Eighty-one years ago today, on December 15, 1937, the President broke with tradition to receive the new Nicaraguan ambassador to the United States, Dr. Leon DeBayle (sometimes de Bayle or De Bayle), in his West Wing office, not the White House Blue Room.
Though nattily attired in a black fedora, double-breasted top coat, and kid gloves, the envoy nevertheless joined the President in disregarding precedent by not wearing an elaborate uniform or striped pants. A diplomatic break did not result, and the two men chatted in French for fifteen minutes.
The shift in precedent was notable enough to attract newspaper attention nationwide. The New York Times commented on the unusual ceremony, observing that perhaps it reflected the President’s preferred casual approach. Or maybe Ambassador DeBayle’s striped pants were at the cleaners.
A graduate of the University of Paris and an influential attorney, DeBayle was from a prominent Nicaraguan political family. At the time, his sister was married to Nicaraguan President and strongman Anastasio Somoza DeBayle. He would remain ambassador into the war years.
To fully appreciate the dramatic break with tradition of this meeting, one need only take a look at pictures from earlier in FDR’s Administration. It is hard to imagine today that the presentation of diplomatic credentials would take place with such ostentatious formality and ceremony.
Here in 1935, the new Belgian envoy, Count Robert van der Straten-Ponthoz, no doubt a true man of the people, is pictured leaving the White House in full dress regalia. Unfortunately, the cameras didn’t capture how the Ambassador maneuvered into the backseat without dislodging his elaborate bicorne hat.
In mid-1937, the new Chinese ambassador to the United States departed from the White House after presenting his credentials. Once again sporting a bicorne hat, which had continued in use for many European and Asian dress occasions, he is pictured with State Department representative Richard Southgate.
Southgate’s cutaway and striped trousers were the State Department’s “uniform” of choice for formal occasions such as diplomatic receptions. It would have been a suit similar to this, along with a top hat, that President Roosevelt would have usually worn for events such as meeting the Nicaraguan envoy.
But the shocking break in protocol must have been viewed as a bridge too far for the new Italian ambassador even in 1939. Here, he is making the traditional fashion statement, bicorne and all. Even members of his delegation seen in the background are decked out in their finery.
The State Department protocol chief, Stanley Woodward, seen here with the Italian envoy, seems a bit bemused by it all. But he’s clearly a team player, clutching his obligatory top hat. From his gaze (into the future perhaps?), one might wonder if he’s formulating a new way forward. In fact, it was Woodward who ultimately fostered a less formal approach. Hopefully, the bicorne hat industry and the striped pants sector didn’t suffer too much from this collapse in standards. Indeed, it was a New Deal in many ways during the Roosevelt Administration.
The Library holds several formal dress articles belonging to President Roosevelt, including a cutaway from 1915. This top hat in the Library’s collection was crafted by menswear stalwart J. Press, a company founded in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1902 and still in operation today. The hat is comprised of beaver skin, felt, leather, and silk.
The Library collection also possesses a full dress US Navy uniform owned by the President’s White House physician, Admiral Ross T. McIntire. The entire ensemble, which also includes a sword belt, an article every well-dressed man must own, is stored in a specially made metal box that includes a space, as all specially made boxes for full dress uniforms must, for the epaulets pictured here. The elaborately trimmed naval hat is made of beaver skin, giving new meaning to the famous line, “damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.” It is important to remember that President Roosevelt enjoyed jokes of questionable quality.
Post by: William Harris, Deputy Director, FDR Library