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President Trump in his favorite color of tie, red.
President Trump in his favorite color of tie.
Photo: Mandel Ngan/Getty Images

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The Long, Red History of the Power Tie

From ancient China to ‘Wall Street,’ the red tie has always symbolized aggression.

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When you look at Donald Trump, he’s usually trying to show off something red, thick, and dangling below the belt. I’m talking about his tiehis power tie, to be specific — the one he wore to his inauguration and which has become a staple of Trump caricatures. Power ties, like the former businessman Trump, rose to prominence in New York in the 1980s, and, as Trump’s calling card, have a historic and scientific significance beyond looking phallic. From French aristocracy to the presidency, the history of the power tie may as well be the history of power itself. It may also be tangled up with America’s fall from “greatness.” We’ll start in China in 210 BC.

Believe it or not, the oldest examples of red power ties are connected not only to maniacal leaders, but to walls, too. During the first dynasty of imperial China, Emperor Qin Shi Huang commissioned many absurdly large-scale projects, including an early version of the Great Wall of China and a large terra-cotta army comprising some 6,000 terra-cotta soldiers. These soldiers, assembled to guard his body in the afterlife, were painted with red, bandana-like neckties. While the emperor didn’t wear them himself, the luxury of dyed clothing on his warriors reflexively indicated his own extravagance. The paint of the ties has worn off by now, unlike the mad-with-power aesthetic associated with them.

Replicas of the terra-cotta army. Originally, all those little neckties were painted red.
Photo: VCG/Getty Images

The next example is from over 300 years later: Trajan’s Column, a victory monument for Roman Emperor Trajan. It’d be a stretch to call Trajan’s neckwear a tie — it’s more of a cloak — but his soldiers wear something resembling a kerchief around their necks. Whether they’re wearing it for utility or otherwise, these soldiers did belong to Rome’s largest military and expanded Rome to its greatest size. Rome’s military colors being red, it’s a good guess that the kerchiefs on this once-painted column were red as well. I’d put this neckwear firmly in the “red power tie” column — see what I did there?

It’s no coincidence that these ancient Romans and Chinese soldiers chose red. It’s science. So before we continue with more history, it’s worth noting the numerous studies on the link between red and competitive behavior. According to research compiled by Psychology Today, wearing red gives competitive edge. It makes you feel more dominant, and to your opponent, it makes you appear more dominant and threatening. Red has been linked to higher levels of testosterone, too. So if you’re someone who can’t get red in the face (maybe you get orange in the face), wearing red helps let people know your capacity for aggression. A red power tie is worn by someone calling attention to their power, much like a frigate bird trying to get it on.

...Or like a Croatian mercenary fighting in the Thirty Years War. These soldiers wore red pieces of cloth tied around their necks, and they must’ve been aggressive enough to get an audience: After meeting with them, France’s King Louis XIV adopted their neckwear. It became known as the cravat: a mispronunciation of France’s word for Croatia. While Croatia is very proud of this heritage (in 2003, it actually tied a gigantic red tie around the Roman amphitheater — it has to be seen to be believed), it was King Louis XIV himself, with all the might of a 17th-century French king, who made the style a power move.

A Croatian man celebrating World Cravat Day.
A Croatian man celebrating World Cravat Day.
Photo: NurPhoto/Getty Images

In classic “monkey see, monkey do” fashion, the cravat spread like wildfire and became a staple of the upper class.

It wasn’t just who wore it, but how. H. Le Blanc’s seminal 1829 work, Art of Tying the Cravat, describes the ties as a “letter of introduction.” According to Le Blanc, each nation had its own style. The American cravat “presents the appearance of a column, destined to support a Corinthian capital.” You can thus attribute any column-shaped tie to American style — and I think that most business ties fall into this category.

By the 1920s, America would cement itself as a power player in tie history thanks to New Yorker Jesse Langsdorf, a tie maker (that used to be a job) who used 45-degree angles and three-piece construction to create the tie we all spill mustard on.

And it really was all of us. Ties became a staple of almost every man’s daily wardrobe. This is arguably when America was last “great.” Okay, let me explain.

Manufacturing used to account for a larger portion of a company’s earnings, which was great, because that meant more jobs for unskilled laborers. Uneducated white male prosperity flourished, since you didn’t need to go to school — you could just start working. (Don’t get too nostalgic: Remember, this period is responsible for a large part of the ignorant sexism and racism we’re dealing with now.) In the background of all that, men wore hats and ties for everything, so the president wasn’t dressing much different from regular Joes. That probably lent its own kind of power to wearing ties. Every tie was a power tie (though, remember, the red ones are always more powerful). America enjoyed its time of reasonable economic prosperity (if you were white) and “greatness” (if you were white).

Michael Douglas as Gordon Gekko in Wall Street, in a tie that is admittedly somewhat more maroon than red.
Michael Douglas as Gordon Gekko in Wall Street, in a tie that is admittedly somewhat more maroon than red.
Photo: Sunset Boulevard/Getty Images

Then sources of power started to shift. American manufacturing hit its peak in the 1970s and started declining thereafter. Company income shifted from manufacturing to stock trading, and power, like, French king power, returned. It had a new home: Wall Street. With new power came the latest form of power fashion and its inevitable Hollywood icon: Gordon Gekko.

Gordon Gekko is the fictional tycoon at the center of Oliver Stone’s Wall Street. Originally intended as a tragic figure, Gekko has since become the folk hero of wannabe fat cats, and his fashion is a central part of his appeal. Wall Street demonstrated you could sharpen slime with bold colors, shining accessories, and high contrast. Gekko was the sartorial brainchild of seminal men’s fashion author Alan Flusser, who referred to Gekko’s look as “fuck you clothes.” Fuck you, I make money. Fuck you, I have power. Fuck you, I fuck you.

And that brings us to Trump, a product himself of 1980s American business style, complete with Gekko-like power ties. Thick. Seemingly expensive. Worn too low. Red.

President Trump before his inauguration, wearing his signature overlong red tie.
President Trump before his inauguration, wearing his signature overlong red tie.
Photo: Robyn Beck/Getty Images

More often than not, his ties are the same royal red as his trademark “Make America Great Again” hats. Attention-grabbing. Aggressive. Again, I’m talking about his ties. While you would think red simply aligns him with his Republican cohort, the red state/blue state idea is actually only as old as Bush versus Gore, and Trump’s love of red-tie power games is far older than that. For example, his board game uses the same image of Donald in a red tie for the box cover, the rulebook, and even his fake Trump bucks — the lowest denomination of which is 10 million dollars.

Obviously, this all serves to make Donald look powerful. There’s even something admirable about the fact that he may be wearing his own namesake brand (even though it’s kind of like wearing your own band’s T-shirt), but upon further investigation by this very website, his ties are, in fact, the product of globalization and underpaid workers. Also, they’re made in China.

As a president, Donald Trump will receive several presidential portraits; you can bet that in most, he’ll be painted wearing a white shirt, a blue suit, and his trademark solid red power tie. I’m sure it’ll look great. The question I have is: Who’s the Toby Keith of painting?

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