As First Lady Melania Trump's powder-blue, Ralph Lauren-designed homage to Jackie Kennedy-era style spawned hundreds of tweets, blog posts, and cable-news analyses on Inauguration Day, other eagle-eyed observers turned their attention to President Donald Trump's own sartorial choices. Specifically, they looked to a photo of Trump on the White House steps, which appeared to reveal a hastily applied line of Scotch Tape holding his tie together as the wind swept it over his shoulder. It wasn't the first time Trump appeared to have used the trick; in December, while exiting a plane, the trusty adhesive was again clearly visible on the back of his necktie.
Trump's style (or lack thereof, depending on who you ask) has been one of the most identifiable, if confounding, things about him in the more than 30 years he's been in the public eye. There's that hair, the jarringly uneven skin tone — is it makeup? self-tanner? — and the rarity with which he's ever spotted in public wearing anything other than a suit, usually boxy and navy blue. His choice of tie may be one of the most central and revealing aspects of that style. The man has not only shilled his own line of Chinese-made neckties, but he also has made the red, wide tie — dangling precariously low over his belt buckle and almost always Windsor knotted too tightly at the throat — his signature.
That accessory has become such a key part of both tributes to and caricatures of Trump that Adam Tschorn, deputy fashion editor at the Los Angeles Times, says it's now indivisible from his persona. "He's known for wearing the red tie. The Madame Tussauds wax figure is him with a red tie. The piñatas that people were bashing [post-election] were the orange hair, the blue suit, and the red tie." Even South Park's character Mr. Garrison, who followed an explicitly Trump-like trajectory in the Comedy Central show's latest season, sports (you guessed it) the red tie.
It seems unlikely to be an accident that Trump's red tie is so ubiquitous. Trump achieved the pinnacle of his fame prepresidency as a reality TV personality. He was cunning about creating the kind of just-dimensionless-enough character that cameras, producers, and audiences would love to watch and often love to hate. He had a repetitious catchphrase — "You're fired!" — and a reliable, unchanging look. Donald Trump, the brand, became as predictable and familiar as the Golden Arches or the Nike Swoosh, all cotton-candy coif and gold-encrusted decor and, yes, that long, wide, red tie. A search through paparazzi and red carpet photos and stills from The Apprentice proves that while he occasionally mixes things up with a blue stripe or navy shade, he has heavily favored solid, red silk. He favored it long before running for the GOP's presidential candidacy and even long before the days he was donating to the Clinton Foundation. His politics may shift, but the tie? It does not.
Inevitably, a rigid look also means a stagnant one, destined to eventually fall out of fashion — much like fixed worldviews eventually ring a death knell for politicians unwilling to get with a changing electorate's program. Menswear of late is dominated by a skinnier tie and more slim-fitting suit than Trump chooses to wear. Most relatively stylish men of our era choose a four-in-hand knot to Trump's usually undimpled Windsor knot. And POTUS's penchant for allowing the edge of his tie to drag so low over his belt has simply never been the widely accepted, appropriate length at which to wear one. Even his choice of brands feels dusty. In his 2004 book Think Like a Billionaire, he claims Brioni — the Italian brand that outfitted him with most of his boxy suits on The Apprentice — and the nearly-200-year-old French luxury brand Hermès make "the best" ties.
Whether or not his own passes muster with fashion experts, Trump's hyperfocus on appearances was brought to the forefront in early February in a report by Axios. The article detailed his fixation on the way people in his administration dress. Trump was apparently incensed by Press Secretary Sean Spicer's ill-fitting suit at his first press conference and demands that female employees "dress like women." That particular detail quickly spawned a sarcastic hashtag, #dresslikeawoman, on social media.
The Times's Tschorn has paid special attention to Trump's own sartorial choices over the course of the campaign and election. In November, he publicly implored him to update his style in the pages of the paper. Key among his recommendations: that Trump ditch the "Donald dangle." So, what are Tschorn's thoughts about rampant speculation that Trump's overly long tie is meant to distract from his midsection? "I've heard that — and another theory that I've read, that is not my theory — is basically that it points to his . . . business," Tschorn said. "And it's not hard to make the leap that it's a focus-puller."
Patrick Grant, creative director of Savile Row-inspired fashion label E. Tautz, put his fashion analysis in even starker terms: "Trump's pendulous neckwear is deeply phallic. Worn with his Tony Soprano-cut suit, it shouts ultraconservative — with a hint of sexual menace."
It's specifically this long-and-low habit that seems to irritate style critics — both armchair and professional — the most when it comes to Trump's choice in neckwear. "In an ideal world, getting the tip to lie at the waist of his trousers would be a plus," said Duncan Quinn, founder and creative director of his eponymous line of sharply tailored, boldly patterned suiting. "But that should probably come a distant second to global warming, war, and many other more important issues."
Of course it should. But might it still matter a little? First ladies in America have always borne the brunt of attention for their outfits and personal style, revealing an underlying sexism at work; people like to insist that fashion is fluffy, superficial, and of no matter and therefore the exclusive realm of women. However, certain presidents have also earned scrutiny and celebration over their manner of dress, proving that humanity has a tacit understanding that clothes send messages, broadcast traditions, and reflect personalities, no matter the gender of their wearer.
Who could forget President Barack Obama's dad jeans, which were necessarily tangled up with his image as family-man-in-chief? Bill Clinton, our flirtatious, sex-scandalous president, and his excessively short running shorts? Ronald Reagan, the movie-star-turned-POTUS, with his signature cowboy hat mirroring both his movie-star rakishness and his critics' accusations that he was simply an actor playing at president?
If Trump's necktie is his own stylistic signature, as our pop culture portrayals of him seem to have already established, its main messages may be of aggression, stubbornness, and power. It's red, a color associated with strength, violence, and wealth. Its length and width are boldly out of step with the fashions of the day. And its Scotch Tape trick is especially perplexing; experts wonder why he doesn't just wear a tie bar if he's so concerned about looking undone. Trump, a voracious viewer of TV news and articles and tweets about himself, must have seen the internet's mocking reaction to his tie-taping the first time people spotted it. But he clearly chose to keep using it anyway. The continuing habit points to a certain obsession with appearance . . . alongside a real carelessness about being caught being so obsessed with appearance. It speaks to both a deep vanity and a lack of self-awareness — a combination reinforced by some of his other bizarre personal grooming habits.
But while Trump's style may be lacking by both modern and well-established men's suiting standards, does it really matter whether a world leader has style at all? "It helps," Quinn mused. "But helps more if he or she is good at the role they are filling. Looking well turned out consistently with a touch of style always sends a message. Which is that attention is paid to the details. And the details matter." Certainly, that principle holds true both in politics and in fashion.