Like many resort communities, Martha’s Vineyard has a look. From Oak Bluffs to Edgartown, this Massachusetts outpost typically yields a stylish contradiction of straw hats, boating basics and pared-down interpretations of runway resortwear. But things look different this year—at least in historically African-American Oak Bluffs—as local store owners take a note from the arbiters of fashion and outfit their well-heeled customers in Obamawear in advance of the first family’s arrival this month.
Since the late days of the campaign trail, notable names in high fashion have been weighing in on—and supporting—Michelle and Barack Obama. In 2008, Jean-Charles de Castelbajac sent a bright and optimistic yellow sweater dress down a runway in Paris—it was knee-length and had Barack Obama’s bedazzled smiling face on the front. Sonia Rykiel debuted a collegiate-style sweater with OBAMA emblazoned across the chest. Stella McCartney wrote “P.S.: Vote Obama!” in her program notes during the same round of shows. And in 2009 Donatella Versace dedicated her summer collection to our 44th president, insisting that “men get rid of the tie and jazz up the shirt” in a honor of his relaxed and casual style.
View Our Gallery of Obama-Inspired Fashion
Apparently all the publicity worked, because Oak Bluffs’ main street, Circuit Avenue, might as well be Rykiel’s runway in Paris. One of this summer’s hot items is a beaded change purse that spells out OBAMA in pink and blue stones. But the trend doesn’t stop there—much like Versace instructed the fashionable to do, men in OB are happily taking off the tie and jazzing up the T-shirt for day and evening alike, as the common coral dinner Polo has been replaced by the most compelling brand of all: Obama’s smiling face, which is now boldly incorporated into dinner looks, tucked under a blazer and finished off with a baseball cap.
The Obamaphilia loses momentum as you head out to Vineyard Haven and depletes completely by the time you reach Edgartown, where the Lilly Pulitzer- and Ralph Lauren-inspired looks still reign supreme, and paisley swirls of green and yellow won’t budge for the likes of Barack Obama. Could it be that the notoriously chic residents of Vineyard Haven and Edgartown missed high fashion’s call to action, or does OB simply hold the title for all things summer chic?
“There hasn’t been an American president who has been so associated with fashion since JFK,” says one longtime summer visitor, Ugi Ugwuomo, a marketing specialist for a small talent agency in New Jersey. “But JFK had an influence on lifestyle in general. Wearing an Obama tee is like wearing a Che Guevara tee—it’s a trend. Oak Bluffs has always been on the pulse of summer style— always. It’s not a surprise that we’ve gravitated to Barack’s image. He’s more than our president. He’s a statement.”
Skip Finley, whose family has owned property on Martha’s Vineyard for years, adds that the history of fashion on Martha’s Vineyard could “easily be called ‘summer slick.’” It’s no wonder, then, that Matty Rich’s 1994 film The Inkwell, based on the historically black beach in Oak Bluffs, got tawdry reviews on just about everything from the script to the casting, but still earned praise for its costume design.
In his review of that film, Todd McCarthy of Variety wrote, “Anyone who enjoyed the hilarious mid-1970s art direction and costumes in Dazed and Confused will get a double dose of pleasure here, as The Inkwell… offers up a wonderful collection of Soul Train fashions and blinding color schemes, all in an anachronistically genteel setting.” And while Soul Train might be a slightly misdirected reference, the fashion blooming in Oak Bluffs has long reflected the high styles percolating in the nearby metropolises, from today’s cut-out bikinis to the men who swam without removing their gold chains in the opulent ‘90s.
But arguably, so have the other two towns with bustling centers, Edgartown and Vineyard Haven, where pedestrian styles could easily be borrowed from Akris’ resort collection with structured silhouettes, wide-legged pants, neutral colors, and hints of navy blue and blood red, often in the form of a leather belt or a silk scarf. Take Larry David, who recently walked into Alchemy restaurant in Edgartown following those rules closely. Dressed in a blue blazer, Henley T-shirt and slacks, he was actually hard to single out among the numerous other dinner patrons, outfitted in a subtle collection of neutral colors worthy of Jennifer Aniston. His wavy crown of white hair spilling onto his ears and down the nape of his neck was like so many of the could-be famous men hovering around him.
According to Martha’s Vineyard Online, a Web-based lifestyle magazine that details nearly everything a weekender needs to know about MV, the “Up Island” look does trend toward pink sweaters wrapped around the neck for evening meals and wedge sandals with a cluster of baubles on the toes for a walk around town. What the magazine doesn’t mention is that one of the only shirts in Edgartown to boast Obama’s image is a T-shirt with the words “THAT ONE” scrolling along the bottom, referring to John McCain’s interpretation of the candidate during a presidential debate in 2008, which sent many voters into a debate about whether McCain was “ capitalizing on Obama’s ‘otherness.’”
While none of the three enchanting towns are so racially–or politically–monolithic that one wouldn’t see visitors of all hues wearing a blend of styles from all across the island, a visitor would be hard-pressed to find many people outside of Edgartown suited up for dinner with “THAT ONE” blaring from beneath a top coat. It would be equally difficult to assume that many of the posh storeowners over the Oak Bluffs line missed the numerous nods from the greater fashion world to the uniquely well-dressed first family—or Versace’s insistence that T-shirt chic is all the rage for summer and not a sign of laziness.
When asked if the difference in style from “Up Island” to OB ultimately boils down to a matter of discretion, Aziza Robinson, daughter of artist Paul Goodnight and a summer staple on MV, reduces the difference in style to decorum, arguing that “the Edgartown woman is a sleek, well-groomed woman that would be more likely to sit on the deck of her boat than on the sandy beach.” And perhaps she’s right. Perhaps all this suddenly political fashion in Oak Bluffs, nearly devoid of “Up Island” style, is simply a matter of taste. But one thing is abundantly clear: Martha’s Vineyard, in all its diverse glamour, has a little something for everyone—whether your T-shirt reads “Barack Rocks!” or “THAT ONE,” or like Larry David, you choose not to follow Versace’s rules at all and you abstain from making a statement altogether.
Elizabeth Gates is a graduate of The New School University, where she cultivated her love for fashion and writing.