Nicholas Antongiavanni: Curtains for the Necktie?

Thanks to my friend, Troy, for sending this along today.  My regular readers will not be surprised to hear that I find this all a bit sad.  I guess I am old fashioned ... I want my President to wear a tie.  Every day.

Curtains for the Necktie? - "[N]either shall there come upon thee a garment of two kinds of stuff mingled together." --Leviticus 19:19

Thus was born, somewhere in the Sinai desert over 3,000 years ago, the sumptuary law. Ironically, politics and clothing have mingled ever since.

Generally speaking, American politicians are the dullest dressers on the planet. But, three or four times a century, our presidential contests have a direct effect on the sartorial life of the nation. The last such occasion was when the rakish Ronald Reagan replaced the cloddish Jimmy Carter and helped usher in a new era of formality.

Another revolution is now upon us -- though of a decidedly different character. Barack Obama -- unquestionably the hippest candidate for the presidency since John F. Kennedy -- may do to the tie what Kennedy helped do to the hat. It's a myth that JFK killed the hat simply by not wearing one to his inauguration -- actually, that was the one instance when he did wear one. But by ostentatiously eschewing a hat everywhere else, at a time when the hat's place in the male wardrobe needed all the high-level support it could get, a very public "nay" vote from that suave, young, handsome patrician helped tip the balance against it.

Today, the tie is in similarly dire straits. Sales are way down. Its status as the sartorial signifier par excellence of business, seriousness and ceremony is in jeopardy. California abandoned it at about the same time, and for many of the same reasons, that the Golden State jettisoned Reaganism. The effete East held out longer, but when Wall Street and the law firms went "business casual" during the last boom, the necktie went on life-support.

There it lingers, kept breathing largely by the unwavering, if unthinking, allegiance of high-ranking politicians. But that too may soon pass away.

It's one thing for a politician, in the thick of a campaign, to rally the faithful in all his shirtsleeved, open-necked, down-home glory. "I'm one of you" the look is supposed to say -- accurately or not. But there are, or used to be, occasions when the people don't want their leaders to look like one of them -- at least not what they look like when they are out washing the car.

Mr. Obama breaks tradition on both counts. He skips the tie at major indoor events, not just outdoor rallies and Rock the Vote concerts sponsored by MTV. He goes tieless not merely in his shirtsleeves, or even with a blazer. He carries the open-necked look into a realm it was never meant to go: with the two-piece, dark business suit.

This heresy earns the young senator praise from today's keepers of the style tablets. The Washington Post's Robin Givhan -- the acid-penned Madame Blackwell of the Beltway -- could hardly contain herself. "[Obama's] tieless suit," she gushed, "[is] a cross between the style of a 1950s home-from-the-office dad and a 1990s GQ man about town. It is warmly, safely, nostalgically . . . cool."

Others have noticed something else. Take the impeccably liberal Jeff Greenfield. "Ask yourself," he challenged his CNN audience, "is there any other major public figure who dresses the way he does? Why, yes. It is Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who, unlike most of his predecessors, seems to have skipped through enough copies of GQ to find the jacket-and-no-tie look agreeable."

We can thank Mr. Greenfield for being reckless enough to say what many were thinking. But he mistakes Mr. Ahmadinejad's source. Mr. Obama may have gotten the idea from GQ, but the Iranian President got it from the Ayatollah Khomeini.

One of the lesser-known outcomes of the 1979 Iranian revolution was the stigmatization of the tie as a tool of Western Imperialism. The Ayatollah even denounced some of his perceived enemies as "tie-wearing cronies of the West." Today in much of the Islamist world, the tie is seen as not merely pro-Western but anti-Islamic, even though no prohibition of the garment can be found in Islamic law. There is a stricture against men wearing silk, but Muslim dandies can get around that by wearing cashmere or linen ties -- and many do.

It's hard to think of anything less hip -- or less intended to be hip -- than Islamist dogma on personal grooming. Yet despite traveling radically different routes along the way, Messrs. Obama and Ahmadinejad somehow manage to wind up in the same sartorial spot. Sort of like the way Ron Paul and Dennis Kucinich share virtually identical foreign policies.

We should hope that the tie survives. It is too noble a garment to let go for light and transient, or dark and sinister, causes. The good news is that Mr. Obama's foray into tielessness does not stem from deeply held ideology. When it really counts, he does the right thing. No doubt, should he make it to the end, his neck will be covered on inauguration day. Just like JFK's head.

Nicholas Antongiavanni is the pen name of Michael Anton. He is author of The Suit: A Machiavellian Approach to Men's Style (Collins, 2006).