Correspondents, you are what you wear

Dec 17, 2001  •  Post A Comment

When Winston Churchill covered the Boer War for the London Times, he was also a combat officer in the British army. You could get away with that in those days, at least if you were Winston Churchill. So as a war correspondent, Churchill wore the field uniform of an officer in His Majesty’s Brigade of Guards.
During the first World War, the better London haberdashers developed a coat more suitable to the restricted confines of trench warfare than the standard British army greatcoat. It was made of a heavy twill and featured grenade rings and a bayonet loop on a wide belt strong enough to support a holstered pistol and epaulet-like shoulder loops to control a Sam Browne belt.
Just before World War II, Alfred Hitchcock made “Foreign Correspondent,” a movie starring Joel McCrea, whom he dressed in a British army trench coat. Correspondents accredited to the United States forces during that war had simulated military rank and wore officers’ uniforms. They favored the trench coat, which, when peace came, remained the preferred article of clothing of American foreign correspondents all over the world. The really cool ones insisted on the genuine British coats-with the grenade rings, bayonet loop and epaulets.
None of this really influenced the flow of information until television. That is when what correspondents wore became a vital part of the news. The average American, seeking guidance in a complex and puzzling world, could not take seriously tidings delivered by anyone in baggy pants and a sweater coming out at the elbows.
A TV reporter arriving in Vietnam would go immediately to Cholon, the Chinese section of Saigon, to have tailored overnight his own bespoke copy of the universal correspondent’s bush jacket, a sort of mini-trench coat cut somewhat longer than a suit jacket. It had no grenade rings on the belt, but shoulder loops were de rigueur, as were lots of pockets for rolls of film, notebooks and a Zippo lighter. The more rugged favored bush jackets with short sleeves, cuffed so that a pack of cigarettes sat securely in the fold.
Meanwhile, anchormen had come to afford only the best custom tailors and the finest shirt makers. Out of all this, gradually but inexorably a code emerged by which the sentient viewer can tell from the clothes of whoever is talking his location and the seriousness of his message. If television is indeed primarily a visual medium, this is another dimension to the visual message it transmits.
Interestingly, although women are more and more prominent in television news, from the dazzling circus of the anchor desk to the forbidding mountains of rural Afghanistan, no such ocular vocabulary has developed for them. They have been accepted into the once exclusively male fraternity of journalism and acquit themselves with competence, acuity and style. But they have not yet agreed among themselves what the bearers of the noble tradition of Nelly Bly should look like when bringing us the news.
Producers and vice presidents tend to leave them to their own devices, to solve the problem according to their own individual tastes and inclinations. This is not always a formula for success. Recently, a woman journalist of notable accomplishments, as a vacation relief, sat in the network anchor chair for a few days, the traditional pinnacle of ambition and aspiration. She elected to appear in a shiny silk designer dress, cut not too low in the front as if she were going to a party. At least one viewer of my acquaintance paid more attention to the dress than to the news.
For the men, who perhaps by the thinnest of margins still dominate the field, the haberdashery code solves many problems. It states that not only anchors but everyone in a studio wear a jacket and a tie. To stand in front of the White House or any federal government building also demands that the newsman wear a necktie. Even in driving rain, the coat must be cut to a certain formality. No ponchos.
For those reporting on inclement weather, like standing on jetties or in hurricanes or in the middle of unseasonable snowdrifts in Utah, ponchos are allowed. When doing exterior reporting about crimes, bank heists, drug busts or car thefts, wearing a shirt and a jacket but no necktie might be tolerated, if the shirt collar is open, of course. Medical and science reporters always wear a necktie; war correspondents never. War correspondents must avoid neckties. A necktie on the field of battle is like a bikini in church; someone has lost their way.
We have traveled far from Joel McCrea’s trench coat; even further from the days when Abercrombie & Finch supplied pith helmets and sturdy shorts to American reporters headed for the sub-Saharan jungles or the then newly discovered tombs of the Pharaohs. On the field of battle today, those following in the footsteps of Richard Halliburton and Ernie Pyle wear the kind of outfit common in American suburbia on weekends: dark-colored T-shirts under a dress shirt, preferably button-down, open at the neck, topped by a lined, padded zipper jacket from the best sporting goods store in the nearest mall. Because it’s not a jungle out there; it gets colder than you know what.
Reuven Frank is the oldest living former president of NBC News.