He did not wear a tie. Thus, the media rang the alarm. Reuters, BBC, Newsweek and other outlets singled out President Trump’s tie-lessness as part of the news coverage following his COVID-19 diagnosis and hospitalization. In pop culture, the sight of a national leader without a tie is troubling. Think Hugh Grant dancing around Downing Street as Prime Minister in Love Actually or Morgan Freeman announcing the literal end of the world as President Beck in Deep Impact. We are much more aware of subtle political dress codes than we realize. As tensions mount over the upcoming US election, let’s take a look at one of its unwavering protagonists through the years. A classic necktie.
In 1910, Russian satirist Nadezhda Teffi wrote a short story wherein a starched collar issued “dictatorial demands” on the life of a woman wearing it. A century later the narrative power of a well-chosen or ill-advised accessory is an axiom of political fashion styling. Presidential debates have drawn substantial audiences since they were first televised in 1960 featuring Nixon and Kennedy. The battle of the ties continued on October 22nd, 2020 between Donald Trump and Joe Biden.
While the chaotic spirit of the event complicated its analysis, the experts still speculated about messages behind each candidate’s tie choices. Did Biden opt for black and white stripes to highlight the stark contrast between competing visions for the country? Did Trump wear dark blue with bright red stripes to signal a fiery confrontation? Public fascination with opponents’ ties is so strong, one can even place online bets on them!
At the dawn of the Millennium, color red reigned supreme on the political stage. George W. Bush wore a red tie during all three debate rounds with Al Gore in 2000. Such visual persistence paid off in victory. Four years later, he veered towards light blue and blue with white stripes to defeat John Kerry. In 2008, both Barack Obama and John McCain chose several shades of red for their debate performances. Lisa Dandeo, professor of fashion marketing at Lynn University, suggested that red emphasized intellectual superiority in those historic election cycles. This distinction is likely to be of paramount importance to voters this time around as well. Watch out for red ties in the next debate(s) when and if they take place.
The default color scheme for presidential ties is so conservative that it is nearly impossible to imagine something like pistachio, fuchsia or neon-anything ever making the cut. Sometimes, of course, being an outlier can help secure the needed benefit of the doubt. Bob Dole wore a moderate-green tie to his 1996 debate against the incumbent Bill Clinton. Such a choice helped create an overall image that pundits found “informed, thoughtful, and elevated.” It briefly albeit unsuccessfully buoyed Dole’s campaign. Hillary Clinton did not wear ties during her runs for the presidency. Still, her accessories were scrutinized by the media with particular focus on pins, bracelets, and headbands. Alternately, when democratic primary candidate Andrew Yang showed up to a 2019 Democratic Primary debate with no tie at all, his historic bold move turned heads across the political spectrum from Fox News to the New Yorker. Ultimately, it was a minor side note in what cost him the nomination proving that the country is just not ready for a tie-less president.
To avoid a faux pas of wearing something identical, campaign wardrobe teams must be vigilant, proactive, and creative. In 1980, Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter both wore black ties to their one and only debate. Reagan wore a patterned print and Carter went with pinstripes. Reagan won by a landslide. In 2012, Mitt Romney was hoping to unseat Barack Obama. Both camps zeroed in on red and blue striped options. They then alternated them in appearance at town halls crisscrossing the party lines as a sign of governing unity and political coherence. Stylistically, Obama presented a case study in subtle one-upmanship when his blue striped tie featured small polka dots a few shades darker creating richer texture for visual leverage. Romney lost, if not by a landslide. During the subsequent presidential election cycle, the Washington Post fashion critic Robin Givhan remarked: “It takes a particular kind of confidence to dress well - not flamboyantly but with discreet elegance. It means being willing to draw a lingering glance not because of anything that is obvious or loud but because of the eloquence of subtlety. It means trusting in the power of a whisper.”
Which brings us full circle back to Donald Trump and Joe Biden. The power of a whisper is an expression that does not describe them: neither their demeanor nor their respective legacies. In the era of “Bigly” with the election stakes overwhelmingly high, there are no small details.