Nothing about Donald Trump’s style has changed in more than 30 years. The dark suits, the preference for tomato-red ties, the tendency for those ties to hang far past his belt. The hair.
He has churned through two marriages, thousands of lawsuits and countless public policy switcheroos. But his style remains the same. One might be tempted to say his public style, because how a man lives his life away from the television cameras and still photographers is something known only to friends and family. But is there a private Trump? Does he exist beyond the lights and the microphones? For most of his adult life, he has lived in a quest for attention: on the social circuit, in the gossip columns, in prime time and now, on the campaign trail.
After he triumphed in the Republican primary contests, party elders expected him to pivot from his sharp-elbow style and transform into a more subdued and nuanced — more presidential — Trump. Instead, he has served the crowds more of the same. Trump style is stasis. Stubborn. Stuck.
When Trump the businessman entered the public consciousness in the 1980s, his signature look was etched for the ages. He emerged as a man who preferred a formal uniform: dark suit, French cuffs, power tie. Casual attire meant little more than doffing his jacket and loosening his tie. At best, he’d wear a golf shirt.
He parted his hair, which back then was a sandy brown, on the left and brushed it off his face. He didn’t go for the slicked-back gleam of Hollywood’s Gordon Gekko. Instead, he opted for the tousle-haired look of a young Skip or Biff. His jawline was chiseled. He didn’t exactly smile with regularity, but he looked less annoyed than he does now.
As the years passed, the fundamentals remained the same. He continued to wear suits that always looked a little too big. His ties were still too long. And the hair? By the late 1990s, it was blonder — moving toward golden. It looked like it required ever more maintenance to keep it just so: parted on the left, brushed back. By 2013, the locks appeared practically platinum. (Isn’t that what many women have traditionally done: Gotten blonder as they’ve gotten older?)
Time thundered along and his sharp edges blurred; the angles turned into curves. Today, Trump’s hair is a glowing scrim of carefully placed strands. What was once the style of a man in his virile prime has become the look of a man clinging to it.
Fashion — no matter if it is straight from the runway, a mass market outlet or a political rally — is a snapshot of society, a Polaroid of history, a selfie of one’s personal reality. A single image of Tom Wolfe’s “masters of the universe” — in their Armani suits, yellow power ties and fancy suspenders — offers a near-complete cultural autopsy of a certain class of men in the 1980s. It is an instantaneous tale about the accumulation of stuff, about bravado and swagger and a caste system with clear boundaries and rules. Bosses looked like bosses back then and there was no mistaking them for the guys who parked their cars.
Trump’s suits are expensive, but they don’t look high-class; they exude empathy for working-class Joes — who, polls say, are his strongest supporters.
Those suits tell a different tale of work life than the clothes worn by today’s tech moguls. Their jeans, T-shirts and hoodies define success as the power to defy rules, to claim the luxury of individuality. Indeed, some of the most expensive and venerated men’s luxury styles today are virtually indistinguishable from blue-collar uniforms, play clothes, Goodwill finds. The clout is in the ability to dress with a shrug.
Clothes tell us something about the times — and the passage of time — and how the wearer relates to both. And there is an ornery, nostalgic quality to the attire of the man who wants to “Make America Great Again.” He is a vision of power and success as defined by (well-done) steaks, gilded everything, exclusive clubs, Brioni suits. Only the size of the cellphone has shrunk.
People tend to freeze their style at a point when they feel they are at their best. Perhaps it was the look that marked the honeymoon phase of a marriage, the most dazzling time in their professional life or their year of athletic greatness.
Trump is frozen in the 1980s, when people lived flashy, brash lives. Everything was big — the shoulder pads, the egos, the hair. Wealth wasn’t flowing from bold ideas but from Wall Street gambling, real estate bets and paper pushing. Trump is now what he was then. But what might have been great in the past looks hopelessly out of fashion today.