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A knotty problem

If a tie is a politician's sartorial semaphore, Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling are clearly in a t

Ties have always been important as sartorial semaphor: in terms of power for square inch, the tie, born in 1640, is king. But since the demise of the waistcoat some 40 years ago, the tie remains almost the only bit of visual subversion open to a man. (Shoes can serve this purpose, too, but ties matter more for men in the public eye since the camera seldom focuses on footwear.) David Cameron wears his collars half a size too big, the opposite of Brown, who seems to wear his half a size too small (though, in fact, that's the effect of his short neck). Cameron's ties never show even a tiny glimpse of top button; they make him look like a lost schoolboy compared with Brown's busting-out-of-his-shirt Minotaur. But of the top UK politicians, no one wears a tie as badly as George Osborne. His tie-knots are mean-looking and his choice of colours completely wrong. He favours silver grey, which is a fine look in a kitchen unit but just cold fish next to a man's face. (No UK politician looks better in a tie than Jack Straw, but who sees him these days?)

Barack Obama wears ties beautifully. Part of his secret is genetic - he has a long neck. Part is know-how - Obama does use the four-in-hand tie knot, the most popular way of tying a tie in the western world (though there are only four methods in popular use). But this is a mean knot: it's hard to get right, not least because it ends up asymmetrical and pinched-looking. But crucially, Obama also uses the half Windsor knot, not the full Windsor - and this is an important distinction, for the full Windsor is an opulent, excessive, showy-off knot, beloved of the unscrupulous bankers who have made off with our money. Instead, the half Windsor shows flair, restraint and confidence, although, despite its name, it is 75 per cent the size of its full equivalent. It's a very balanced, symmetrical knot, but it does involve an extra turn of the tie, and it is amazing how many men just can't seem to be bothered with that extra hand flick. The other tie-knot, in case you're wondering, is the oriental.

Cameron’s ties never show even a tiny glimpse of top button; they make him look like a lost schoolboy

Even Obama isn't perfect. He has been known to spill food on his tie. However, he has a personal assistant called Mr Love who spot cleans it for him with a Tide instant stain-remover pen. Obama's tie-wearing prowess has caused the US press to do something it rarely does: comment on a politician's dress. Just this past week, the Chicago papers were all abuzz about his ties. What colours he favours (the blue spectrum with the odd nod to reds, but not that super-bright red of cheap, quick-hung steaks) and how it's had a huge impact, apparently, on tie sales. Whereas just a few months ago, here in the UK, we were saying tie sales were down and that ties were dead, over, finished with. Rubbish, of course: the tie, like the shirt, has withstood hundreds of years of change - it's going nowhere.

There is another thing Obama does really well. He doesn't wear a tie with confidence. Almost all politicians look panicked without their ties and, therefore, you notice their absence. With Obama, he so owns his look that you could be staring at him for fully 40 seconds before you realise his tie is off, probably neatly coiled for safe keeping in Mr Love's pocket.

Annalisa Barbieri was in fashion PR for five years before going to the Observer to be fashion assistant. She has worked for the Evening Standard and the Times and was one of the fashion editors on the Independent on Sunday for five years, where she wrote the Dear Annie column. She was fishing correspondent of the Independent from 1997-2004.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2008 issue of the New Statesman, How safe is your job?