The Geeky Appeal of Steve Kornacki’s Khakis

Casual Pants Take Their Star Turn

Amidst the uncertainty of last week’s nail-biter of an election, a new star emerged, complete with his own uniform. Steve Kornacki, dedicated worker of the big board on MSNBC, is now known the world over for his glasses, white shirt, striped tie, and belted khakis. Somebody on Twitter commented that fashion execs would be fools to miss the opportunity to market the “Kornacki Khaki.”

MSNBC’s Steve Kornacki — and his pants — in action

Kornacki is not an overnight sensation; my family has been watching him on MSNBC for years. He has an affable, geeky charm. While he holds down the anchor desk — in a jacket! — perfectly well, he really shines when talking about election projections and returns. Unencumbered by a blazer, he shuffles between the touch-screen big board and his laptop, sometimes pulling out a series of phones or a pocket calculator, his hair flopping toward his eyes as he hunches over to crunch numbers that his producers have failed to update quickly enough and makes sense of incoming results for the anchors. Those anchors’ banter contributes to Kornacki’s image, as they declare themselves math-impaired and marvel at his ability to do simple arithmetic on air, then joke about either allowing him or forcing him to take a break and a nap.

There is no doubt that Kornacki deserves to be Twitter’s latest boyfriend. His ability to interpret incoming data and translate it into simple English — on his feet, on little sleep, in a charged environment — is impressive. He comes across as smart but humble and appears to genuinely love his job. On the night of November 5, as the margins in Pennsylvania and Georgia narrowed and Biden seemed poised to overtake Trump, Kornacki decided at the last moment not to go home, not wanting to miss the critical moment of inflection, when the race could reasonably be called (though that did not happen for another 36 hours).

His energy is secondary, however; the secret to Steve’s success is his wardrobe. Compare comedian Leslie Jones’ reaction to Ali Velshi taking his turn in front of the oversized electoral map to her absolute adoration of Kornacki. Jones objects to Velshi’s cool anchor look, wearing a full suit, his hand in his pocket. Velshi good-humoredly explained that he’d be flailing with nervous energy without that pocket. And that feels exactly right.

Kornacki, by contrast, is always a ball of quietly nervous energy, made more obvious because it has been let loose from the confines of a suit. He needs this freedom to run hither and yon, grabbing devices, scratching his head as he clears his touch-screen. He needs to roll up his shirtsleeves, literally. He’d be sweaty in a jacket, surely, and it would get wrinkled when he ran down to his office for a quick nap. (One of Kornacki’s gifts is the ability to appear as if he has worn the same clothes for several days on end yet not look wrinkled or disheveled, despite obvious exhaustion; you can’t do that in a suit!)

But it is his khakis more than his jacket-less-ness that define the appeal of Kornacki. Khakis are perfect election-geek clothing: functional and unfussy, they do nothing better than allow one to get down to business. They make no pretense of being fashion: they are safe and functional. Smart casual, emphasis on casual. Perfect for Fridays when we can’t be bothered to figure out what to wear. Ideal for men who don’t care to think about clothes.

It is hard to mess up khakis, but it is equally hard to make an impression in them. Does anybody mistake Dockers for fashion? (Note the lack of fashion is particularly true of Kornacki, whose plain, flat-front pants bear none of the slim-cut, tapered hallmarks of the contemporary hipster. They are not as unhip as pleated pants, but only just.)

Remember when GAP tried to tell us that khakis were cool? Its successful 1993–5 “Who Wore Khakis” ad campaign reminded us of the cultural icons (but notably, not fashion luminaries) who wore them, like Miles Davis, Sammy Davis, Jr., Andy Warhol, Ernest Hemingway, Arthur Miller, and Amelia Earhart. And presumably, so should we. And we did . . . but were we cool?

Not really, we were just casual.

Cool was never the point of khakis, which come to us from the British military. They were first worn by the Corps of Guides, a British unit in what is now Pakistan, in 1846. Khaki really refers to the color, a specific light, yellowish-brown that comes to English from the Persian word for soil, khâk, which was transformed into the adjectival khaki, or “soil-colored” in Urdu. The color was the innovation here, providing camouflage as military technology became more sophisticated, making the traditional red coats of the British military a liability. Khaki uniforms replaced the blues of the United States Army during the Spanish-American War. Khakis are an archetypal example of form following function.

Note that what we call khakis are really khaki-colored chinos, the more accurate name for pants made of the cotton twill fabric originally made in China. Also, note that Kornacki’s khakis aren’t really khaki at all, they are both more gold and more brown than that shade. (If I had to guess, I’d say Steve were wearing GAP’s Modern Khakis in Relaxed Fit in palomino brown.)

It is perhaps surprising that Steve Kornacki’s on-air persona is so closely related to an item of clothing that is entirely antithetical to American broadcast news. Male anchors wear suits, without fail, and women tend to wear the contemporary professional mix of dresses and separates, often with a blazer or cardigan. Nobody wears casual pants and shirtsleeves, except Kornacki. And nobody is more synonymous with the big board election returns than Kornacki. His is not a generic newscaster uniform, it is a very precise, very authentic election-night statistician uniform.

I’m thrilled that Steve Kornacki is getting his due. And just as chuffed that his pants are, too.

I’m interested in the intersection of politics, fashion, and meaning. Also, organizational misconduct and scandal. And bean-to-bar chocolate.

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