Why Is a Tie a Pain in the Neck?

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Why is it so many men regard putting on a tie as tantamount to stringing a noose around their neck? The query pops to my mind often, most recently when I picked up a copy of the September 23-29 Adweek.

Unknown-1Pictured on the cover were eight men and one woman fronting for a story headlined “Brand Genius.” It wasn’t the report promised inside that caught my eye but the way the eight men in the fold-out photograph were dressed. Of them, four wore neckties and four chose to be pictured in open-neck shirts. Furthermore, in the photograph of six more brand geniuses on the contents page, the three men were also tieless.

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We only have to be acquainted vaguely with Mad Men to understand that advertising geniuses from the era wouldn’t have been caught dead without a tie decorating their suit.

Okay, I’m writing as someone who likes ties, who believes that, among their attributes, ties add a splash of color, even if loosened. I’m writing as someone who reaches for a tie on weekends. I’m writing as someone who admired Fred Astaire for occasionally wearing a tie as a belt. I’m writing as someone amused at the lengths to which many men will go in order not to succumb to that obsolescing dress-code requirement-“Do I have to wear a tie?” you hear them whine when inviting them to dinner. I’m writing as someone who took a walk in midtown Manhattan at lunchtime today to see how men on their lunch hour were attired and spotted approximately two-thirds of the men minus ties whether they were in or out of suit jackets, and about a third flashing ties. Admittedly, this is anecdotal. Also admittedly, I couldn’t say which way the tie-wearing or not is trending, but you can figure out what I’d speculate.

What gives? I realize the current tie-bemoaning situation has been exacerbated by the advent a decade ago or more of casual Fridays. Casual Fridays, nothing! At many offices today, it’s casual Monday-Friday. Indeed, at many offices across the nation-Google, Facebook and the ilk-the atmosphere has been for some time so resolutely casual that catching a man in a tie is less likely to occur than roping a bison on the Great Plains.

Rifling around for statistics on tie sales, I located various numbers, but they tended to be in the same range. At peak sales in the 1970s, according to one 2011 study, 200 to 250 million ties were sold annually. Sales have dropped since then to about 50 million. Steep fall-off, wouldn’t you say? But other studies-who knows which to believe?-have recent sales drooping even more precipitously. A 2010 survey claims that tie sales in the 1990s hovered around $1 billion (or $1.3 billion in a different return). Now they’ve slid to $418 million-so much so that the Men’s Dress Furnishings Association (formerly the Neckwear Association of America) has shuttered due to membership shrinkage.

(Speaking of the 1970s, it’s a good thing Ralph Lauren, whose mother reportedly wanted him to become a rabbi, began his career then. Men shopping select stores like Bloomingdale’s at the time-I was among them; so were women shopping for men-recall that today’s billionaire designer started with a line of wide ties. Were Lauren arriving today, he probably would never get to the point where he’d be able to lay out the supposed $40 million for the 1936 Bugatti he can park outside his Boulevard Saint Germain store.)

‘A course, there are glimmers that ties are making a bit of a comeback-often slim ties. In a 2007 article under the headline “After Years of Being Out, the Necktie Is In,” New York Times fashion journalist David Colman heralded the species-threatened apparel resuscitation. He quoted Marshal Cohen, chief retail analyst at the NPD Group, the consumer market research firm, as saying, “There’s no question that there has been a dramatic increase among younger guys, who are age 18 to 24, expressing themselves by dressing up?”

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(To play video games in, a cynic wonders? A cynic also wonders whether, even if ties remain popular gift items that wives and children can turn to, the purchased ties ever get usage and aren’t the pristine items filling local charity shop bins.)

But if ties are legitimately becoming even mildly trendy, it’s possible that Ryan Seacrest, who dons a narrow tie to descend his staircase on every American Idol episode, has had an effect. On Blue Bloods, Tom Selleck may be doing good for the wider regimental tie, since he has a red-and-blue one on in every scene when he’s in the police commissioner’s office.

Duke of Windsor
The Duke of Windsor

But, hey, I’m also writing as someone aware that whatever the waxing and waning of the necktie might be, it has to be seen in the context of broader history. Fashions change, styles evolve. Cavemen-absent Fred Flintstone-didn’t wear ties. Julius Caesar wore no tie, and neither did any of his assassins. Jesus owned no ties, nor did his disciples.

Indeed, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word “cravat” doesn’t appear until the early 18th century. The word “necktie” shows up in the OED in 1838. The tie as we know it today became commonplace in the 1920. That’s when the process of cutting fabric on the bias was developed. The “four-in-hand” knot refers to how 19th-century drivers of four-in-hand carriages accessorized themselves. And then there’s the 20th-century Windsor knot, favored by Edward VII and popularized by the Duke of Windsor (formerly Edward VIII), and the half-Windsor. Myself, I’m for the old four-in-hand knot, although I’m getting to like the Windsor knot with wide-spread collars-seen on the streets more in London than the states, of course.

All of this is without getting around to the bowtie. There are those who say they’re making a comeback, too. Maybe so. One of the men’s stores in my neighborhood specializing in casual clothes-not the Nasty Pig outlet-recently put a bowtie on a manikin. It looks like an already tied version, which is cheating to me, but still. As for myself again, I won’t cheat and favor Charvet selections-or would, if I had the fortune to spend on them.

Unknown-2But blab on as I might in favor of the necktie, I’m fully cognizant that its days are numbered. I accept that maybe sooner, maybe later my complaining about its disappearance is futile. Furthermore, I know I’m no different from someone who in the early 18th century might have nattered on about the unfortunate dismissal of the ruff or the lace collar. It’s a pointless mission.

I get it that my tie collection, which numbers approximately 400 (many of them purchased at my local Goodwill for $.99 rising to $1.99), is an incipient relic. Unable to accommodate my neckwear holdings in a closet, I’ve dangled them next to the closet on two wooden hangers, one above the other. They resemble a curious art installation. Were they still there maybe 100 years from now, maybe 200 years but approaching, the most they would be is an art installation.