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The Emperor’s new tie

Leaders’ accessories speak volumes. This one won’t shut up  c latte 01 knot

Clothes send signals, and nowhere more than in the top job. So you’d expect them to be fitting – wouldn’t you?

National leaders can expect to be style-managed to the nth degree. Wardrobes are planned, meticulous combinations de rigueur and frivolous accessorising avoided.

Ever since ancient stelae depicted national leaders clothed and the poor and conquered naked, meaning has been woven into a leader’s dress1. Clothing carries a significance and impact far beyond the throne. A premier’s choice can sell out a product line, like Theresa May’s leopard prints, or diminish an entire industry – as American hat-makers found when JFK decided his hair wouldn’t be hidden from the public eye under a fedora.2

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at a Pride Parade, Toronto 2017Colourful chic – Justin Trudeau at a Pride Parade, Toronto 2017
Shawn Goldberg /
Most of all, leaders’ clothes speak for them, and articulately. Those statements will be devoured by the media, dissected by strategists and deciphered by a million would-be analysts on social media. They may be statements of resolution (a Speaker’s gold brooch set off by a black dress) or indifference (a $39 Zara coat for a visit to immigrant children). Either way, there is no margin for error.

From Garrison suits (Justin Trudeau) to multi-coloured chompas (Evo Morales) to nipples akimbo (Vladimir Putin), leadership couture spans a wide gamut. Over the years there have been countless highlights but while we may enjoy such moments, the expectation is that dress is fitting to the position of the wearer – and not, say, an orange hoodie.

UK Prime Minister Theresa May's shoesTheresa May’s lipstick flats
Alexandros Michailidis /
However, more characterful signature styles such as Castro’s uniform (and later his ‘papal’ tracksuits) can feed into what French sociologist Maurice Habwachs called ‘the collective memory’3 even defining an entire period or zeitgeist. Accessories too – like Churchill’s cigars.

The ‘First Wardrobe’

Nowhere, however, is an individual’s dress subject to such scrutiny as the office of the President of the United States. The official story goes that Obama’s collection of near-identical suits signalled time-saving, pragmatism and focus on the job. If true, his wardrobe is an interesting counterpoint to Trump’s, whose baggy Brionis are offset by his prize accessory – the ubiquitous red necktie dangling below the belt, a hue reminiscent of a macaque on the pull.

trump red tieBrioni neckwear: now in anaconda length
Evan El-Amin /
As sartorial embellishments go, this is signalling at its most raw and least sophisticated. Though Trump likes gold – a lot – red is probably next in succession. Colour psychology suggests that red signifies achievement, sex-appeal and, more notably, dominance. This is is not just Republican Red. It’s Domination Red, a bloody, visceral, emotive tone with a symbolism more usually associated with Mars, or Melisandre, the religious fanatic in Game of Thrones.

It was surprising then, when, on a trip to India in February 2020, the colour wheel spun and The Donald donned a not-so-usual necktie in bright yellow. This was apparently a nod to Indian cultural symbolism where yellow equates to abundance and gold, as in bling. (In chakra terms, yellow encompasses the realm of intellect – an appropriate energy for a stable genius). To the rest of us, yellow simply means happiness and positivity. Or, when it doesn’t, cowardice and deceit.

Perhaps this accessory, more than any other, summarises the reign of Emperor Trump. Because only one week later, the India trip was ancient media history as the first cases of Covid hit the American mainland. The national mood became more serious, more muted. At times like these it is not unreasonable that a leader might reflect that mood and inject a sense of gravitas, muting their colour choices, (which for male leaders tends to be limited to shirts and ties anyway), much as car manufacturers might temper palettes in a recession.

Covid Briefing, Whitehouse 03 March 2020The White House Covid briefing on 3 March 2020
But the yellow tie was not about to gently into that good night. It beamed out most notably last week on March 3rd when the Coronavirus Task Force gave a Whitehouse briefing. A serried row of staff who had opted for muted blues and greys was centre-parted by the president’s new happiness and positivity accessory, a groovy shade of Pantone 106 – giving POTUS all the gravitas of Ronald McDonald working the floor at a Masonic supper.

Call my imagination limited, but it’s a stretch to assume the average pandemic is normally associated with a canary shade which semiotically broadcasts ‘no worries’, when all the numbers, be they medical or financial, are screaming the opposite.

Clothing sends signals, and, when many lives are at stake, signals which obfuscate reality are nothing short of deplorable. At such a time a leader should be projecting a sense of balance and control. At that briefing, Trump’s tie spoke for him. Yet it seemed as out of place in the room, and its role, as the wearer.


Top: President Trump is greeted by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, on his arrival in Ahmedabad, India, Feb. 24, 2020   Ron Harvey | Everett Collection Inc / Alamy Stock Photo

1 The Palette of Narmer c3100 BCE features the pharaoh clothed and crowned, about to strike down a vanquished captive who kneels beneath him. A servant (who carries Narmer’s shoes) is partially clothed.

2 Story attributed to GQ editor Jack Haber.

3 Maurice Halbwachs ‘La Mémoire collective’, (1950). One aspect of this can refer to a shared body of knowledge such as the memory of a nation’s past leaders.