New York/Washington: They say the suit makes the man. In President Donald Trump’s case, it may be the suit that makes the president.

A big takeaway from his first address to Congress on Tuesday was how presidential the New York real estate magnate came across. While much of that had to do with the more hopeful tone of his speech, as compared with the foreboding tenor of his campaign and first month in office, optics were also a factor.

Trump, 70, opted for a more on-trend navy striped tie, rather than his signature broad, red one that he wore at his inauguration and in several high profile events since. Standing in front of Congress last night, the Republican kept his suit jacket buttoned (it’s often open), giving a cleaner, more tailored look. Even his hair seemed less brassy, one White House historian noted. Given all of these subtle modifications, on this night, Trump drew a rare bit of sartorial praise.

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“For the outsized personality, reality-show persona of Donald Trump, he toned all that down," said Barbara Perry, a presidential historian at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center of Public Affairs. The importance of his look, gestures, and delivery is “not to be minimized," she said, because throughout the campaign and the transition, the public wondered when—and if—he would ever become more presidential.

“The president looked and sounded like the leader he is," said White House spokeswoman Hope Hicks, who declined further comment on Trump’s wardrobe, or whether this sleeker version is the beginning of a new phase.

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For presidents, looking the part can be an irritating battle. Former president Barack Obama’s closet selection was roundly panned on the few occasions he wore a tan suit, generally in warmer months. One outraged Republican congressman from New York, Peter King, went so far as to call him out, deriding the choice for a “lack of seriousness."

Trump too has drawn criticism for dressing sloppy, and for looking unkempt. The Washington Post called him out for wearing giant, boxy suits that don’t fit. Jezebel said that, while Trump buys suits from masterful tailors, he can “never quite pull them off." Business Insider declared the length of his neckties, which often break fashion code by hanging far below the belt, a “tragic mistake."

Has a new era begun, or was trimmer Trump a one-time thing? Here’s a breakdown of his makeover, as seen last night.

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Standing in front of Congress last night, Donald Trump kept his suit jacket buttoned, giving a cleaner, more tailored look. Photo: Reuters
Standing in front of Congress last night, Donald Trump kept his suit jacket buttoned, giving a cleaner, more tailored look. Photo: Reuters

The ensemble

The suit Trump wore was a dark navy, one of the most formal colours out there, and a better fit than usual. With the navy tie, the combination exuded seriousness.

The suit jacket

He also ditched the overlong, flowing jacket for a more modern silhouette that gave him appropriate proportions, said Joseph Abboud, the fashion designer and chief creative director of Men’s Wearhouse. (Abboud once dressed Obama when he ran suitmaker Hart Schaffner Marx.)

The button

Then there’s the button. Trump has rarely buttoned his suit jacket in the past, a decision that from a sartorial standpoint implies a casual atmosphere, or that you’re about to sit down. But this time he did it up while speaking before the nation’s lawmakers—as one does.

The tie

As for the tie, Trump has stuck with that shiny, fire-engine red number for years. He stuck with solid red ties at his most important speeches–his inauguration, before the Conservative Political Action Conference, during his first press conference as president, and at some of his biggest rallies. But Abboud said that chunky red tie “feels passé," a relic of swaggering Manhattan money men from the 1980s. “I’m glad he wasn’t wearing that," he said.

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Last night’s tie projected more formality than usual, but it wasn’t the first time Trump’s worn one like it. He donned one when addressing the Central Intelligence Agency and while announcing Neil Gorsuch as his pick from the US supreme court.

John Ballay, chief executive of custom menswear service Knot Standard, whose suits were worn by Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump for the inauguration, said the elder Trump had a “superior look" this time. The sleeve lengths on his jacket and shirt were balanced and he showed the right amount of cuff, Ballay said.

“This was a step in the right direction in terms of appearance," for Trump, said Abboud. “We want our presidents to be presidential, but also look presidential. I think he looked more presidential last night than we’ve seen in the last 18 months." —With assistance from Toluse Olorunnipa in Washington and Lindsey Rupp in New York. Bloomberg