Instead of using something normal like a tie clip, US president Donald Trump tapes his ties together. Photographers first spotted his tie-taping on December 1 when he was still president-elect. At his inauguration in January, he taped his tie together again. And then on a visit to Orlando last month, the translucent gleam of scotch tape—two pieces this time—was clearly visible holding the tail of his tie to its blade. Once could be a moment of panic, twice might be coincidence. But three times? That’s a habit.
The tape, one suspects, is consistent—the rarity is a breeze stiff enough to show it. It delivers ripples of schadenfreude through Trump’s detractors, producing the kind of fashion-fail headlines one would normally associate with red-carpet commentary.
There’s something tawdry about this little sartorial revelation, intimate and tinged with shame. “Held together with sticky tape” and “President of the United States of America” are not phrases any taxpayer wants near each other. Whether it’s democracy, new infrastructure projects, or the rationale for bombing Syria, one would hope the leader of the free world could spring for something at least as strong as duct tape to keep things together. It’s not like there’s none around the White House.
This cheap, strange styling quirk fits into a broader narrative of Trump as a “fake” billionaire: Not just because he won’t release his tax records, but because he lacks the signifiers we typically associate with the ruling class. Much to the disgust of food writers, he eats his very expensive steaks well done—and with ketchup. He loves junk food. He paints everything gold. His wife once posed topless in his private jet. (Though, to be fair, the latter is maybe what we expect of Fortune 500 CEOs and world leaders these days.)
As economist Thorstein Veblen theorized in 1899, all social classes strive to emulate the conspicuous consumption of the elite. We all want to look and act richer than we are, so we don’t mind a bit of showboating from our president. He suggested that our cultural hierarchy prioritizes “exploitation” over “industry,” which means we valorize those who make and spend the most money, rather than those who work the hardest. This theory explains why so many American voters respond so positively to Trump’s business credentials, tainted as they are.
But conspicuous consumption comes in many forms, and as John Mulaney pointed out, Trump’s taste is like “a hobo’s idea of a rich person.” To understand why this is so bothersome to some and attractive to others, we should turn to another sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu, who wrote about “habitus”—the unspoken acclimatization to a certain way of living that reflects the way we were raised. Habitus helps us understand why Trump’s particular form of flash is so galling to some and appealing to others.
The taste for “fine” foods, “high” art, and “stylish” clothes are a form of self-regulating practice we are taught from a very young age. We recognize embedded class codes regardless of our own social economic status and find it very hard to hide our upbringing when around a different social class. Trump does not have the more subtle old-money taste of a Manhattanite who loves the arts and wears really beautiful suits, such as a Vanderbilt. Instead, despite his wealthy upbringing, Trump’s taste has more in common with the white working-class people who benefitted from the racial segregation imposed by his father’s housing complexes.
Fundamentally bourgeois publications like Gentleman’s Quarterly exist to teach the middle classes how to mimic the elite, so they’re aghast that Trump doesn’t exhibit the “right” signifiers for their class; they can’t forgive the fact he’s using craft supplies to adapt his $6,000 suits. But to a different subset of the population—specifically the white working class his money first came from—this lack of ruling-class habitus is exactly why Trump, a very wealthy man, can so successfully claim to be anti-elite and read authentically as he does. As for how the actual elite perceive his poor imitation of their class, Trump’s politics serve him so well that many forgive his bad manners.
But the reason why Trump’s taped ties unnerve us goes beyond bad middle-class optics: It raises questions of logistics. Specifically, Why? Why on earth would he do that?
Surely someone should have said something. How could anyone have let the bastion of Western democracy on to the most visible stage in the world dressed so haphazardly? It could be that Trump is so resistant to the suggestions of others that once Macy’s and Amazon ran out of the tie clips that bare his name, he simply refused to wear someone else’s. In this account, the tape is a symbol for Trump’s oft-cited narcissism: He refuses to use anyone else’s solution but his own.
Maybe it’s just practical. GQ’s theory is that Trump is so tall and wears his ties so long that the skinny bit (tail) won’t fit through the tab (keeper loop) at the back of the wide bit (shell). This was true in December, but at the inauguration and in Orlando, his tail was tucked and taped.
Or maybe his taped ties are actually a sign of isolation, of a lost soul who really needs some help getting dressed in the morning. With Melania living several hundred miles away, there’s no one to smooth his sleeves or tell him to rebrush his hair, no one to whisper softly spoken sartorial suggestions in his ear. This paints a portrait of the Trump as an old man watching Fox News alone in his bathrobe—which he most certainly does wear—slowly chewing through packets of Lay’s potato chips in the White House’s upstairs residence.
To get the full picture, we need to get technical. Disembarking Air Force One in March 2017 and stepping off a plane with vice-president-elect Mike Pence in December 2016, Trump’s tie was held together with scotch tape. You can tell it was scotch tape from the way it throws the light: Scotch tape is translucent, but not completely transparent, is relatively stiff, and has a plastic sheen.
On inauguration day in January, however, Trump’s tie was not held down by scotch tape. This special tape had more transparency, was longer, thinner, and a little more matte. While it could simply be a different brand, it also looks a lot like what is called Hollywood or fashion tape: the sheer, double-sided adhesive strips women use to keep low-cut dresses in place. Based on her pre-first lady wardrobe choices, Melania would certainly have some on hand to lend her husband.
But the most likely explanation for tape-gate is that Trump learned to tape his ties on the set of The Apprentice, which he hosted for over a decade. Ask any stylist or prop-department employee and they’ll tell you that most of what you see on TV is held together with tape—literally. “I pretty much bleed Hollywood Tape,” says Emma Read, fashion director of Cosmopolitan Australia, who has worked as a stylist on reality show Australia’s Next Top Model.
From keeping collars still to stopping shoe straps from slipping, Hollywood Tape is a versatile product: It keeps things just-so for as long as the cameras are rolling. And unfortunately now for Trump, they never, ever stop.
Tape is a form of set witchcraft. Like great lighting and makeup, it can grant you total control and creates the illusion of perfection in the controlled environment of a TV studio. But as we’ve seen, when the wind is high, it doesn’t hold up to the rigors of the real world.