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Elon Musk Has Been Tweeting a Lot. What Can His Clothing Tell Us?

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The self-proclaimed fashion enthusiast doesn’t dress the part.

CEO of Tesla Motors Elon Musk speaks at the Tesla Giga Texas manufacturing Cyber Rodeo grand opening party on April 7...

CEO of Tesla Motors Elon Musk speaks at the Tesla Giga Texas manufacturing “Cyber Rodeo” grand opening party on April 7, 2022 in Austin, Texas. – Tesla welcomed throngs of electric car lovers to Texas on April 7 for a huge party inaugurating a “gigafactory” the size of 100 professional soccer fields. (Photo by SUZANNE CORDEIRO / AFP) (Photo by SUZANNE CORDEIRO/AFP via Getty Images)SUZANNE CORDEIRO/Getty Images

Of the many newsworthy things tech villain of the moment Elon Musk has said this year, the most surprising might have come at the Met Gala. “I love fashion,” Musk said to a group of red carpet-side journalists on the first Monday in May. Seeming to register a few raised eyebrows, Musk elaborated: “I do, actually,” he continued, increasingly earnest. “Sometimes it’s viewed as frivolous and maybe not that important, but I think beauty is very important, and style, and things that move the heart.”

If his audience was skeptical, it’s easy to see why. In the pantheon of Silicon Valley overlords, where imagemaking is taken as seriously as New Age-y health regimens, Musk seems to be uniquely averse to the persuasive powers of fashion and style—at least when it comes to his own outfits. At the World Cup final in Qatar on Sunday, where Musk watched the game in a VIP box alongside Jared Kushner (of the erstwhile “Slim Suit crowd”), the Twitter boss wore an olive green T-shirt and simple black jeans (with an oval belt buckle). What little attitude the outfit conveyed was carried by the buckle—perhaps an adopted habit from his new home state, Texas. (Musk is also occasionally pictured in a cowboy hat, and has said he is a fan of the “space cowboy” aesthetic.) But nothing could hide the fact that the man who spent $44 billion to become the center of attention looked unprepared for the moment, like he had thrown on the first thing he saw in his Doha penthouse suite.

Musk at the World Cup final.

Dan Mullan/Getty Images

Replying to the poll Musk posted this week asking if he should step down as head of Twitter, one user had a different suggestion: “Honestly You should hire a stylist just for the sake of elegance.”

There is a long tradition of rich and famous tech tech titans aligning themselves with the fashion world. Ever since Steve Jobs asked Issey Miyake to make him a subtle black turtleneck for everyday use, clothing has been a central part of techworld mythmaking. The iPhone progenitor’s daily uniform projected a monastic commitment to creativity, and an attention to high design cloaked in humility.

Similarly, Mark Zuckerberg’s gray T-shirts were designed to free his mind from non-Facebook-related decision making—or at least give that impression. (Because he’s a billionaire, they are made by Brunello Cucinelli, the cashmere-clothed humanist who dispenses clothing and philosophical musings from his Perugian hamlet to other world historically wealthy tech lords like Jeff Bezos and Marc Benioff.) Twitter founder Jack Dorsey, on the other hand, fashioned himself an anti-establishment crypto evangelist and free-spirited CEO with a closet full of droopy shorts and slim-fitting lamb-leather jackets by Rick Owens.

The power of such sartorial projection has been used to cover up malfeasance in Silicon Valley, too. Some critics have wondered whether biotech fraudster Elizabeth Holmes’s Jobsian uniform of black turtlenecks helped investors and the press buy her story. (She dropped the turtlenecks for suits as soon as she landed in court, in 2019.) Disgraced FTX founder Sam Bankman-Fried’s particularly frumpy get-up of T-shirts (decidedly not Brunello) and cargo shorts, too, surely helped sell the idea that he was a genius who didn’t need to wear the traditional finance uniform to revolutionize the financial system—and that he was the exact outsider to do it. (Bankman-Fried also wore a suit for his court appearance in the Bahamas this week.)

Musk, though, doesn’t seem quite so interested in all of that. Which wasn’t always the case. According to the designer and artist Emily Dawn Long, who styled the Tesla founder for personal appearances and the 2018 Met Gala, she and Musk re-worked his wardrobe around the style of ruggedly masculine icons. Men like young Harrison Ford, Paul Newman, and Ernest Shackleton, the hero of early-20th-century Antarctic expeditions who fancied chunky sweaters. During this period—when he was broadly thought of as a visionary rather than a reactionary—Musk actually dressed for his role. At a SXSW appearance in 2018, he wore a vintage leather pilot’s jacket and rugged engineer boots, looking at least reasonably convincingly like a guy with aspirations of intergalactic exploration as he described to the audience why mankind must colonize Mars.

You can still find dupes of that shearling-collar pilot’s jacket online; “Elon’s Jacket” was the kind of garment you could imagine Musk turning into a swaggering signature. Instead, his style went in the other direction. (He is thought to no longer work with a stylist. Musk could not be reached for comment.) In April, pictured in a video shot at a SpaceX facility, the wind billowed an enormous graphic T-shirt around the legs of Musk’s tapered black jeans. In July, he posted a photo with the Pope. The Pope looked like the Pope, and Musk looked like his tailor had quit halfway through hemming his trousers, which pooled awkwardly around his boots. For whatever it’s worth, Musk seems aware of the message his clothes are sending these days. “I think my clothes are too big for me,” he said in response to the SpaceX video. “My suit is tragic,” he acknowledged following his audience with his holiness.

One possible interpretation of these rare public displays of humility seems obvious: here’s a man whose mission rises far above petty concerns like clothing. Or maybe it’s simpler than that. Back in 2020, Musk tweeted that he was “selling almost all physical possessions,” including his houses. In an update in October, Musk tweeted that he no longer owned any houses and was “back to spare bedroom /couch surfing at friend’s houses in Silicon Valley.” After Bankman-Fried’s arrest, it was hard not to think we were witnessing the end of Silicon Valley’s fabled T-shirt-clad Einsteins. When it comes to Musk, it might not even be the case that the emperor isn’t wearing any clothes—he simply might not own any these days.

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