Donald Trump, the apparent Republican presidential nominee, is a political outlier not only when it comes to immigration policy, Twitter and marital history, but also when it comes to image.
This isn’t, of course, a coincidence. But it is notable.
It’s his ties. Or rather, that he wears one. Almost all the time. If in the early days of his campaign – while attending, say, the Iowa State Fair – Trump occasionally lost the neckwear, those days seem increasingly rare.
The pretty much constant presence of the tie has served to highlight another, less discussed but no less pointed gulf between the candidate and those he would call peers: For many politicians, the tie is no longer considered a necessary part of the uniform.
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“The president has been wearing a tie less and less,” said Tammy Haddad, a Washington media consultant and former political director of MSNBC. “It is an overt expression of the way this White House has been trying to make politics more human.”
Indeed, back in 2013 the Business Insider website ran a post entitled, “Is President Obama Killing the Necktie Business?”
The president did not wear a tie to dinner with Princes William and Harry during his recent visit to Britain. (They did not wear ties, either.) He did not wear a tie during his news conference about Justice Antonin Scalia’s death in February. (The Internet was not happy.) He did not wear a tie for his opening dinner with President Xi Jinping of China when Xi arrived in Washington for a state visit last September. (It may have been “informal,” but it had photo ops.)
As it happens, neither did Xi, Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State John Kerry, Secretary of the Treasury Jacob J. Lew or Max Baucus, the ambassador to China. Nor did Jeb Bush when he announced his candidacy for president.
And this is not simply an American development. Sadiq Khan took his oath of office as the new mayor of London in a navy suit, white shirt and no tie. Earlier, he and his opponent, Zac Goldsmith, were each pictured on the cover of The London Evening Standard going to vote – in blue suits, white shirts and no ties. In an often contentious campaign, it seemed one of the few tactics both men agreed on.
But Khan’s apparent lack of allegiance to the tie does not come close to that of Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras of Greece, who practically made his refusal to wear a tie part of his electoral platform a year ago.
And in 2013, Britain’s prime minister, David Cameron, who is a Conservative, decreed, as host of the Group of 8 summit, that the dress code would be “informal,” which translated as tieless. There is a reason one of his nicknames is “dress-down Dave.”
“The tie is an issue that dwells in the minds of candidates, their spouses and their handlers for endless hours,” said Bennet Ratcliff, an international political consultant and founder of Thaw Strategies. “I once had a president spend 15 minutes talking to me about his tie when we could have been discussing the language of a peace accord.”
Ties have not disappeared from the political arena, of course. The rules of the House of Representatives demand that men wear a coat and tie on the floor when Congress is in session. (Former Speaker John Boehner was known for rebuking his colleagues if he thought they were showing disrespect to the institution by dressing too casually.) Ditto the Senate. Obama often wears a tie; so does Cameron.
But there is no question that the tie has become a variable in the political calculation, instead of a constant. Though it is easy to chalk it up to generational change, a more accurate interpretation probably has to do with ideology, opportunism and spin-doctoring. After all, this is a time when social media has meant that the optics of a message – or how it is delivered – are increasingly important. And ubiquitous.
“You can’t overestimate it, but you shouldn’t underestimate it either,” said Steve Hilton, CEO of Crowdpac, a site that matches politicians and would-be donors by their priorities, and Cameron’s former director of strategy. “There is a huge interest now in personal character, and how you dress is an immediate access point for that. It’s a part of an overall message, and a pretty important one.”
The decision to play hide-and-seek with the tie is “a reflection of the current cultural environment, and an effort to seem like a part of that,” Ratcliff, the consultant, said, adding: “The leaders are just following the voters. Thank God they haven’t all started wearing black turtlenecks like one unnamed entrepreneur, though it will come to that eventually.”
The Steve Jobs allusion is a reflection of the new economic power structure, one that celebrates the technical entrepreneurial class and the shadow banking sector, both of whose casual style has had a creeping influence on professional dress code, redefining what future success looks like in the popular imagination.
In part, this is how we find ourselves in this weird, inverted sartorial reality, where Trump has become the exception to the rule because he follows traditional rules. His tie-wearing harks back to the Wall Street uniform of the 1980s, the boom years of the American economy, when it was “morning in America” and Gordon Gekko preached the “greed is good” gospel. The candidate says he wants to “make America great again,” and his clothes refer back to the last time many Republicans believed that was actually the case. He is emphatically and consciously not the new-look candidate. He is the old-look candidate.
Thus the tie divide, like many others in this particular election, gets ever wider.