In 1993, the chocolate brand Ferrero Rocher launched a TV commercial in which we are brought into a fancy reception with elegant guests drinking champagne. We hear the voice-over of a (presumably white) man with a posh British accent saying, “The ambassador’s receptions are noted in society for their host’s exquisite taste which captivates his guests,” while “the ambassador” (a white man) gives a head signal to his butler (an older white man wearing an elegant butler’s uniform) to walk around the guests offering a tray with a golden tower of delicious chocolate treats. The guests, of course, are delighted. We hear them say this in French and Italian (you know, “international”; although every single person we see in the commercial is white, so not much diversity there).
A newer version of the “ambassador’s receptions” commercial aired in 2011. A few adjustments were made: the voice-off is now a woman (still with a posh British accent) who reminds us that “there’s always something magic about the ambassador’s receptions.” The overall atmosphere of refined elegance, now in a black-tie Christmas party, remains as a key component of the commercial (although there is an attempt to bring a bit of racial diversity to the ad with one close-up shot of a Black couple). Then comes the signature move: a head signal of “the ambassador” (again a white man) to his butler (again an older white man wearing an elegant butler’s uniform) to walk around the guests offering the tray of the iconic golden chocolate tower.
These are, of course, caricatures of the diplomatic world. But they do reflect something that has always been in the collective imagery: diplomacy being depicted as (mostly white) men wearing ties in elegant receptions sipping wine; the idea that diplomats are aristocrats, living in a world that is very far away from the realities of the people they are supposed to represent and serve.
Countless historical photos of key moments in diplomacy replicate this very pattern. With or without wine, it is always the same composition: a group of (mostly white) men, wearing suits and ties, either bowties or neckties (take, for example, the photo capturing the signing ceremony of the Kellogg-Briand Pact, of the 1945 San Francisco Conference, or of the 1998 Rome Conference for the establishment of the International Criminal Court to name but just three small examples). The constant seems to be always the lack of diversity: gender diversity, racial diversity, and cultural diversity.
Thankfully, throughout the years things have started to change. Being a diplomat myself (and having attended a good number of receptions, none in which I have ever encountered a golden tower of Ferrero Rocher), I have been witnessing a generational change in how we do diplomacy and in what diplomacy looks like. Although we are far from done, gender equality and inclusivity continue to break old paradigms. Diplomatic photos now show more women and more racial diversity.
However, almost as a rule, every time we see men, we see neckties. That small piece of clothing has done an incredible job in consolidating itself as a symbol of formality, respectability, and, most important, power. It is almost an indispensable piece of an implicitly agreed upon uniform. So perhaps it is time we take a closer look at that little knot.
The Tie: A Military Remanent and a Symbol of Social Status
We owe neckties to Croatia. As an article from the Dubrovnik Times explains, “The modern necktie traces back to the time of the Thirty Years’ War when Croatian mercenaries from the Croatian Military Frontier in French service, wearing their traditional small, knotted neckerchiefs, aroused the interest of the Parisians.”
Indeed, neckties are a remanent of an old military uniform. The link to their origin can be found in their name: since the French call the Croats (Hrvati) “Croates”, they called the necktie “cravate” (“corbatas” in Spanish, which also sound very much like “croatas”, the demonym). It was the French, excelling always in their good taste, who turned the necktie into the modern fashion accessory it is today.
Uniforms have also been a symbol of social status. In every culture there has been a direct relationship between wardrobe and hierarchy: from the penachos of the Aztec tlatoanis, to the yellow robes of emperors in Imperial China, to the use of purple by bishops and archbishops in the Roman Catholic Church.
Today, the tradition of wearing a uniform, a symbol as well of patriarchy, continues. Military uniforms have also given way to “civil” uniforms. And colonialism by the western world contributed to the consolidation of a particular type of uniform. Many countries, including my own (Mexico, former colony of Spain) had diplomatic uniforms, resembling European military uniforms (some still do and use them in official ceremonies like the Presentation of the Letters of Credence). And having considered both the military and diplomacy predominantly masculine affairs in our patriarchal societies, the male uniform of hierarchy and status transitioned to the civil space in the form of a suit and a tie. The coined expression “power suit” denotes confidence and dominance, discipline and respect, seriousness and authority. Power.
In the long and rocky journey to gender equality, women have also turned to the power suit, especially in politics, as a tool to break the glass ceiling. The premise is that a female leader wearing a pantsuit (think for example of Theresa May, Angela Merkel, Hillary Clinton, or Kamala Harris) is perceived as someone who can exercise authority and power, someone who can also wage war if necessary (another vice of our toxic masculinity, the recourse to violence). In other words, a woman who can exercise the same authority as a man.
This Is Not an NGO
The suit-and-tie combo has unquestionably consolidated itself as the global formal attire for business, politics, and diplomacy par excellence. This means that, without being told to do so, men automatically put on a suit and a tie to go to work. This is done almost as a reflex. No explanations needed; it all goes without saying.
The abnormal behavior in the world of global diplomacy is to not wear a suit and a tie. When this happens, an explanation is required: it is a workshop, and the dress code is “business casual”; work is being conducted in a hot humid place and a fresher attire (like a guayabera) is allowed; or simply, it’s “casual Friday”. If no explanation is given for an unwarranted change in behavior, things go wrong. Wearing a tie, however, should be exclusively a fashion choice, not a work requirement. But in old school diplomacy, the lack of a tie can be interpreted as disrespect, rebellion, informality, lack of responsibility.
I have witnessed plenty such examples, from colleagues from other countries who have told me that their ambassadors do not allow them to remove the tie “under any circumstance”, to an ambassador who, whenever he saw a colleague not wearing a tie, asked if he now worked for an NGO. I found this NGO reference particularly interesting. It seems to suggest that in the mindset of old-fashioned civil and diplomatic service, the people who work for NGO are generally rebellious, given their tendency to question governmental action or inaction. They are so allergic to anything institutional, the argument goes, that they can’t even put on a tie. How can they be in the room where formal and serious decisions are made?
I myself, in my capacity as Legal and Sanctions Coordinator of Mexico during our last tenure as an elected member of the Security Council (2021-2022), was once asked to leave the Security Council chamber at the U.N. Headquarters by a member of the Secretariat for wearing a guayabera (it was summertime) and brown leather shoes that have a white rubber sole (very popular these days), which he described as “sneakers.” Not only did I not leave the room, but my ambassador complained about this incident with the then President of the Council. By the way, there are no rules regarding attire in the U.N., neither in the General Assembly Rules of Procedure nor in the Security Council’s. It is amazing how a piece of fabric (or the absence of it) can distract us from the issues that really matter.
Ironically, while an apparent high level of formality is, if not required, at least expected to be sitting at the U.N., for many around the world it is that formality that alienates us diplomats from reality. “What do those (mostly) men, wearing suits and ties, sitting at that horseshoe table in an elegant New York building know about what the people in Haiti or Afghanistan or Mali or Myanmar are going through?” many ask. Formality, represented in suits and ties, reinforces the perception of distance and aristocracy in diplomacy.
Rolling Up Our Sleeves
In contrast, whenever people are working, getting down to business and actually getting things done we say that they have “rolled up their sleeves,” an expression understood to mean “to prepare to work hard.” By this logic, hard work is done without a tie.
Even politicians literally roll up their sleeves whenever they want to portray a working image, when they travel to villages hit by natural disasters, for example, or while campaigning on the road. Tieless politicians holding a microphone or stretching hands with their sleeves rolled up: an image of proximity to the people; a disposition to work hard. Also, an image that tends to be criticized as “populist” in politics.
Political campaigning aside, the truth is that it is easier and more comfortable to do hard work without a tie around the neck. Together with many other colleagues, we recently spent almost 40 hours straight negotiating a treaty on the conservation and sustainable use of marine biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction at the U.N. (for more details about those long hours see this New Yorker piece), without leaving the building, without sleeping and powering through with the few items we could find in the building’s vending machine. As those grueling hours went by, ties started to come off in conference room 6. We got the job done.
A Case for Diversity
When I glance at the U.N. General Assembly chamber in plenary sessions, it strikes me how homogenous the room looks, despite being filled with people from 193 different countries and cultures. There are exceptions, of course. For example, nowadays members of African Group have decided to wear their national attires on Fridays. But the rule continues to be the suit and tie uniform. And a uniform, by definition, aims for uniformity. And uniformity trumps diversity.
This seems counterintuitive given the task of multilateral diplomacy. Diversity and inclusion must always be a key component of our work at the U.N. These values also enhance the richness of the collective.
Beyond the physical comfort, rigid structures and instructions give way to more open conversations. Out of the box thinking emerges and creative solutions to challenging problems are found.
It also allows for a more personal connection, an element which is key in diplomacy. Our job as diplomats is to engage in conversation, to talk to each other, to listen and try to understand other viewpoints, to exercise empathy and to build agreements on this basis. The more you can connect with your counterparts, the more chances for success.
As we move forward in achieving gender equality and racial diversity, we must also take up cultural diversity. And what we wear is also a reflection of our culture. I advocate then for a new era of tieless diplomacy. One in which we leave (heavily patriarchal) uniforms behind, we see and recognize each other for who we are, we roll up our sleeves and get to the hard work of achieving the objectives of multilateral diplomacy: the right for the peoples of the world to live in peace.