Is it possible to call an election based on clothes? This is the kind of question that occupies my mind as I sit idly by the pool on vacation in the weird fallow period before the next big political event begins in the US: the presidential race.
Weird, I know. Some people watch clouds and see ice-cream cones and bunnies; I watch clouds and see donkeys and elephants. But I know I’m not the only one.
I recently spoke to the people at Bonobos, the online menswear brand, who told me they had designed two new pairs of trousers, one with little elephants embroidered on them and one with donkeys, and were planning to chart the sales to see if one style far outsold the other. It’s a nice idea, though I’m not sure what the figures will prove, other than that Democrats are more partial to showing off their allegiances than Republicans, or vice versa.
My own speculation centres on neck ties. This started when I was trawling through pictures and footage of past Republican and Democratic conventions (as one does) and was struck by the regularity with which red ties appeared on the nominees – starting in about 1980. That’s when Ronald Reagan (burgundy tie) went up against Jimmy Carter (a red, white and blue striped number). Then 1984: Reagan, dark blue; Mondale, red (Reagan won). 1988: Bush, red with white stripes; Dukakis, red (Bush won). 1992: Clinton, red; Bush, red with white stripes (the same tie as in 1988 – clearly he was betting it was lucky – bad bet, Clinton won). 1996: Clinton, red; Dole, purply red (Clinton won). 2000: Gore red; Bush, red (Bush won). And so on.
Red ties outnumber any other colour by an enormous margin – and not just on Republicans. Why might this be? I can think of a few reasons.
First, red shows up well on TV and other screens. Especially now, in an internet age, when images can be sent around the world at the press of an iPhone, this is not to be discounted.
Second, red communicates – and we’re going to engage in some basic colour psychology here – a certain “warlike-ness” (Mars being the red planet, as well as the god of war; red being the colour of blood etc). With conventions being all about beating the other guy, this surely stands a candidate in good stead.
Third, a play on Pascal’s wager: if so many nominees wear red ties and win, although this doesn’t necessarily mean you have to wear a red tie to come out on top, you aren’t really any worse off if you do – and if you don’t and it turns out red ties do matter, well … So why not just wear the darn thing?
The last time a candidate accepted his party’s nomination for presidency not wearing a red tie and went on to win was George W Bush in 2004 (John Kerry wore a patterned red number). Bush wore a blue tie, blue (party colours aside) being generally perceived as a consensus-building colour. At that time the president was deep in Iraq, so maybe this was a conscious choice to move away from some of his more aggressive posturing.
Even Barack Obama, who has made a personal signature out of the dark suit/blue tie/white shirt look, wore a red tie with subtle white stripes at the 2008 convention in Denver; it took me aback because I subliminally associate Obama with blue ties. More surprising was the realisation that John McCain, during the same electoral cycle, wore a gold tie to make his acceptance speech.
Yes, you read that right: gold. I know in the UK Nick Clegg wears gold ties all the time – but gold is the Liberal Democrats’ official colour. Otherwise, as far as I can tell, the McCain look was a first. Maybe he thought it underlined his maverick status, but it seems to me that it just raised an obvious question: what in the world was he thinking?
Here’s what I’m thinking: given all the above, it’s going to be interesting to see what happens this week and next as the conventions get under way, especially when it comes to Mitt Romney. Obama has established a precedent of sorts thanks to the last Democratic National Convention, and can thus go red or blue with impunity. But Romney has taken the blue tie thing to an extreme.
Almost every time he appeared for a primary victory speech before becoming the presumed nominee this year, he wore navy suit, white shirt, blue tie (patterned or not, navy or light). Meeting with David Cameron; announcing Paul Ryan as his running mate on board the USS Wisconsin in Virginia; sitting down with Lech Walesa: he wore blue ties. He does have a red tie; I have seen it. It makes an appearance once in a blue moon. (Couldn’t resist.)
But this means that the decision Romney has to make before he takes to the stage in Florida to accept the Republican nomination for president – stick to old favourites and demonstrate consistency despite what the past shows, or switch colours for the more politically expedient shade – will be something of a tell.
It’s possible that both Romney and Obama could break the mould and opt for purple, green (yikes) or even darkest navy – but those who fail to learn from history and all that …
Vanessa Friedman is the FT’s fashion editor
More columns at www.ft.com/friedman