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Three presidents and not a necktie in sight. Are ties out of fashion?

Barack Obama, Joe Biden and Bill Clinton attend a campaign fundraising event in New York on March 28.
Brendan Smialowski
AFP via Getty Images
Barack Obama, Joe Biden and Bill Clinton attend a campaign fundraising event in New York on March 28.

Last week, Joe Biden, Barack Obama and Bill Clinton — three Democratic presidents — were all in one place to help Biden raise money for his reelection campaign.

This is not a campaign finance story, though. This is a look at fashion, because not one of these current or former commanders in chief was wearing what's typically a standard part of presidential outfits: a necktie.

This prompted several men's fashion watchers on the internet to declare the death (or at least the beginning of the end) of the tie. Because if presidents are not wearing them at fancy events in Midtown Manhattan, then who is?

To dig more into this critically important topic, All Things Considered host Scott Detrow spoke to fashion historian Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell about what is happening.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Interview highlights

Scott Detrow: I was wondering what your first reaction was to the discourse or the pictures of this event.

Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell: Well, I wasn't really surprised to see this for a lot of reasons. People have been, of course, predicting the death of the tie for at least a hundred years. But it really picked up after the pandemic and everybody went back to work, back to the office — the tie did not.

Detrow: Right. And like you said, this has been a long time coming. But is there something to the idea that there are far fewer ties in circulation than before?

Chrisman-Campbell: Absolutely. The sales of ties have been dropping for a long time. And I don't think they're ever going to go away, but it's not surprising to me that, especially at a Democratic fundraiser, which is a slightly more casual event than, say, a White House press conference, the tie-lessness was both a fashion statement and, I think, a subtle message to America.

Joe Biden — with a tie — delivers the State of the Union address on March 7.
Shawn Thew / POOL/AFP via Getty Images
POOL/AFP via Getty Images
Joe Biden — with a tie — delivers the State of the Union address on March 7.

Detrow: What does it say? Like, especially now that it's more optional in more formal and more work setting for men or people who wear ties — what is the statement at this point of "I am putting on a tie" or "I'm not putting on a tie"?

Chrisman-Campbell: They really are reserved for the most formal events: for weddings, for graduations, job interviews, things like that. And they can actually work against a man in a less formal setting because they may come off as stuffy or pretentious. If you're the only one wearing a tie and everyone else is casual, that's a problem. And the opposite — if everyone else is wearing ties and you're not, you're going to stand out.

Detrow: This kind of restarted a conversation that pops up every once in a while of are they even still relevant? Can you remind us what the original practicality was?

Chrisman-Campbell: Well, in the 17th century, men's shirts were tied with thin laces rather than buttons, so the tie or the cravat at the time actually helped keep the shirt collar closed, helped keep you warm. It had a practical function. But it very quickly became a marker of taste and respectability, social class, wealth, even sexuality and intellect, as in school ties. And it still functions in those ways, even though it's completely lost its practical value.

Detrow: When you look at the pictures of these three presidents, what do you think about the look of "I'm wearing a formal suit but not a tie because I want to look casual, even though I'm clearly a formal person in an important job"?

Chrisman-Campbell: Looking at those pictures, I was really fascinated by the different gradations of formality that we saw, particularly in the pictures of the presidents with the celebrity podcasters or some of the younger guests, because you still have a hierarchy there. There's the collared shirt versus the uncollared shirt. There's the matching jacket and pants versus the mismatched jacket and pants. There were dress shoes and tennis shoes. So there was still a generational divide there, and there was still sort of a formal hierarchy.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.
Brianna Scott is currently a producer at the Consider This podcast.
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