I’ve been looking through my ties lately, as part of a more general, quasi-Buddhist ‘do I really need these any longer?’ investigation. It’s a heterogeneous collection of the long and the short, the dark and the light, the sober and the ‘look at me’, the narrow and the absurdly wide.
Reviewing them set me thinking about numerous things, most of them trite enough, like my astonishing lack of past taste, and what Horace calls ‘fuga temporum’, the flight of time.
But what struck me was that many of the ties, including well-loved ones, had been lying around unused for some time. In other words it wasn’t ceasing to be a respectable and public citizen that had done for them, but another, stranger factor: that at some time in the last few years men have suddenly ceased to wear ties. Strange, because formal male dress appears to be a by-word for conservatism.
The long tie as we know it, trailing down the full length of the ample male breast and abdomen, has had a good run – over a century in total. All kinds of theory have been concocted about its origin:
- It’s a phallus symbol, and moreover with its pointed end it signposts the eye to the location of genitalia (but is a reminder really needed?)
- It protects the shirt from half-chewed food particles and staining liquids that stray from the wearer’s mouth (but isn’t the tie often more valuable that the shirt?)
- A tie hides shirt buttons from sight (but not very efficiently, and there are better ways of hiding them, or dispensing with them altogether).
But these theories are explanations to a non-existent question. Ties just don’t have a ‘point’, except in a literal sense (though I have a penchant for square-ended varieties). That’s not to say that they haven’t been used or misused, for example to encourage conformity among club members or in an office, or, conversely, to allow pale personalities to ‘express individuality’ by wearing primary colours or tortured patterns. But ties have no uses, and must be the craziest garments to have enjoyed a long life.
So why do I feel faintly sad about casting a final verdict on my ties? Mainly because many of them carry associations. Some were bought in distant countries, like the one with geometric blues, found in a shop in Seoul as I made my nervous way round a part of the city devoid of the Roman alphabet. Others I value for their makers, whom I picture as women (tie makers seem to be mainly female) of exquisite taste who spend their days poring over colour charts. Yet others have rarity value, like the Celtic shield tie designed by Mary Tinker of Carmarthen. Others again, after all these years and taking account for my uncertain taste, still appear to me as beautiful objects.
I know I’ll never need to wear most of them again, unless on very formal occasions. That’s because ties are disappearing fast. When I started work at the National Library fifteen years ago it would have been inconceivable to turn up in the morning without a tie. By the end of my time there I needed a tie only for the most formally public of events. The switch occurred quite quickly towards the end of the fifteen years. It’s probably now irreversible, and our successors will regard long tie wearing as a quaint and ridiculous custom – much as we marvel at the starched wing collars of the Edwardians.
Surely the end of the tie is a thing to be welcomed? The practical benefits – no more self-throttling and having to be careful with soup – are self-evident. (Some are less so: in 2007 government guidelines suggested that hospital doctors should cease wearing ties to help avoid spreading hospital-acquired infections.) And the social dividend, a recognition that even at work social and rank distinctions are no longer required, is surely clear enough too.
And yet a small part of me hesitates before throwing the ties on the pile to be taken to Tenovus. When I see our political masters, like the cloned triplets David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband, all displaying open, tieless necks, I begin to wonder whether a New Conformity is being imposed on us. It’s also been suggested that greater informality at work mirrors an insidious movement to abolish the beneficial boundary that’s traditionally existed between work and home, so that even more of our own domestic time is devoted to our employers’ enrichment. Will the next wave of youth rebellion, which is admittedly taking a long time to arrive, feature the return of the tie as a powerful sign of dissent?
Maybe I can keep the ties in the cupboard a bit longer?