lest you be mistaken for a waiter. If, however, you are going to a small gathering or a fairly intimate repast (of no more than a dozen, say), then it would be perfectly in order to telephone the presidential social secretary at the White House for the exact dress code: not to ascertain what you are not required to wear, but what you are asked to wear. You would look a bit old-fashioned if you turned up in cowboy boots and a lasso if dinner were in one of the staterooms; or in full military uniform with miniatures while the Potus turns up in shirtsleeves and slacks and sneakers for relaxed al fresco dining.

Whenever in doubt, I would choose an ethnic garment like a tailored Mao jacket which would pass cunningly as either formal (all buttoned up) or casual (unbuttoned). Such ethnicity also brings a touch of sophistication. But this could sometimes be turned into an overkill if you were to be some incautious African chief, say. I have seen “fanfare” attire that is more reminiscent of Eddie Murphy in Coming to America than any sartorial elegance. In the case of Barack Obama, he might even think, if you settled for flowing African tribal gear with rings jammed round your ear lobes, that you were taking the Mickey out of him.

. . .

You have offered advice on interior designs for funeral parlours and even morgues. What is your general advice on hospitals? What would immediately improve on a National Health Service or any publicly funded hospital without seeming to be in the least extravagant?

Obviously, a typical NHS hospital ain’t going to resemble a swanky Swiss sanatorium. But I believe it would be wrong to surrender to the general proposition that “cheaper” hospitals are necessarily inferior to costlier versions. (Compare the astronomical amount spent in the 1860s on the Palais Garnier in Paris to the relatively cockroach sum spent on Bayreuth Festspielhaus, and yet the Bavarian landmark can never be regarded as inferior.)

Therefore, wonga is not a sole determining factor. My first requirement of any decent hospital is ample ceiling height. Like the old-fashioned courtroom, specifically designed to inspire awe and authority, so hospitals should immediately instil a sense of freedom of air and freshness and light and hope. Ample space is therapy itself. So it is incredibly depressing to enter a typically low-ceiling hospital building that is bathed in harsh white light with utilitarian chairs and tables and pine-coloured counters on lino floors. I would feel more ill from just seeing all these. Yet few architects and designers appreciate the vitality of that first impression.

Then there are the hospital staff. There is so much difference between a nurse, doctor, medic, or administrator if they are wearing a starched white uniform rather than their own grubby clothes with a nylon white overall, weighed down in the pockets with biros and ink stains, that is supposed to pass as medical sobriety. The trouble is our modern world has made the mistake of casting aside too easily the subliminal acceptance of uniform and conflating casualness with progress. A brilliant doctor remains a brilliant doctor whatever is worn, but if the doctor were to be smartly dressed, he or she remains a brilliant doctor AND gives the impression that here is a brilliant doctor. So a bad doctor is going to be a worse doctor if he or she dresses slovenly.

On our part, maintaining a sense of humour is also vital in a hospital, which routinely promotes bad news. When I had emergency eye surgery recently at Moorfields, I was asked by a nurse to identify my name as I was about to go under. “Moshe Dayan,” I declared.

Email questions to david.tang@ft.com

Related Topics

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2014. You may share using our article tools.
Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.

LIFE AND ARTS ON TWITTER

More FT Twitter accounts