October 19, 2012 7:14 pm

It’s the accessory, stupid

As shown by the presidential and vice-presidential debates in the US, menswear is no friend of the man-on-man stand-off
President Obama and Mitt Romney in in the October 3 debate at the University of Denver©AFP

President Obama in a blue tie and Mitt Romney in a red one in the October 3 debate at the University of Denver

Two men: both in dark suits, white shirts, little flag pins; one in red tie, one in blue tie.

One week later: same men, dark suits, white shirts, little flag pins; one in red tie, one in blue tie.

Question: the men were Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, in debates one and two. So who wore what?

Answer: it’s difficult to say.

After all, in scenario one, Romney wore a red tie and Obama wore a blue tie; in scenario two, they swapped ties. In other words, when it comes to dress, they were largely interchangeable.

Menswear is no friend of the man-on-man stand-off. This I have come to realise over the past three sessions of presidential and vice-presidential debates in the US and the party conferences in the UK. It’s been an intense few weeks in the trenches of the clothes question, but the one-two-three-four-five punch from Manchester to Florida has been unquestionably revelatory.

Here’s the issue: unlike womenswear, which offers a plethora of options for any wannabe leader hamstrung by the need not to make a laughing stock out of herself but forced to try to look individual, in menswear the dress choices are almost laughably limited. This is, of course, generally the point – to create a uniform to demonstrate one’s membership in a group – but it is also the problem. In the military, another haven of the uniform, leaders get to show achievement by the number of ribbons or medals on their jacket; in the private sector, such signifiers are off-limits. So faced with an electorate that has a tendency to throw its hands up in the air and say, “What’s the difference? They’re all the same anyway,” how does a candidate distinguish himself from the other guy – and in a way that can be seen on a small screen – when the visual cues on offer are: three buttons v two; double v single-breasted; button-down collar v spread? It’s a poser.

Mitt Romney and Barack Obama on October 16 at Hofstra University, Long Island©AFP

The rivals swap tie colours on October 16 at Hofstra University, Long Island

No wonder a recent Women’s Wear Daily piece on Obama and Romney noted: “As the temperature drops, the candidates continue to play the copycat game, both sporting similar casual looks campaigning in Ohio.” (Namely, dark windbreakers and tie-less buttondowns.) The rivals even wear the same watch brand: Tag Heuer. You wonder why some zealous aide didn’t suggest it might be a good time to switch ... to a Swatch! Or Calvin Klein.

You could say such sameness is all to the good, as it takes the focus off appearance and places it on the issues, or what the candidates say, and normally I’d agree. But do any of us really spend our time listening keenly and taking notes as the men in question drone on? After the first debate a letter appeared in this newspaper stating, “As an Obama supporter, I was aghast at the president’s weak televised response to Mitt Romney’s attack. Then, I watched the second showing of the debate. However, this time I listened to the sound and did not watch the video ... what a difference.” And people wonder why ties get so much attention – and not just from me. It’s the accessory, stupid.

Indeed, Lynn University, host of the final debate that takes place on Monday, has done some research on the subject in preparation. They looked at neckwear in debates since 1976, when Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter began what has become a televised tradition. (Previous to this, the last presidential debate was the Kennedy/Nixon event in 1960, in which Nixon looked so terrible it turned off half the electorate. That was in the days of black-and-white TV, however, so colour didn’t really come into it – though it was still such a searing lesson on the importance of image that it scared off candidates for the next 16 years.)

Lynn found that since 2000 red ties have been worn more often than blue ties (13-5); in 2004 losing candidate John Kerry wore “red ties in all three presidential debates” and in 1984 and 1988 respectively, losing candidates Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis also wore only red ties. The only candidate to wear a green tie in a debate was Bob Dole – who also lost. Draw your own conclusions, but this might explain the Obama/Romney tie fliparoos.

In Britain ties are less of an issue, in part because party leaders are attached to wearing their party colours around their neck. Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, is almost always in red; Nick Clegg wears gold; and David Cameron wears either Tory blue or, on some occasions, the more broad-tent purple (a combination of red and blue). In the US, though, as candidates attempt to present themselves as individuals rather than party figureheads (Romney, after all, has to walk that fine line between embracing and repudiating the Tea Party), ties become personal signifiers, not party ones.

Of course, there is a third way, as demonstrated by London mayor Boris Johnson. He has managed to avoid the samey-samey problem of menswear by adopting a perennially rumpled dress style, and it has worked effectively to set him apart – and even endear him – to much of the electorate as a “genuine” guy. When Johnson first stepped on to the national stage, however, his affinity for wrinkles was mocked, as conventional wisdom on leader image says perfect tailoring is preferable. However, I have begun to believe we must not underestimate the power of the signature rumple.

Proposition: looking messy can be good for politicians.

Opposition: looking traditional is better for politicians.

Debate.

vanessa.friedman@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/friedman

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