article

06.03.10

Obama's Fashion Faux Pas

President Obama lost points with Louisianians when he showed up last week wearing regular shoes, not shrimp boots. Nicole LaPorte on the symbolism of Cajun Reeboks.

After the attacks of 9/11, New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani was shown at Ground Zero decked out in FDNY apparel. His leadership during that time is still remembered as exceptional; Oprah Winfrey called him “America’s Mayor.”

Perhaps Rudy could have helped President Obama with disaster accessorizing, considering how flat the president’s speech fell during his second visit to Louisiana last week. For a photo-op among the tar balls that have washed ashore at Grand Isle and to address a very scared and furious state—and nation—he failed to wear what have become the symbolic accoutrement of the Gulf disaster: white shrimp boots. Instead, on Obama’s feet was a pair of drab, brown mountain boots. He is now being roundly criticized not only by locals, but internationally, for a generally tone deaf approach.

On the Gulf shores right now, shrimp boots have become emblems of a way of life that is at risk of extinction.

Known colloquially as Cajun Reeboks and/or Sunday Best, shrimp boots are to this region what Yankees caps are to New York; snow shoes are to Alaska; and Stetsons are to Texas—representative and iconic fashion that speak volumes for a culture. Even Forrest Gump wore them. For politicians, these seemingly insignificant sartorial items are strategic props that convey a message, whether the Everyman accessibility of George W. Bush’s blue jeans or the classic cool of J.F.K.’s rolled-up khaki’s and Wayfarer sunglasses. In times of crisis, they take on even more meaning, and on the Gulf shores right now, shrimp boots have become emblems of a way of life that is at risk of extinction. They are also, on a more pragmatic level, just what everybody wears, fishermen and non-fishermen alike.

Rick Outzen: BP’s Windfall to the Rich “The people down here—it’s probably 90 percent of their attire,” said Venice native Chris Dahl the other afternoon, standing near the waterfront at the Cypress Cove Marina, where Gov. Bobby Jindal was about to hold a press conference after a tour of the water. “For some people, it’s 100 percent of their attire. You won’t find too many local people without one pair of white shrimp boots.”

Dahl, a superintendent for Rene Cross Construction, said he had one pair in his truck and two other pairs back at home.

A set of white Royals would have done the president some good. His visit left Louisianians feeling that, when it comes to passionate and effective politicians handling its latest epic crisis, Obama is lagging painfully behind local heroes such as Jindal and Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser. It is perhaps no coincidence that the latter, whom The New York Times recently declared the “angry everyman of the oil spill,” is an avid wearer of shrimp boots. Indeed, his feet were stuffed into a muddied pair for his Times photo op, which showed him standing on a marsh, his hand slapped across his forehead in a look of baffled, overwhelmed, frustration. Nungesser may be the face of the oil disaster down here, but what’s on his feet are just as important.

As for Jindal, he sticks to his trademark brown cowboy boots, typically paired with well-pressed khakis and a pale blue dress shirt with the cuffs rolled back. Though some think he could do better. Last year, when Jindal was set to meet with local shrimpers who were unhappy about the low market price of their product, a commenter on the Times Picayune website urged Jindal to show up at the meeting in “white shrimp boots” in order to “pickup some votes and restore his tarnished image amongst the shrimping community. I’m sure that it would improve his national rating also.”

President Obama, to a far greater extent, could benefit from such advice. Some people have been freely offering it—members of a Louisiana State University fan site went so far as to superimpose a pair of shrimp boots on an image of him. “Please make this happen. He’s in Venice LA right now,” wrote DaphneTigah.

There are some things to know about shrimp boots. First of all, they should be white and they should be Royal. Other brands, such as Onguard Industries, are “garbage,” according to Venice shrimper and self-proclaimed “Cajun Mafia” member Eric Tiser, who was recently rummaging through the selection at Ellzey Marine & Hardware, the fishing supply store located at the end of Highway 23.

“Them’s the best,” he said of Royals, because they prevent shrimpers from “busting your ass on the boat and sliding.” To elucidate his point, he turned a boot upside down and pointed to the thick, tire-like treads on its sole.

They should also only be calf-high—real fishermen don’t wear boots past their knees. And as for the steel tip version, those are only for rig workers or people handling heavy equipment—the idea being that if the heavy equipment falls on your toe, you’ll be spared some damage.

Some people roll their Royals down, forming a thick cuff. This can be a fashion statement, as Acy Cooper, a third-generation shrimper who’s vice president of the Louisiana Shrimp Association, explained. “The younger boys like to do that,” he said, sitting at a table at the Riverside Restaurant, which he owns and which is located 40 feet from Ellzey’s. Almost everyone in the restaurant—where there’s a local Mass schedule on the front door, deer heads on the wall, and video poker machines—was wearing shrimp boots.

But the roll can also be practical.

“I have big calves,” said Karen Zegura, the owner of K&K, a local hardware store, “and they’ll actually rub a blister on your calf. That’s the reason I roll ‘em down.”

At K&K, where a pair of Royals cost $25.99 and come in a clear plastic bag, the most popular sizes are 9 and 10. Zegura said she sells, in all, about 15 pairs a month.

Zegura herself owns two pairs and says she wears them “for gardening and cutting the grass. That way, I don’t have to worry about ants getting up on my feet.”

Dahl, as wedded as he is to his own boots, is a dissenting voice in the chorus saying that what Obama wears makes any difference. “I wouldn’t have taken it as a compliment,” he said. “Right now, we want to hear solutions from upper government and BP and the Coast Guard. That’s what we want to hear more than how our president is dressed.”

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Nicole LaPorte is the senior West Coast reporter for The Daily Beast and the author of The Men Who Would Be King: An Almost Epic Tale of Moguls, Movies, and a Company Called DreamWorks.