The Necktie: Fashion Statement, Phallic Symbol or Noose?

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I was in my old haunt Barnes & Noble the other day, looking for a particular title. My bookselling skills have atrophied since I worked in the business almost 15 years ago, so I asked at the information desk. I was greeted by a young man with side burns wearing a striped, button-downed shirt. He looked up the book in question, walked me over to the section, put the book in my hand, asked me if there was anything else I needed. When I said no, he told me to have a good day. In terms of service, he was polite, knowledgeable, and did all the things that I used to train booksellers to do back in the dark ages before Kindles and Nooks.

But something was missing. It took me a moment to realize what it was. The young man wasn’t wearing a tie.

When I worked for B&N, ties were required for men working on the sales floor. I don’t know when the policy changed. Most likely it was years ago, but me being the ultra-conscious fashionisto who’s lucky to have his shoes match his belt, I didn’t realize it until now.

I’m glad for the change. Working in a bookstore involves lugging large quantities of books around, shelving, bending, reaching, even cleaning the bathroom (yes, it was a glamorous life – straight out of the movie You’ve Got Mail). They’d end up getting frayed and worn, and we often ended up tucking them into our shirts to get them out of the way. Ties can also be expensive and usually require dry cleaning – not the kind of expenses you want to incur if you’re living on what a bookseller earns.

I was once told that the modern neck tie derived from the Roman practice of wearing a phallic symbol around your neck as a sign of virility and to keep the evil eye at bay. In fact, some have derided the necktie for representing male domination (remember Gordon Gekko’s red power tie?). The head of a Hanover, Germany civil servant office even banned them because she felt that they were a symbol of men’s power over women. This is the same country where, on the last Thursday before lent, women are allowed to cut off men’s ties, symbolically removing their authority – and perhaps going back to the ancient Roman’s, metaphorically removing a bit more than that.

The modern necktie got its start in the 1700s, when the Croatian mercenaries fighting for Louis XIII of France would wear pieces of cloth around their neck. The King thought them so striking that he required they be worn at royal functions. The French word for tie, Cravate, comes from the French word for the Croatians who first wore them. While neckties may have changed with the times (Yes, I owned one of those super narrow string ties back in the ’80’s) the idea of wearing a piece of fabric around your neck has not.

The necktie has waned in recent years. According to a 2008 Gallup Poll, only six percent of men said they wore a tie to work every day. Recently, Target Corporation abandoned business attire for its corporate offices, neckties included, in favor of a policy it calls Dress for the Day, requiring ties only when the situation calls for it.

For the first 15 years of my working life, I wore a tie almost every day. This included days when I was collecting shopping carts, bailing cardboard or moving car batteries leaking acid. Now that I’m at my desk most of the day, I only wear neckties on workdays when I have important meetings or presentations. In fact, it happens so seldom, that when I do wear one, my coworkers think I have a job interview with another company.

A boss of mine once told me I was doing a great job, but should wear ties more often. He didn’t say why and I didn’t ask. Since a raise and a promotion were on the line, I nodded and said sure. After that, with a tie strangling me each day, I rose to the corporate ladder to become the CEO of a major corporation.

Not really, but this boss made it sound as if regularly wearing a necktie was all that was standing in the way of my success.

There is no evidence that neckties, or business attire in general, makes you a better worker. In 2003, a study came out that got a lot of attention because it claimed that a casual workplace, sans neckties, led to greater absenteeism and lower productivity. Striking, until you realized that the study was sponsored by the Men’s Apparel Alliance. I have been unable to find out who belongs to this Alliance. Most likely, it is businesses who profit from selling more clothes. However, I wouldn’t rule out some shadowy, Illuminati like cabal that secretly longs for world domination, with ties being the leashes used to keep us minions in line.

The necktie does have it’s place. I for one, have an admitted bias. If I am attending a funeral or wedding (please, no jokes about them being the same thing) I always wear a jacket and tie. I look down on those men I don’t think could tie a Windsor knot if their lives depended on it. This bias comes from my father, who, although a carpenter by trade, always wore a suit and tie to important functions and ceremonies. To me, this is about showing respect.

In the work environment, certain meetings require a tie. I wouldn’t stand up in front of a Board of Directors without a tasteful and conservative tie on, even if they all showed up in Hawaiian shirts. And if you’re a man interviewing with me for an office position, and you come in with an open collar, I’ll hand you your rejection letter as you’re walking out the door. Do I think the tie makes you a better worker? No. However, it is a little touch that tells me that you are serious about the job, and have enough common sense to know what type of attire is called for given the situation.

Ties can also be fun. The pediatrician wearing an Elmo tie. The music teacher with a tie that has a keyboard running down it. Santa Claus ties at Christmas. These novelty ties may not be in the best taste, but they can bring a little smile to the people you make contact with throughout the day, and say something about you as a person (other than that you may have questionable fashion sense).

The necktie’s ugly step brother, the bow tie, has also come into vogue in some circles, thanks in part to the last reincarnation of Doctor Who played by Matt Smith, and his tag line “Bow ties are cool.”

Note: Bow ties are not cool. Think less Doctor Who and more Les Nessman of WKRP in Cincinnati.

Most of the time, however, ties are just useless pieces of fabric. And for those who lament their demise, I ask, would that bookseller’s service been any better if he wore a tie? More to the point, the only people I regularly see wearing a tie are congressmen, and they’re only slightly less popular than cockroaches in their approval rating.

I guess I shouldn’t complain (though I’ve spent about 1000 word doing just that). As a guy, I’m lucky. I only have one piece of useless attire. Women have entire closets full.

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