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Wednesday, 20 October 2010

The Ties That Bind

Today I bought 5 ties, and I don’t know how I feel about that. I have vague but deep-rooted suspicion of ties: Few garments pong as pungently of human social politics. More than any other element of men’s apparel, the tie is a symbolic statement of professionalism, respect and, yes, social conformity.

This suspicion dates back to student days. Considering ourselves quietly radical and bohemian (as students are wont to do), we would note the worryingly Freudian unconscious symbolism of that noxious bit of cloth (we were psychology students, after all) – a knotted noose around your neck, a kind of dog-lead that your masters hold you by, tethering you to work, in the grip of authority, at the beck and call of society - it’s even called a tie, we would mutter darkly – and gaze upon each other with wild surmise. But, for all our clever anti-establishment musings, we all knew, really, that we too would don one without hesitation at the first whiff of a job interview. Yeah, we’d say then, with a dismissive pragmatism, it’s just clothes isn’t it? Doesn’t really matter. At least it’s a step up from the servile, style-crime horrors of the full-blown, identity-stripping supermarket uniform.

I haven’t worn a tie to work for 6 years, and have only ever had two jobs requiring me to do so, both of which were short lived (temporary positions, I should stress – I didn’t get sacked for tie-protest or anything). Most of my working life I have not had to wear one, a state of affairs I’ve been more than happy with. One can scrub up reasonably smart without, thanks, if one wants to feel well-groomed and professionally stylish. I had consigned the accessory to “special occasion only” status, a piece of archaic formal dress-up kit that really doesn’t need to make an appearance outside of funerals, job interviews and black-tie functions. I viewed my tiny selection like the Queen’s Royal Carriages – things to wheel out once in a blue moon for a bit of glittery pomp and pageantry, but frankly a bit showy. I mean really, who needs that faff when getting dressed, on a daily basis?

I don’t want to be the hoon who states the obvious, but I will anyway: A tie is, aside from “style”, functionally pointless – it may have evolved from a useful garment but it is useful no more. It’s like the human appendix, but with a snazzy pattern on it. No one’s shirt is going to fall open embarrassingly without it. No one thinks “oh, it’s a bit cold out, I’d better grab a tie”. No one thinks “hmm, this collar just isn’t comfortable... I know, I’ll put on a tie with it, that’ll feel better”. A tie’s function is all psychological – it is all about the image it projects, and the effect that has on the viewer, as well as the wearer. As fashion it can make all kinds of statements (not always favourable), but the most common are, of course, respectability and power. This latter element is what we failed to recognise as right-on student beatnik wannabes – we were concerned with the lot of the lowly office drone, oppressed by his shirt-and-tie uniform. We did not consider the tie as a symbol of dominance, power, seriousness and success – the politician, the executive, the banker, the academic, the chairman of the board. This is not tie-as-dog-lead, this is tie-as-diamond-studded-man-jewellry. Like uniform a tie can be a social symbol of either authority or servility – but unlike a uniform it doesn’t necessarily tell you explicitly which it is. You need extra cues and context to tell that – is it part of a well groomed package, or a token effort? Is it worn with an expensive suit or a cheap nylon shirt? How does the wearer talk and hold themselves? Ultimately it’s a conformity thing rather than an obedience thing – whatever the person’s power or lack of, they are playing the game – when faced with a tie you are faced with (at least a veneer of) establishment.

Whatever, my coolness of feeling towards ties is more than just a hangover from idealistic youth; today, more serious than this, is the simple matter of preferences... I’ve never particularly liked the look, never found the style alluring, particularly on myself, and never felt very comfortable with any clothing that restricts at the neck. And if you think this is a result of my early ideological objections, it’s not, necessarily – I feel exactly the same way about polo-neck sweaters (despite their beatnik associations). Or even T-shirts with small neck-holes. I am strictly an open-necked clothing motherf***er. It’s a style and taste thing, like my equally arbitrary preference for earth tones and dark hues. I don’t know where these things come from, except that they haven’t ever changed as far as I can remember, back into earliest childhood.

You understand though: The philosopher Wittgenstein never wore a tie, and this is a big deal: “He did not dine with the faculty, as the faculty in all its grandeur always dines in academic gowns, black shoes, and neck tie. Wittgenstein was forever tieless and wore a suede jacket that opened and closed with that marvelous invention: the zipper; and his shoes were brown.” (that’s from here). As far as “no-bullshit” heroes go, Wittgenstein is a humdinger, one of the few philosophers for me who consistently cuts through the nonsense and clearly and forcefully brings out the subtleties of how stuff really works, with a genius originality and attention to detail. And that guy didn’t wear a tie. His photos look surprisingly modern because of this – before I knew much about him I always presumed he was active in the ‘50s, ‘60s, or even ‘70s, because of this – but he died in 1951.

I know that argument is a fallacy – Wittgenstein’s genius and his failure to tie a half-Windsor in the morning are not necessarily related. On a similar but contrary note, you could say “but he was a successful Cambridge-educated genius, so he could get away with it.” Did I hear you say that? Tut. Shocking. That’s the same argument as “Jesus could work on a Sunday because he was Jesus” – as if he should have special treatment because he was special - it’s circular logic and completely misses the point that he was making a point with his behaviour.

Let’s put it another way – to paraphrase Socrates (kind of... well, not really, actually): Did Wittgenstein not have to wear a tie because he was a genius, or was he a genius because didn’t wear a tie? Um. Well, ok, I’m not overly sure that one’s formal-wear habits fall within the Venn-diagram of genius (unless you’re in the business of being a fashion Deity), but one can’t help but hmm on whether the two things were related. Wittgenstein’s “no” to the neck-rag was not down to a militantly anti-establishment stance, or hipster politics; neither was it an affectation of cool, liberal, touchy-feely casualness, in the style of Tony Blair or David Cameron (the guy’s demeanour was pretty intense and severe). Much more likely, it was simply down to the fact that he was a relentlessly idiosyncratic man and absolutely stubborn in doing things his own way (as well as being continental – he was Viennese – and you know what those over-familiar continental types are like, eh? Eh?) He was also devoted to clawing away at the crusty structures of accumulated traditional-thinking bullshit, quite the modern thinker – he had no time for the endless study of, and deferment to, history. In short, the “I’ll pass on the ties, thanks” was a curious supplementary effect of the very same personality and outlook that made him such an original thinker.

If Wittgenstein demurred on the neck-apparel, that’s a good enough example for me to follow suit. Not out of idol worship so much as sympathy. His example, to me, is telling. In Wittgenstein’s day, for a Cambridge academic not to wear a tie was extremely unusual, and doubtless controversial. Not so these days – as a teacher one may be a respectable figure, but is on the lower end of the scale of professional vocations (as opposed to, say, a doctor or a solicitor) and only around the fringes of academia; so a tie for me, then, was very much optional rather than a necessity – very much a style choice. But, once again entering the private sector workplace, it is not – it is a specified requirement. I’m going to have to bow to convention and get used to it – but, strangely, “style” may be the sugar coating to that bitter pill.

Or, more precisely, vanity. “I’m sure I can pick out some pretty cool ties.” I thought, as I sauntered into the men’s section to buy the things. “I’m sure I can rock ‘tie-wearer’s chic’ as well as the best of them.” How would I know what was up to date? Well, who knows? Go for what’ll go with your shirts and rely on the store not to sell hideously dated-looking items, I guess. If in doubt, go for classic style, classic style doesn’t date. Trust your instincts, Luke, use the force. The horror. I used to be as anti-fashion as I was anti-ties, and here I was vainly fussing over tie-trends. What happens, you see, is that you realise, as you get older, that you can actually look quite suave and dapper (in a low-key, endearingly rumpled way, you understand) in this get-up. It doesn’t look stiff, awkward or pretentious on you like it might have when you were 21. It looks ok. Hot damn it, let’s not hold back – it looks SEXY!!! Yes, sexy. Well maybe not sexy – I’ve still to be convinced that ties are quite that. But everyone likes to look good, no matter how no-nonsense and down-to-earth they think they are – if you can feel comfortable in it and make it work for you, then, hell, wear it.

My fashion aversion hadn’t deserted me altogether – I took one look at the skinny ties and instantly dismissed them with an unspoken “f*** off”. I feel cruel towards the actual garments for mentally projecting such outright prejudice towards them now; but there’s just something a little too self-consciously hip and affected about those pieces of apparel that I just can’t get over. However, I am pleased with my tie selection, have some quite alluring shirt combinations, and I’m actually looking forward to wearing them. At the same time I feel faintly like I may have betrayed my past and my principles... but I guess it’s just clothes isn’t it? Doesn’t really matter. It’s not like I’m Stalin or Nick Clegg or anything. And you know that as soon as I discover situations where I can legitimately get away with not wearing them, I will revert to type and not bother – and in the meantime, I may be tied-up, but the top button is resolutely undone. I’m a strictly open-necked clothing motherf***er, you understand.


  1. I'm not sure I've even seen Stalin in a tie though he did rock a neckerchief in his Georgian bandito days.

    Given up on ties. I can't do them right any more. Lumpy, lopsided and wrong. A lost skill from my schooldays, like tracking down porn in the woods and handwriting. Now it's suit, blue shirt every day. Still need the uniform.

    I do like the buttoned all the way up look, like David lynch or, indeed, stalin. But it's a bold sartorial statement I know I couldn't pull off. On the other hand it's all about bow ties these days, so who knows?

  2. I think your analysis misses an important point - people with skills simply fuck the tie off altogether. IT people simply don't ever bother with it. Most doctors these days don't (infection control might have influenced that). Architects, designers, Mac users. They are all comfortable in saying "piss off tie".

    The remainder who insist on these things tend to be managers and consultants who don't actually have any concrete useful skills so instead wield the tie like a whip to spread fear in underlings.

    I despise ties because, as you say, they are simply pointless. I prefer functional clothing. But functional is not, sadly, as appealing as pointless - another point you make fairly.

    Commiserations on the ties, in preparation for those moments of late night regret that you sold out to the man.

  3. Fair point Dan, as a code monkey myself I can attest to the fact that my daily dress code is jeans and a T-shirt. It's not like that for all IT workers though - dress-down Friday at a bank is loosening the tie slightly. Not polishing your shoes.

    Dumb as it may sound, the suit and tie is one of the main reasons I'd never actually work for a bank even though I write trading software that banks generally use.

    I once went for an interview at Lehman Brothers, before their timely demise, and saw row upon row of coders, like suited drones, sitting at their immaculately clean desks hacking away in silence. The corporate hive mind. *shudder*

  4. I've never liked neckties for various of the reasons you list; happily I've not worn one to work for a few years now. I had to wear one recently for a function and while slightly exasperating, it wasn't as uncomfortable as I remember. It's more about the collar really; if you get a shirt with a loose collar you'll be alright. Good luck forging your way in the world.

  5. I feel the only thing not said here is the moment a tie truly becones sexy and wirthwhiles, and that's when you undo the top button and deftly loosen it. A gesture of freedom and a invaluable flirting aid (sudden exposure of neck, suggestion that what can be loosened can be removed and discarded.) Now, go ply the secretary with drinks and keep that tie handy, you'll need it to tie (heh) her hands to the bed when you miss the last train home and defiantly go about wrecking your marriage.

  6. A neck-tie and sensible side-parting combo are all you need to get on in life....