In midlife and beyond, we know that appearance isn’t everything. Why, then, is President Trump so obsessed with his image? Considering the experience and background most midlifers and beyond bring to their work, it seems as though competence, judgment, and wisdom should count for more than the outward trappings of what people wear. However, this message hasn’t quite reached President Trump, who remains as preoccupied as ever with maintaining a certain “look.”
As much as the media have addressed President Donald J. Trump’s hair combover, there’s been relatively little attention paid to his extravagantly long neckties. A few analyses of the “how” exist, but very little about the “why.” Since he obviously considers the length of his tie to be an important part of the Trump look, let’s see what psychology can contribute.
From a Freudian point of view, there’s a clear link between the tie (and its length) and the male anatomy. As a phallic symbol, an abnormally longer tie would therefore signify a man’s desire to present an unusually macho image of himself. The bowtie, in contrast, would signify the wearer’s desire to appear youthful. Bow ties are, after all, what little boys often wear the first time they’re put into dressier outfits.
There is essentially no research to bear out the validity of any of these interpretations of the potential unconscious messages that men try to send in their choice of neckwear. The only reference I could find in the literature on the unconscious meaning of a tie was a report from British psychoanalyst Brett Kahr, who discussed the meaning of a particular tie worn by one of his middle-aged clients in couples therapy with his wife (Kahr, 2011). The client wore the same tie week after week, an unusual one adorned with a large picture of a butterfly. The therapist offered this interpretation to the couple: “I wonder whether, in part, the tie might be emblematic of the very dead, stuck part of each of you, and of your marriage, in fact, the part that is reluctant to change or try anything new—the part that feels depressed. But judging by the great color and the bright butterfly pattern on Mr. Z.’s tie, perhaps it conveys some sense of hope that something bright, something non-depressed might still emerge (p. 367).” Further, by wearing the same tie week after week, perhaps the client was seeking consistency, having moved a great deal during his childhood. Kahr believed this case to illustrate the fact that “a gentle, tentative observation about an item of clothing, conveyed in a benign tone of voice, can yield great dividends for the enrichment of the psychological work” (pp. 368-369).
You may not be able to pull off the “gentle, tentative observation” with the people you know when commenting on their clothing, so best not to try this at home. Trump’s cabinet and advisors have obviously stayed away from offering their interpretations to him. However, the vignette illustrates the idea that we do communicate messages about ourselves with our choice of clothing. In keeping with the more contemporary, relationship-oriented brand of psychodynamic therapy, Kahr’s approach focuses not on the potential sexual significance of the tie, but on what it communicates about the client’s emotional life more generally.
Research specifically on choice of neckwear in men and women offers some additional possibilities. In one study of flight attendants conducted by University of California Davis psychologists Carrie Leigh Haise and Margaret Rucker (2003), the wearing of a necktie (or a version of a necktie) by female flight attendants conveyed the image of being competent but also not very pleasant. The authors concluded that the wearing of neckties would help flight attendants help to control their unruly passengers because of the authority this piece of clothing confers to them. For police officers, both male and female, no effects of wearing a tie or not on ratings of competence or professionalism were noted in a comparison by University of Toledo’s Richard Johnson and Shawne Anderson (2015). Both of these studies involved studying neckties as part of a uniform. If a woman decides to wear a necktie to appear more masculine, University of Minnesota’s Kim Johnson and colleagues (1994) noted over 20 years ago that she will be rated as less “promotable” by wearing a tie compared to a scarf (all you midlife ladies, go find those scarves sitting in your dresser drawers!).
Let’s turn next to body image, as the wearing of a necktie (or a scarf) can perhaps signify how a person feels about his or her body. University of the West of England’s Hannah Frith and Kate Gleeson (2004) conducted a qualitative study of male body image and clothing. They concluded that “men are aware of and concerned about how their body will appear to others, and they strategically use clothing to alter and manipulate their appearance” (p. 46). The necktie, in this context, would be one such way to draw attention to, or away from, the center of their bodies.
This analysis leaves us with two possible reasons for Trump’s ties. He strategically alters the way he ties them so that they appear extra-long in an attempt either to draw attention to the lower part of his body, or to conceal the middle section of his body that is larger than he would like it to look. We do know that in midlife, the middle-aged bulge becomes a struggle that everyone has with aging and body image. Everyone has their own way of disguising theirs.
You choose then- Freudian, authoritative, or body image disguise? In any case, these extra-long ties are clearly important to President Trump, the oldest U.S. President ― and perhaps the flashiest dresser ― in recent history.
Frith, H., & Gleeson, K. (2004). Clothing and Embodiment: Men Managing Body Image and Appearance. Psychology of Men & Masculinity, 5(1), 40-48. doi:10.1037/1524-9188.8.131.52
Haise, C. L., & Rucker, M. (2003). The flight attendant uniform: Effects of selected variables on flight attendant image, uniform preference and employee satisfaction. Social Behavior and Personality, 31(6), 565-576. doi:10.2224/sbp.2003.31.6.565
Johnson, K. P., Crutsinger, C., & Workman, J. E. (1994). Can professional women appear too masculine? The case of the necktie. Clothing & Textiles Research Journal, 12(2), 27-31. doi:10.1177/0887302X9401200204
Johnson, R. R., Plecas, D., Anderson, S., & Dolan, H. (2015). No hat or tie required: Examining minor changes to the police uniform. Journal of Police and Criminal Psychology, 30(3), 158-165. doi:10.1007/s11896-014-9152-3
Kahr, B. (2011). Baseball caps, overcoats, orange suits, and neckties: On patients and their clothing. American Imago, 68(2), 361-369. doi:10.1353/aim.2011.0023