NEW YORK - Can a tie really bind you to an opinion? Greek and British journalists traded flurries of speculation last week after King Charles III wore a bright blue cravat (and matching pocket square) as he addressed the COP28 climate conference in Dubai.
The colour and pattern, proclaimed Hellenic media, was a definite allusion to the Greek flag. Some reports even named a boutique in Athens as the source of the accessory.
Why all the to-do over a flap of fabric? For the Greeks, it’s because of the man next to the king at COP28: UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.
A few days earlier, Sunak decided to skip a meeting with Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis because of nearly two centuries of recrimination over 2,600-year old sculptures from the Parthenon in Athens. These were shipped to Britain from then Ottoman-ruled Greece by the British soldier-diplomat Thomas Bruce, the earl of Elgin, in the early 19th century.
Mitsotakis wants the marbles, currently at the British Museum, reunited with the remains of the temple, the Greek capital’s most prominent landmark. He had told the BBC: “This is not a question of returning artefacts… this is not an ownership question, this is a reunification argument. Where can you best appreciate what is essentially one monument? It’s as if I had told you [I] had cut the Mona Lisa in half and you would have half of it at the Louvre and half of it at the British Museum.”
Sunak said he didn’t want to be drawn into the debate. His Labour Party rival, Keir Starmer has already made his preference known: The opposition leader said he wouldn’t stand in the way of repatriating the treasures.
Now, the King’s tie has become journalistic shorthand for the Greek argument in this chronic controversy. The monarch was signaling that he favored repatriation, the Greeks argue. Why else would he wear such a sympathetic colour so soon after the Sunak vs Mitsotakis row? British reports were more phlegmatic. Charles could simply have been sporting one of his favorite ties (he had apparently worn it to previous engagements).
The king also has Greek roots: His father Philip, though Danish for the most part, belonged to the royal family that European powers established in Greece after the collapse of a previous government. Charles’s grandmother would become a Greek orthodox nun (albeit one who smoked and played canasta). As heir to the throne, Charles also spent time in the monasteries of the Athos peninsula in northern Greece, where women are forbidden entry.
Many of the monks I met during a recent visit remember Charles fondly, though they also recall his discomfort with one mountain-hugging monastery, deciding to hug the walls rather than venture close to the edge of wooden terraces and their views of the valleys below and the sea beyond.
Ties and other fashion items have been used to divine the intentions of the powerful in the past. When Mario Draghi was the most powerful monetary official in Europe, reporters would speculate on what his choice of tie colour meant for interest rates at the European Central Bank. Alas, a Credit Agricole SA analysis of 18 ties that adorned the central banker in 72 speeches showed no statistical significance for red or blue or any other hue.
Studies of the scarves of Draghi’s successor, Christine Lagarde, or, the 50 shades of then German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s outfits, organized by a Dutch artist into a Pantone colour chart, also produced little of substance regarding policy - though their amusement value for jaundiced journalists on gray beats shouldn’t be dismissed. That is not to say accessories and colour have not been used to send messages before.
After a nasty bit of UN demagoguery at the UN involving Saddam Hussein’s representatives in 1997, Madeleine Albright was called “an unparalleled serpent” by the Iraqi dictator’s official poet. The US diplomat wore a serpent brooch for her next meeting with the Iraqis, just so they would know who they were dealing with. It also echoed American history: the Gadsden flag with its rattlesnake and the pointed motto “Don’t tread on me.”
English monarchs have used colour in the past to make clear what couldn’t be said diplomatically. The court of Elizabeth I was stunned by the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre of French protestants in 1572. As angry as the queen was at the murder of her co-religionists on the continent, she could not completely disentangle herself from an alliance with France against Spain.
Still, she kept a French envoy sent to explain his country’s actions waiting for days. When the ambassador was led into the queen’s presence, he discovered the entire court gathered to meet him — in silence and with everyone dressed in the deepest black. Message delivered.
In 2017, the second Elizabeth may have delivered a non-verbal message too, if not as passive aggressively as her namesake. In her first official speech after the UK voted to leave the European Union, the queen wore a blue dress with a blue hat featuring little yellow embellishments that gave the impression of the EU flag. Or so some people chose to interpret it.
The Leave and Remain factions debated the symbolism for days. The thing with contemporary British sovereigns — including, of course, Charles and his late mother — is that they have little leeway to speak their own minds: They must echo the state. Hence, the once outspoken Prince of Wales is the now very politic and polite Charles III.
Specific to the Parthenon marbles, there’s also the quite significant roadblock of British law, which prevents the British Museum from giving up items deemed part of national heritage. Still, it does not mean that there is not an opinion deep down in the soul of the royal architecture enthusiast/environmental activist/religious pantheist.
The genius of the blue tie is that it is perhaps the only way the king can reflect publicly on what the he personally feels about the issue. He’ll never tell, of course. And it is, like all wordless communication, subject to interpretation. But it makes you think.