Presidential candidate and former VP Joe Biden loves a good pocket square. Amid the sea of dark suits that fill the political landscape, he often breaks the monotony with a sharp piece of white fabric peeking out from his chest pocket.
Biden doesn’t always opt for this look, but it’s something he’s done more frequently over the past decade, and pocket squares have become a fixture during the presidential campaign. He has worn them in key moments, like the first debate against President Trump, his town hall, and to announce Senator Kamala Harris as his running mate. He wore one to accept the nomination for president, making him the first candidate to do so in 40 years, according to fashion blogger Derek Guy.
The look is subtle, but it allows him to stand out, since few politicians make this sartorial choice. And given how much care Biden and his campaign pay to his image, including carefully picking his masks, the pocket squares are likely a deliberate decision. What does this aesthetic decision say about him and the brand he’s trying to cultivate?
Mark-Evan Blackman, assistant professor of fashion design at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City, believes that the small piece of fabric does a lot of symbolic work, allowing Biden to channel his personality, youthfulness, and meticulousness. “By wearing a suit, Biden is dressing in an age-appropriate way, which is comforting to people,” Blackman says. “But through the pocket square, he is signaling to people in the safest way possible that there is more to him than just his blue suit.”
Blackman says that for three centuries, the pocket square has been one of the few ways that Western men could express themselves through their clothing. While women could wear colorful dresses in a variety of designs, men’s clothes largely revolved around the three-piece suit. A hanky in the pocket, along with a necktie, created a small space for creativity and flourish. Colorful, patterned pocket squares first took off among the wealthy, who could afford fabric that wasn’t just practical but also fashionable. In the court of King Louis XVI, the male aristocrats wore pocket squares in a wide array of shapes and sizes. This visual cacophony annoyed Marie Antoinette so much that she decreed that they had to be made in a uniform shape of 16-inch squares, a look that persists to this day.
In the modern political context, fashion norms remain extremely conservative. When President Barack Obama wore a tan suit, and when Texas Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke ditched the suit for a simple button-down, the media covered these incidents as scandals. Most politicians don’t wear pocket squares; by opting to wear one, Biden is gently and subtly adding some flair, without drawing so much attention to it that it makes the evening news. “Notice that he often chooses solid, white pocket squares, rather than a paisley print or stripes,” Blackman says. “It is classic and understated.”
At the same time, Blackman says the square suggests the wearer has a certain attention to detail. And in this current political contest, this is an important message. “It’s a comforting signal,” Blackman says. “If he’s gone through the trouble of putting on a pocket square, he might go through the trouble of reading his daily briefing. All those little details make us who we are.”