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Michael DeJong Headshot

Shirt of Change

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In any theater or movie production, costume design goes hand-in-hand with good direction and help actors "get into their roles." In dramas, tragedies, comedies or musicals, the costumes communicate subliminally who the actors are supposed to be.

Take for instance Willie Loman's thread-bare suit in Death of a Salesman, Scarlet O'Hara's rags-to-fake-riches curtain dress from Gone with the Wind, Dorothy's ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz, Anna's visual feast of lavish, sparkling jewels and silks spread across the screen in The King and I, the plain white flowing scarves worn by Peter O'Toole in Lawrence of Arabia, the shock of man-tailored pants worn by Kate Hepburn and Marlene Dietrich, Darth Vader's ominous black helmeted uniform from Star Wars, Sharon Stone's skimpy little number in Basic Instinct, or the vintage ill-fitting suit, extra-large shoes, bamboo cane, white shirt and uber-fastidious tie that so clearly defined the comedic genius of Charlie Chaplin. The fictional references are endless, and it's the clothes that made the icon. Take those fashions away from the characters, and most would be forgettable.

Dressed in a suit -- be it Charlie Chaplin, Coco Chanel, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Pee Wee Herman or George Bush -- clothes do make the man and/or woman. Even the most run-of-the-mill, off-the-rack men's suits consist of a jacket and trousers (and sometimes a vest) that are cut and tailored from the same fabric...it's "Men's Fashion" 101.

Different from suits, however, dress shirts come in a broad variety or materials and colors. Crafted of cotton broadcloth, tattersall, poplin, or oxford (or even, God-forbid, no-iron polyester) -- most have full-length openings from the neckline to the hem, buttons, a pocket, sleeves that cover all or part of the arm and since the second quarter of the 20th Century, all are topped with a variety of attached collars ranging in style from button-down, spread, tab, or wing.

Once laundered, to remove all the wrinkles, cotton dress shirts are groomed by treating them with starch and are then ironed. Like it or not -- commonly paired with a tie -- they're part of almost every white collar, blue collar or green collar workers' attire -- business suit or uniform.

During World War II, one of the most memorable icons and metaphors was the image of Rosie the Riveter -- in her blue-jean overalls, shirt sleeves rolled up past her elbow, muscles bared to demonstrate how women were helping the war effort at home as much as their men were on the battle field. "Roll up your sleeves and get to work" is still the slogan for solving problems, fixing mistakes, or brainstorming.

That's why it was so entirely refreshing to see President Barack Obama abandon one of his predecessor's regulations by deliberately not wearing his suit jacket in the Oval Office. More than just an air of informality, the image of a President in shirtsleeves (and not while clearing brush on a ranch) while in the room that is synonymous with Presidential power, he gave us the visual equivalent of Truman's "The Buck Stops Here!" Proving to be as articulate symbolically as he is oratorally, our new President gave us a visual that will serve as the iconic representation of what we've so long awaited - a roll up your sleeves, get your hands dirty, straight talking, action oriented, new breed of US leadership.

Much as Miss Scarlet's curtain-dress stood for her will to survive at all costs, Dorothy's ruby slippers were symbolic of unknown strengths, Lawrence of Arabia's white scarf a metaphor for his transcendence, the black cape and gleaming black helmet of Darth Vader epitomizing Dick Cheney -- umm, I meant to say -- evil, or Charlie Chaplin's Tramp a symbol of basic, decent humanity -- Obama's brilliant photo-op of him in a crisp white shirt sans jacket will come to symbolize a new Presidential power -- getting down to work, leading a team, and hopefully serving as an omen of the much needed good luck our country desires and deserves.

Not just ordinary luck but the kind of luck born of opportunity, planning, and rolling up your sleeves and getting to work -- doing all that's necessary to solve the inherited crises. He's rolling up his shirt sleeves to find a solution for sound emergency and long-term fiscal recovery, short-term relief for struggling and suffering American families, creating new jobs and local green economies, designing purposeful social and health care programs, ending a tragic and unnecessary war, fighting terrorism, closing Gitmo, and using real science to help solve global warming, advance stem cell research, and ensure women's choice.

That the first bill he signed was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act is a reassuring symbol of the social decency that has so long been missing from our government and corporate culture. Reversing some of the harshest Bush-Cheney policies regarding torture, illegal wire tapping, and the dismissal of habeas corpus are also a taste of rolling up his sleeves and getting back to the nation's business and showing the world that we might just have a moral compass after all.

It was the artist Francis Picabia who said "If you want to have clean ideas, change them as often as your shirt." For Obama, who ran on a platform of change, hopefully he will literally and figuratively wear his successes as gracefully as his "shirt of change" while he attempts to iron the seemingly endless tangle of wrinkles in our national fabric. And as Willie Loman said, "Attention must be paid!"