Loosen the tie? Why knot.

Mitt Romney buys pies at Homemades by Suzanne in Ashland, Va.

A black-and-white photo exists of Richard M. Nixon with his tie loosened. Eyes slightly narrowed, he looks off to the right while his left thumb and index finger rest on the real estate below his left ear.

At first, it seems like a trick of light — Richard M. Nixon, tie loosened? This cannot be right.

Several command-plus-signs later, though, zoomed in to Pat levels of nearness to the former-presidential neck, it can be stated with 98.7 percent certainty that yes, the tie is loosened. Barely, but still: It was a tie that had seen tighter days. In fact, it seems that the top button of his wrinkle-free white shirt is undone, too.

But back to that loosened tie. What can it mean? Known more for his formality in manner and dress, that Nixon was caught in a possibly unguarded moment with the knot of his tie slid maybe a third of an inch from where it rightly belonged — well, it says something.

In fact, in this election season, with the nit-picky scrutiny that has come to define modern campaigns, can a loosened tie at the throat of Barack Obama or Mitt Romney be just a loosened tie? When every move they make is scrutinized by cable TV shouters with the specificity of a critic scowling at Kabuki theater, whither the loosened tie?

Enlightenment, please, Oscar Wilde: “A well-tied tie is the first serious step in life.”

And serious steps are made into serious times, which call for serious ties. Accepting their nominations at their respective national conventions, Obama’s and Romney’s ties could not have been more precise. Obama’s, a royal blue with horizontal yellow stripes, knotted in what appeared to be an exacting half-windsor, framed by a razor-edged collar. Romney’s, vivid red with darker red horizontal stripes, tied in a possible four-in-hand, the knot resting exactly at the hollow of his throat, where it should be.

There is no loosening in times like those, Serious with a capital S. When Jim Lehrer questions them in the Oct. 3 debate at the University of 
Denver, there can be no question that the Romney and Obama ties will be firmly knotted.

But there are other times, I’m-a-man-of-the-people times, just-a-regular-guy times. Here’s Obama on Air Force One, shooting the breeze with members of the press corps, tie loosened maybe an inch.

Then there was the Aug. 11 campaign stop at Homemades by Suzanne in Ashland, Va. Romney, shirt sleeves rolled, leaned across the glass counter and inquired about pies. Rhubarb? No. Blueberry? Sorry. He left with an apple, a pecan and a chocolate pie. And needless to say, his blue and white tie was loosened.

“You’ve immediately gone from being dressed up to being casual (when you loosen your tie),” said David Schlosser, assistant manager of Men’s Warehouse in Grand Junction.

The loosened tie is the end of a long day of working hard. It must not be confused with the rolled shirt sleeves. The rolled shirt sleeves are “let’s get to work fixing the economy” and “boy, this is hard work, what we’re doing this very moment to fix the economy.” The loosened tie is “whew! It’s been an exhausting day, what with fixing the economy and all.”

It happens by degree: First, the full Mr. Serious, jacket buttoned, tie tight. Then, jacket unbuttoned, followed by jacket off. Next, cuffs unbuttoned, then rolled once, twice, very occasionally beyond the elbow. Then, tie loosened — an index finger curled under the knot then a gathering fist pulling it down and left, then right, then left again, for a blessed inch of relief. The top button follows. Finally, in a declaration of independence or deep breaths, off goes the tie.

(There doesn’t seem to be an equivalent of the loosened tie for female politicians. Undo another button? That’s the wrong kind of politics. Shoelessness? Yuck. Congress is not the Jersey shore. The most they can hope for, it would seem, is to remove a jacket, not wear a brooch or go pantyhose-free in summer.)

Polonius declares in William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” “The apparel oft proclaims the man.” The loosened tie is the subtlest of messages. It hints that here’s a man who has worked hard, but is far from finished — the job will continue tomorrow and the next day and the next, until there’s a chicken in every pot.

Ties, when worn, are significant. Per P.G. Wodehouse:

Jeeves: The tie, if I might suggest it, sir, a shade more tightly knotted. One aims at the perfect butterfly effect. If you will permit me —

Bertie Wooster: What do ties matter, Jeeves, at a time like this?

Jeeves: There is no time, sir, at which ties do not matter.

The problem, in the issue of clothing-as-rune-stones, is that these are increasingly informal times. Romney, when declaring his candidacy June 2, 2011, in Stratham, N.H., was tie-less, with the top button of his checkered shirt undone and his shirt sleeves rolled. Obama has appeared at multiple campaign stops in a suit and button-down, but no tie.

This is tricky territory, though. Is it pandering to go tie-less at the factory visit? Can voters ever truly see past the Candidate when he’s rolled-shirt-sleeves-no-tie at the fundraising barbecue? Does the tie indicate a Serious Man for these Seriously Troubled Times?

Germany experienced quite the kerfuffle last year, when Christian Democrat member of Parliament Jens Koeppen asked his male colleagues to wear ties and restore “the dignity” of their governmental body. In response, member of Parliament Anrej Hunko not only didn’t wear a tie, but proclaimed not to own one and called it a “19th century fashion accessory.”

So, the tie is fraught territory. And it’s not just about the color or pattern (though, red and blue are the obvious choices, with Romney occasionally venturing into teal territory). Is the four-in-hand a more proletariat knot, seeing as how it was invented by busy carriage drivers? Does the full windsor scream out-of-touch one percenter?

Reading the tie is sartorial semaphore. And when it’s loosened, the message may be a simple desire for comfort at the end of a long day, or it may be more than just an exhausted, wordless request for a sandwich and SportsCenter. It could be an expression of determination and perseverance from the man with something around his neck.

Editor’s note: If you’ve enjoyed reading this reported essay, look for more from Rachel Sauer in the coming weeks and months.


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