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Are ties out of fashion? We check in on neckwear

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

The other day, 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 story, though. It's not a campaign finance story. This is a segment about 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, listen. If presidents are not wearing them at fancy events in Midtown Manhattan, then who is?

To dig more into this critically important topic, I am joined by fashion historian Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell. Hey, Kimberly.

KIMBERLY CHRISMAN-CAMPBELL: Hey, Scott. How are you?

DETROW: I'm good. I was wondering what your first reaction was to the discourse or the pictures of this event.

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 timelessness was both a fashion statement and, I think, a subtle message to America.

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

CHRISMAN-CAMPBELL: Well, as I said, I don't think ties will ever go away, but 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? And a lot of people are saying it's just - it's a thing you're tying around your neck that doesn't really have a purpose to begin with. 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, and you said that clearly, there was a statement attempting to be made of, you know, this is a Democratic fundraiser, who do you think looked best without a tie? And generally speaking, 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: Yeah. Looking at those pictures, I was really fascinated by sort of the different gradations of formality that we saw, particularly in the pictures of the presidents with, you know, 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. I thought Biden really pulled it off well, and I don't know if that was because of his shirt collar or just because of his physique. But I thought he looked great.

DETROW: I'm sure he would love to hear that you've singled him out over Barack Obama.

CHRISMAN-CAMPBELL: He's a stylish guy.

DETROW: That's Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell, fashion historian. Thank you for talking through this with us.

CHRISMAN-CAMPBELL: My pleasure, Scott.

DETROW: And this is a weekend show, so nobody's ever wearing ties here.

CHRISMAN-CAMPBELL: (Laughter) You're not wearing one, I hope.

DETROW: Absolutely not. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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