It’s A Tie: Presidential Debates As Accessory To Democracy

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.
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Credit: BETHESDA, MD - OCTOBER 04: In this handout provided by The White House, President Donald Trump participates in a phone call with Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Photo by Tia Dufour/The White House via Getty Images

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.

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Credit: This combination of pictures created on September 29, 2020 shows US President Donald Trump during the first presidential debate with Democratic Presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden at Case Western Reserve University and Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland, Ohio, on September 29, 2020. Photos by SAUL LOEB / AFP

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.

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Credit: First lady Melania Trump, President Donald Trump, Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden and his wife Jill Biden, stand on stage following the conclusion of the first presidential debate at the Health Education Campus of Case Western Reserve University on September 29, 2020 in Cleveland, Ohio. This is the first of three planned debates between the two candidates in the lead up to the election on November 3. Photo by Morry Gash-Pool/Getty Images

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!

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Credit: This combination of pictures created on September 29, 2020 shows Democratic Presidential candidate and former US Vice President Joe Biden during the first presidential debate opposite US President Donald Trump at the Case Western Reserve University and Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland, Ohio on September 29, 2020. Photos by JIM WATSON / AFP

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.

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Credit: Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama (R) and Republican presidential nominee John McCain (L) take part in the first debate of the 2008 elections at the University of Mississippi on September 26, 2008 in Oxford, MS. AFP PHOTO / PAUL J. RICHARDS

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.

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Credit: Democratic presidential candidates Andrew Yang, former South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and former Vice President Joe Biden stand on stage during the Democratic presidential primary debate in the Sullivan Arena at St. Anselm College on February 07, 2020 in Manchester, New Hampshire. Seven candidates qualified for the second Democratic presidential primary debate of 2020 which comes just days before the New Hampshire primary on February 11

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.”

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Credit: US President Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney participate in the third and final presidential debate at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida, on October 22, 2012. The final debate before the November 6 election is focusing on foreign policy. AFP PHOTO / Jewel Samad

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.


About the author: Stephan Rabimov, Editor-at-Large.
Stephan Rabimov is an award-winning American journalist and fashion critic.

Picture by Sarah Jane Barnes



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