To church on a morning last year before the first shutdown, I wore a tie, the once daily obligation for work that is now a rare treat in retirement. Among the 240 or so of our still rather conservative congregation in attendance, only 8 guys sported neckwear, including me and the young visiting pastor. All but 2 of the rest were older than me, so the future of the tie at our little church is in peril. The tie, which all us doctors used to wear as a symbol of seriousness, professionalism, and respect for our patients, has become a potentially dangerous piece of cloth collecting bacteria and spreading disease. So wearing a tie to clinic nowadays identifies the wearer not only as hopelessly old school but negligent of the risks he poses to others. No wonder they wanted to get rid of me.
But the attachment to the cravat is strong. Fumbling with the knot getting ready for a “serious” occasion even in the pre-teens cuts deep, and that feeling of getting ready for something special runs strong, well into adulthood. The interview, the big date, the prom, all punctuations until you actually have a job. Since I’ve always been a doctor, the expectation has always been there for something around the neck. Sometimes I slobbed by wearing flannel shirts and knit ties, but that four-in-hand still started every day if not a half or even full Windsor. The times in E.R. or ICU wearing scrubs were a respite, but now are pretty much the standard. The bland stale male has few chances to spring life into ones appearance, but a lively tie is one of them. “Molecular expressions”, showing the colorful microscopic appearances of chemical phenomena was one of them, as was the “Cocktail Collection”, with spills made art, and of course Jerry Garcia’s works. Kathy snuck in some space ties, and of course were the requisite U of M cravats. In the early 90s I crafted from a plant holder and some dowels a ties holder of which I remain immensely proud. Stuck against the wall of my closet, it holds 105 ties.
Into a shoe box I consigned most of my 34 knit ties. Scattered about are some bow ties – I was told years ago that a man wearing a bow tie is uncertain of his sexuality – and I never could master that knot. Events requiring tux and tie are always white knuckle challenges.
So whence goith this colorful collection of cloth? Men have tied cloth around their necks since 2nd century Roman legionnaires tied bands of cloth about their necks, likely a ward against the weather (1). Maybe even before them were Chinese warriors of Xi’an of 3rd century B.C. where terra-cotta statues showed them wearing neck scarves in the belief that they were protecting the source of their strength, their Adam’s apples. But most experts date the initial appearance of the modern precursor of the tie to 1636. Croatian mercenaries, hired in Paris by King Louis XIV, wore cloth bands around their necks to ward off natural elements, which in their line of work included sword slashes. Parisians translated the Croats scarf to a fashion accessory.
Fast forward to COVID America. Those who actually went to work rarely put on a tie. Haberdashers have reported a small surge of interest in ties as people felt the anticipation of going back to the office (2). Yet, ties still sell. Like them or not, neckties are the Father’s Day gift. Americans spend more than $1 billion each year to buy a staggering 100 million ties. That’s roughly one tie for every male over the age of 20 in the United States. If you’re wondering if that dusty hanger is stylish, here’s where we are in 2021. It’s simple: the width of your tie should be roughly as wide as the lapel on your jacket. Your classic notch lapel is typically around 3 3/8″ wide, and classic ties are in that ballpark. They tend to be anywhere between 3 1/4″ and 3 1/2″.
All this fuss suggests maybe men will be wearing ties after all. Demise of the necktie has been predicted before, in similar circumstances. As America struggled to recover from a global pandemic, a shattered economy, and record unemployment levels, headlines despaired: “neckties doomed.” (3) Men were “slashing their clothing bills” to retailers’ chagrin, the Associated Press reported. Those who continued to wear ties were downgrading from colorful, expensive silk to plain, cheap cotton. The year was 1921, and reports of the tie’s death were premature, to say the least.
As Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell in the Atlantic wrote “throughout its history, the tie has often stood in for its wearer’s personality” (3). As men blend into generic personhood, that urge to burst out with a display of individuality is always going to be there Perhaps that’s why predictions of its death are premature (4, 5). While I’ve blended into the generic retiree in sweats, I do not wish to surrender chance to be the peacock again. The ties stay, along with suits, tux and sport coats. Maybe none will be touched till they lay me away. But I want to go out with a nice tie. Kathy wants to make ‘em all into a quilt. Couldn’t strangle me anymore then. Smothered, more likely.
1. Matthews J. A twisted history of neckties. Washington Post. December 8, 1999. https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/1999/12/08/a-twisted-history-of-neckties/d59c6d2d-5d38-42cf-843e-27abcdc524d7/
2. Gallagher J. Will ties ever be relevant again? Wall Street Journal. June 5 2021. https://www.wsj.com/articles/will-ties-ever-be-relevant-again-11622645946
3. Chrisman-Cambell K. Neckties are the new bow ties. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2021/07/pandemic-will-change-course-necktie-history/619465/
4. Mitchell T. Let’s face it, the tie is dead. New York Post. July 16, 2016. https://nypost.com/2016/07/16/lets-face-it-the-tie-is-dead/
5. Backstrom A. The necktie might finally be dead. Philadelphia Magazine. July 15, 2019. https://www.phillymag.com/business/2019/07/15/is-the-necktie-dead/