The Real Losers

Forget the Electoral College—Who Won the Battle of the Neckties?

Blake Gopnik reviews the sorry neckwear on display on cable news Tuesday night.

On Tuesday night, I watched the election with a brother and nephew keen on calling each state’s outcome minutes before MSNBC did—foolishness, I pointed out, since they had only to wait a few hours to learn confirmed results. But for these two puerile sports fans, the evening was almost as much about the play-by-play as how things turned out.

This writer, meanwhile—used to contemplating the profundities of great art—was busy digging deep into the pageant of American democracy at work: for a solid five hours, my concentration remained fixed on the neckties worn by our television pundits and politicians.

The fair-haired Chris Matthews was in a scary striped number in baby blue and pink. (By Wednesday morning, Matthews had switched to an equally bad tie in tulip red with white dots, which was weirdly close to what Republican Karl Rove had been wearing on Fox News as he melted down over the Ohio numbers.)

Chris Hayes, like several of his MSNBC colleagues and sources, commented on the election in sober red-and-navy regimental stripes—confirming the little-known fact that a large share of America’s elite has served in British cavalry regiments.

For his concession speech, Romney traded his usual Republican red for a muted tie that was much like Hayes’s (and just as soporific) while Obama kept on his Democrat’s blue to declare victory.

On Fox News, Juan Williams basically wore Fourth of July bunting around his neck, while other TV personalities preferred more muted, solid colors: The Huffington Post’s Howard Fineman wore pale purple on MSNBC, as did Republican strategist Steve Schmidt, while Democrats Ed Schultz and Lawrence O’Donnell were both wearing pale blue.

All this non-pulchritude reminded me once again that ties, despite appearing to be a bodily ornament, have basically been shorn of any real aesthetic value. They are almost never worn to achieve a visual or fashion effect anymore—to turn the human neck into a work of art. They have become purely symbolic items, worn out of a kind of social duty and to signal a man’s generic establishment status.

There may seem to be exceptions to that rule: Matthews may really have thought he looked good in his pulsing silk, and the Rev. Al Sharpton, wearing busy black-and-gray, clearly had an image of himself as a natty dresser. But I would argue that any aesthetic effect these two hoped to achieve, with millions watching as the nation tallied its vote, was entirely drowned out by their ties’ basic establishment message. Neckties have become so much about fitting in that there’s no room to read them as signaling anything else. Any and every tie is basically a version, more or less tarted up, of the nondescript items worn by Fineman and Schmidt, Schultz, and O’Donnell—whose only reason for putting them on seems to be that they’re not allowed not to have silk under their collars.

Any attempt to go out on a limb with notable, individual neckwear is really just a reaffirmation of the tie’s true status-quo status. Your showy silk will never be read for itself, as a free-standing sartorial statement; it will always get its meaning as one half of an indissoluble binary whose other half is wrapped round the neck of Karl Rove.

The Noam Chomskys and Ralph Naders of this world argue that America’s democracy is a sham because its two parties’ positions run the gamut from A to B. Judging by Tuesday night’s neckwear—and leaving aside such trivialities as health care and income tax, global warming, and guns—it could be that they have a point.