Tom Steyer’s Tie: They’ll Never Take His Freedom!

Tom Steyer, the billionaire hedge fund manager and Democratic presidential candidate who made his first debate appearance in Ohio on Tuesday evening, failed, by most accounts, to break through with his discussion of climate change and a wealth tax. But he did definitely stand out from the crowd in one way at least: his tie.

A red, yellow and navy tartan that looked like it was from clan Wallace (that is meaningful; more on it later), it was unmistakable in a sea of traditional blue (Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind.; former Representative Beto O’Rourke of Texas; Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont) and red (former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.; Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey; Julián Castro, the former housing secretary).

It was not long before the viewing public took notice.

Also, Tom Steyer is wearing a plaid tie, and there are limits to what we can accept in a president#DemDebate live

I’m going to say it — Tom Steyer’s tie should be disqualifying under DNC rules.

Meghan McCain, the columnist and TV personality, was particularly rapt:

The tie now even has two Twitter accounts of its own: @TieToms and @TomSteyersTie. As tie choices go, it was notably more controversial than the fact that Andrew Yang, the candidate and entrepreneur, never wears one at all — and that is saying something. Mr. Yang’s tielessness, after all, is a widely understood signifier of his tech success status; Mr. Steyer’s penchant for tartan is — well, what in the world is it?

Ties in general are increasingly seen as relics of the former establishment, but in the theater of politics, they are a nod to the formality of the office and indicator of respect for the past.

When male candidates want to prove their hard working bona fides and everyday-guy-ness, they tend to lose their ties and roll up their sleeves (except for Mr. Buttigieg, who loses his jacket). When they want to appear presidential, which in a debate context is what all their costume designers — sorry, “strategic consultants” — are aiming for, the default is almost always red or blue. Those colors have all the implicit references to flag-waving patriotism, especially when placed against a white shirt, and party loyalty. When they want to push some boundaries, sometimes stripes come into play, or very occasionally, purple (a red and blue combination that suggests compromise). Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington, in his brief candidacy, favored green because, you know: climate.

Tartan, with all its connotations of Christmas, school uniforms and marching across the moor to bagpipes, may speak to a certain tradition, but it’s not a stereotypical American one, which makes it uncomfortably close to the novelty tie for many viewers.

However, Mr. Steyer has been wearing red plaid ties for years. It is kind of his signature thing. (He also favors a beaded belt that he bought on a trip to Kenya, he once wrote, and wears “as a reminder not to be so formal, and also as a symbol that the world is a better place when we educate women and girls.” But, sadly, we didn’t get to see it Tuesday night.)

Mr. Steyer explained this to the Washington Post way back in 2013, when he told the newspaper that his penchant for tartan reflected the fact “You gotta dress up for a fight.”

Which brings us back to the particular tartan Mr. Steyer chose for his debate tie, which also seems to be his preferred tartan: not that of his own clan, Murray, which he told The Post was too ugly (it’s green, orange and blue, and doesn’t seem that bad), but rather that of clan Wallace, as in William Wallace, as in “Braveheart.”


This is telling: Not just because of the questionable choice of dissing your own history for one you think is better looking, but because, for those who are not familiar with the 1995 Mel Gibson classic (which may be a large chunk of the voting public these days), it is about William Wallace, a 13th century clansman who led the Scots in their first war of independence, against King Edward I of England.

It had many battle sequences and inspirational speeches, and won a lot of Oscars. You can see the appeal. But it also ended with Wallace being drawn and quartered and the King still on his throne.

Which maybe is not the best symbolism, really, for this particular moment in time.

Vanessa Friedman is The Times’s fashion director and chief fashion critic. She was previously the fashion editor of the Financial Times. @VVFriedman

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