Tom Steyer is still wearing his red plaid tie

There’s a rumor on the internet that Tom Steyer, the California billionaire and Democratic presidential candidate, only owns one tie. Since he made his debut on the crowded October debate stage, viewers have fixated more on his red tartan tie than his policies and answers, pointing out that Steyer is consistent — perhaps too consistent — in its wear. A Steyer spokesperson described the tie as Scottish, making its print tartan instead of plaid.

For the 10th Democratic debate in South Carolina (Steyer’s sixth showing), the at-home Twitter audience pointed out that Steyer was still wearing that tie and, well, they had thoughts about it.

“Why can’t Tom Steyer get another tie,” one Twitter user asked. “It’s not billionaire chic to repeat every single time.” “Someone please buy Tom Steyer a second tie,” another begged. The tie has become so ubiquitous, it now has multiple Twitter accounts.

What politicians wear, and their appearance more broadly, has always played a role in politics. Clothes can help a candidate stand out on a packed stage and even define aspects of their candidacy, in the case of Hillary Clinton’s pantsuits. For male politicians, who are usually consigned to neutral-hued suits, ties are the accessory they can get creative with. For example, former Democratic candidate Jay Inslee liked to wear a green tie on the debate stage to signal he was the “green candidate,” given his bold climate-first agenda. Entrepreneur Andrew Yang skipped wearing a tie entirely for the debates, a progressive choice of attire for a tech-focused candidate.

Compared to the other four men onstage Tuesday night (Mike Bloomberg, Pete Buttigieg, Joe Biden, and Bernie Sanders), Steyer’s red-and-black tartan tie appeared strikingly out of place, and his online critics have disparaged the pattern as Christmas-like and gimmicky. As New York Times fashion critic Vanessa Friedman wrote, “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.”

Without the tartan tie, who really is Tom Steyer?
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Dig a little into Steyer’s billionaire environmentalist past and you’ll find that he’s entirely devoted to wearing tartan ties, a pattern associated with Scotland. A Washington Post profile of Steyer in 2013 quoted him saying, “You gotta dress up for a fight,” in reference to how he wears Scottish ties every day. He’s selective with his tartan, however, avoiding the dark green, blue, and red pattern of his Scottish clan Murray because “it’s too ugly.” So why a tartan tie at all? The most likely conclusion is that he simply likes red tartan!

Steyer’s campaign did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment from Vox, so we may never know why Steyer prefers this specific print or how many ties of this color he has. Sure, it’s an unusual pattern for a presidential candidate, but don’t we all have our fashion quirks?

Notably, Steyer has made tartan his personal brand, even selling a Tom 2020 tartan bandana and a tartan koozie. Without the tartan tie, who really is Tom Steyer? Do viewers even know who Tom Steyer is, or do they only see a billionaire (and he’s not even the only billionaire onstage anymore) in a red tie?

At this point in the race, when he’s nationally polling at 2 percent, Steyer’s need to “dress up for a fight” doesn’t hold much water. A tartan tie, then, seems to be the main thing that’s helping him stand out — an accessory that makes his candidacy briefly memorable, salient, and the butt of several hundred Twitter jokes.

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