Candidates' Neckties: What Their Knots Mean

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"Show me a man's ties and I'll tell you who he is or who he is trying to be," fashion guru John T. Molloy claimed in his 1975 best seller "Dress for Success." So it's odd that no one has paid much attention to the neckwear sported by presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama. True, there are more significant items to focus on before Nov. 4. But presidential style is no trivial thing. It's a matter of elaborate care and subtle signaling, with each commander in chief wielding their closet, consciously and unconsciously, as an advertisement for themselves. 

Those who read neckties like tea leaves, using them as a window on their wearer, have tended to focus on the tie itself: solid or striped, paisley or plaid, skinny or wide? But it's the knot, obvious and yet overlooked, where the real insights lie. At the ill-fated Battle of Waterloo in 1818, for example, Napoleon donned a large, loose knot that his soldiers understood as a show of optimism.

So what does the knot say about today's presidential candidates? In McCain's case, it screams old-guard Washington establishment, like a bolo screams cowboy. According to his top adviser, Mark Salter, the Arizona senator wears his tie with either a Windsor or the related half-Windsor knot--a configuration long favored by Beltway elites and, at least judging by the photos, nearly every U.S. president in the 20th century. Perfectly tied, the Windsor is a balanced equilateral triangle with a neat dimple and trim finish, according to Mark-Evan Blackman, head of the men's department at New York's Fashion Institute of Technology, who calls it "the most elegant knot." McCain's Windsor might seem like an odd choice for a self-proclaimed maverick, but it reflects the senator's public struggle to remain true to himself despite the distorting pressure of the presidential campaign. He does give his Windsor a maverick tweak, choking the normally large and lush knot until it looks small and hard.

Obama, on the other hand, still hounded by charges of elitism, takes a less formal, more middle-class tack. Based on an unscientific sampling of recent photos--including the Men's Vogue cover--he most often wears his necktie with a four-in-hand knot, an awkward and asymmetrical cinch invented by 19th-century carriage drivers (who held four reigns in hand) and popularized by Dilbert-types looking for a no-hassle way to spruce up for work. "It's a knot for someone who has 30 seconds for his tie in the morning," says Blackman, "a knot for the masses." The Obama campaign didn't respond to NEWSWEEK's inquiry about his ties (the nerve!), and the use of varying fabrics--which hold folds differently--make it tough to be certain about the senator's knot. But this much is at least clear: the Obama knot marks a definite break from the geometric Windsors of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

Today, there are more than 100 knots to choose from, including the mathematician's knot (so-called because it takes an advanced geometry degree to tie) and the Gastrome's knot, made for big eaters because it adjusts as a person swallows. So, in an era of such sartorial plenty, why does Obama opt for the pedestrian four-in-hand?

We offer five, highly speculative, theories:

Biography. Most men learn the art of neckwear the same place they learn the art of shaving: their fathers' mirror. Since Barack Obama Sr. was a distant figure in the life of his son, whom he saw only once after the age of 2, the Illinois senator may well be a self-taught tie guy. If so, it makes sense that he'd favor the four-in-hand, growing up as he did in middle-class Hawaii, surrounded by short-sleeve casual wear, far from elite business and politics. In short, the grapefruit-size Windsor would look out of place in a coconut culture. And once a person learns a knot, says Blackman, they're unlikely to change.

Rebellion. While there's no official dress code in Obama's office--the U.S. Senate--the unofficial costume is a blue suit and white shirt, finished by a tiny whale or sailboat-dotted necktie with a big sumptuous knot--a Windsor, of course. "Those guys take their knots seriously," says former Capitol Hill intern Tyler Thoreson, now executive editor of Men.Style.com, the Web site of GQ and Details. By refusing to look like a Washington good ole boy, Obama may be showing that he's in the Senate, but "not really of the Senate," Thoreson suggests. Then again, the Illinois senator might just be too busy--or disinterested--to learn the Windsor.

Aspiration. The four-in-hand is typically an office-park knot. But it's also, confusingly, used by upper-crust WASPs as a way to exude a certain effortless cool. The twist in the Ivy League version is a seemingly looser knot with a soft and undimpled finish. Worn perfectly by the elder president Bush and windsurfing Sen. John Kerry (both Yale alums), the WASP four-in-hand takes practice to master. So it's possible that Obama is attempting to raise his class fashion status by wearing the same knot. Only, he's not tying it correctly and hasn't been for a long time. In a 1990 photo, Obama (then editor of the Harvard Law Review) is wearing a deeply dented and off-center knot. The classmate to his right, meanwhile, is immaculately unruffled.

Politics. Obama has whacked down beer, burgers and waffles in an effort to win regular-guy status on the campaign trail. Perhaps his workaday knot is part of the same effort: a concession to all the normal guys out in America-Land. By the same token, it might be part of his careful balancing of the race issue--since the Windsor knot has in recent years been a fixture in hip-hop, worn by black rappers such as Sean Combs and Jay-Z, as well as wannabe trendsetters like Fonzworth Bentley, host of MTV's fashion makeover show "From G's to Gents." Just as likely, Obama feels the need to distance himself from overtelevised Windsor-wearing white guys, like Regis Philbin and Ryan Seacrest. (Seacrest, to his credit, has toned it down a bit since guest-hosting "Larry King Live" in 2005 with what CNN's Anderson Cooper called "the biggest knot I've ever seen.")

Physics. The Windsor is a complex knot, requiring yards of excess fabric. At 6-foot-2, Obama may be wearing the four-in-hand out of physical necessity. Or else, fashion necessity. Compared to the flounder-width ties donned by most politicians, McCain included, Obama's are on the skinnier side, and as Sir Hardy Amies noted in his 1964 best seller "The ABCs of Men's Fashion," the Windsor is "unthinkable" with a narrow line of fabric.

Of course, as we get into the final stretch of the campaign, the ties may come off--along with the gloves. That's another story.

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