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Phat Bill and The Politics of Style

Size doesn't matter; thickness does. Just ask Bill Clinton who has suddenly started wearing fat ties with cutaway collars.
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Size doesn't matter; thickness does. Just ask Bill Clinton who has suddenly started wearing fat ties with cutaway collars.

Recently, while stumping for his wife and Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, the former President wore a veddy British cutaway collar with a Windsor-knotted neck tie--a pointed departure from the drab business attire he's worn his entire political career.

Suddenly, the thick tie knot, whether it's a fat four-in-hand or the classic Windsor, is everywhere. Recently, Jonathan Capehart, a reporter for The Washington Post, appeared on Hardball with Chris Matthews wearing a cutaway collar paired with a classic Windsor tie knot.

Steven "Cojo" Cojocaru talked to Larry King about his battle with kidney disease while plugging his new book Glamour, Interrupted wearing a flashy purple and white-polka-dot tie with an enormous knot. Who would have thought that Bill Clinton had anything in common with Cojo, much less their taste in men's accessories?

Or with Jay-Z and Diddy who also favor the full Windsor. Toni Morrison called Bill Clinton "the first black President," but I doubt if even the prescient Pulitzer-Prize-winning novelist would have predicted Bill would go this far.

During the Democratic debates, Barack Obama, champion of the youthful slim-cut suit and skinny tie look, also moved in this direction, wearing a hefty rather than the slimly elegant ties he wore for his 2006 Men's Vogue photo shoot.

Carl Bernstein, political commentator and co-author of All The President's Men, often wears a spread collar, which is known in Englas as the cutaway collar, with a fat tie knot as do many television news anchors on the BBC and in the US, including CNN's Anderson Cooper, MSNBC's Keith Olberman, and FNC's Sheppard Smith.

But will the former President do what Jay-Z and Diddy were unable to do and bring this classically English look into the global fashion mainstream, effectively replacing a trend already underway that has a lot of traction--the ring-a-ding-ding narrow-lapel slim-cut suit marketed by fashion behemoth Ralph Lauren, Hedi Slimane, and Aquascutum, among others?

Alan Flusser, menswear designer and author of Dressing the Man: The Art of Permanent Fashion, has his doubts.

"It's not a look for everybody," says Flusser. "Bill Clinton is a great looking guy, but the problem is most people should never wear a Windsor tie--but he in particular should never wear one because he has a very narrow face. Once you place something of that scale under that shaped face it becomes its own device or focal point which I'm not sure you want."

In other words, you run the risk of looking like Tony Sinclair, Tanqueray's fictional pitchman who appears in television commercials as a parody of a breezy British socialite--and he has the clothes to prove it. He dons a purposely over-the-top mixture of patterns--stripes, checks, paisleys, brash colors, you name it--and the quintessentially British cutaway collar with a Windsor tie knot that is thick enough to choke a porn star.

But Bill Clinton--and other men--might gladly sacrifice style points for a greater value--the Windsor's powerful phallic symbolism that makes the skinny tie look like it belongs in a wardrobe for weenies.

There are those, however, for whom the Windsor is both stylish, well suited, and studly.

"Prince Michael of Kent is known in England for wearing the largest tie knot going," says Stephen Lachter, a bespoke shirtmaker at 16 Savile Row, "but the Windsor suits him because it has a scale and a style that is symmetrical to the architecture of his face as well as the proportion of his deep shirt collars. It also helps that he has a regal beard, a look reminiscent of the Russian aristocracy who also went in for these kinds of authoritative collars and tie treatments."

And what about the Italians?

"The Windsor is very much England and America," says Lachter. "The really stylish Italians, apart from the '60s, always liked a fuller tie but they don't like massive knots--nothing bulky. And they don't tend to wear Windsor knots."

But the trend in England, thanks to soccer stars, is undeniably afoot.

"Beckham does on occasion wear a Windsor knot," says Lachter. "Footballers are extremely fashion forward and they wear Windsor knots. They lead fashion more so than the film stars because the film stars hardly every wear ties. A lot follow each other so a lot think that's the way to do it."

The Duke of Windsor, probably the most influential menswear force in history, is credited with popularizing the large triangular tie knot in the 1930s. In fact, the Windsor knot was named after him, but it was actually an innovation of his grandfather's, a variation on the common four-in-hand, the tie most men wear today--and the one Bill Clinton used to wear until recently. King George V of Great Britain is said to have handed down to his son The Duke (Edward VIII) the secrets of the tricky triangular cravat with the Crown Jewels. Fat tie knots have fallen in and out of favor ever since.

"Fashion is now more spread out; there's different sections of fashion," says Lachter. "People are more individual. Different looks for different people. It's not one look anymore that is all the rage."

Flusser agrees. "Today, what's more important is the right look for the right person."