On the necessity of ties

Posted: April 4, 2010 in fashion, menswear, ties, Uncategorized

We all know that fashions come and go, and then sometimes come again. I am not normally one to keep a close eye on whatever this season’s particular trends are – fashion week comes and goes without me noticing. Indeed, I suppose I am normally a fairly safe ‘jeans and shirt’ kind of guy. I wear a suit to work most of the time, but my sense of style isn’t usually heavily influenced by external sources.

But riding on the tube recently, having missed a copy of Metro in my rush to get the next train, and therefore without any form of distraction to alleviate the pain of my journey, I instead took to that great pass time of people watching.

As I glanced around the tube carriage, which was mostly occupied by morning rush-hour business types, something struck me. I was the only male in the entire carriage without a tie! A quick guess would say there was at least thirty guys in there, and all, bar one, had a tie on.

I was the one without. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t sloppily dressed. I was wearing a nice single breasted suit in charcoal, with matching slacks. A white business shirt with stylish cufflinks, and black brogues. But no tie. I wondered if other passengers were looking at me and thinking, hmmm, he doesn’t have a tie on – rebel! It got me thinking, why on earth do men need to wear ties? What is this ‘necessity of ties’ about? And why did the wearing of a tie become de rigueur for conforming contributors to society?

It turns out the wearing of ties has persisted for a very long time indeed, and has continued as many other fashions have come and gone. They first appeared in the modern world during the Thirty Years War (1618–1648), in which Croatian mercenaries fighting for the French wore knotted neckerchiefs, called Cravats. The French though these were quite cool, and very soon any man in Paris had to have one. Originally these were made of lace, and needed a lot of arranging. A bit too fiddly for me.

By the eighteenth century four variations had developed: Stocks, Solitaires, Neckcloths, and the enduring Cravat. Scarves and bandanas came into usage in the early nineteenth century, but it was the late Victorian period in which the neckwear we know and love (or despise) today came about. The industrial revolution led to a need for practical neckwear that could be worn all day comfortably without needing regular adjustment. And so the necktie, a descendant of the narrow stock, came about. Long, thin and easy to tie into a simple knot. Another popular alternative, the bowtie, had descended from the elaborate cravat. The wide flapped Ascot tie was commonly seen at formal occassions, but this was for the upper crusts only.

In 1926 a New York tie maker called Jesse Langsdorf  came up with a fancy way of cutting and sewing ties in three segments, and since that time, almost all neckties have been some variation of ‘the Langsdorf’.

The colour, width, shape and appearance have all varied over time, but by the mid-twentieth century, hand painted and colourful designs, or those with patterns have been usual. Ties with certain colours or stripes have come to represent schools, clubs, military or sporting organisations, and even businesses to show the wearer’s membership, or belonging.

The length of the tie has also varied. With a three-piece suit it is not the done thing for the tie to stick out of the bottom of the vest. Before World War II it was definately not cool to wear it lower than the belly button, but in a fit of post-war crazyness, ties became longer, and horribly, much wider. Reaching a ridiculous 5 inches wide, they soon began to feature outlandish designs of tropical islands, art deco architecture, chrome shining Cadillac front-ends, and even pin-up girls. Bet that went down well in the Mad Men offices of North America. By this stage they were usually at least 48 inches long.

The garish post-war tie soon wore thin, and was replaced by a more respectable 3 inch ‘Mister T’ variation (no, NOT BA Baraccus), which also came with thin lapels, thin hat bands, and thin collars. Although sometimes checked or striped, the crazy pictures were gone. In the 60s it got even slimmer, sometimes a perfectly squared 1 incher, usually in solid, dark colours.

But early 60s tie austerity wasn’t to last, and the hedonistic late sixties saw a return to the wide tie, sometimes 4 1/2 inches in  width, and often featuring pop art or hideous, garish paisley patterns and bold striking colours. Blurgh!

Ties, god forbid, were sometimes neglectfully left off in this period as well! The post-James Dean rebellion had set in. To combat this fashion rebellion, textiles manufacturers took the initiative and began marketing shirt and tie combos, with cleverly pre-arranged matching colours. A bargain! How can I resist wearing the tie if it already goes with the shirt I like!

As I mentioned before fashions come and go, and come again. And the 1980s saw the return of the narrow tie to combat the ridiculously wide ties of the seventies. Although not returning quite to the one incher, one and quarter did come in, and sometimes now in leather. Hot pink leather, black leather, electric blue leather. Wow. and worn inside the shirt, collars turned up and jacket sleaves rolled to the elbow. All we need is a hairspray spike or perm. Done.

The 1990s saw an attempt to go wide again which aborted, thankfully, before settling on an acceptable 3″ to 3¼” wide average. Unfortunately the garish patterns returned, as did the drawn decorations, including cartoon characters, and cult or pop icons. Un-noticed, ties had also extended to an unprecendented 57 inches, and for some men, it was possible to get away with the tie overlapping the belt and the top of the trousers, but not if any degree of beer belly was on show.

The 21st century saw a continuation of the safe three inch zone, with ties typically of 3½” to 3¾” wide. The Taz Devil’s and Bugs Bunnies disappeared and more staid stripes, checks, club ties etc. set in. A brief return to the narrow in 2008/09 has been countered by an attempt to revive the super-wider in 2010, but why tie at all?

The risk of entaglement or strangulation is a good reason not to, but the need for social conformity and the perceived social norms of good morals, work ethics, and a tow-the-party-line attitude, mean smart work fashion always includes a necktie. Or does it?

The rise of the IT industry has seen many corporations within that field allow employees to chose their own workwear, and most go sans-tie. Some workplaces also have casual-dress days, which usually means jeans and shirt, no tie.

At the end of the day, it is often seen as a symbol of submission, ie needing to dress uniformly to belong. So if you want to get ahead, it is pro-tie. If you want to follow your own path, you probably stretch the work fashion to tie-less. One thing is for certain, in this day an age, the wearing of a constrictive piece of material around your neck is seemingly still a matter of choice for millions of men. Just not me.


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