I’ll be frank, I didn’t know whether to be flattered or alarmed when a friend casually noted that I was wearing a tie while walking Asta on the beach. Not in a business suity sorta way with a white shirt and four in hand knot. More down-home with a sombre drab green casual tie loosely wrapped around an ancient corduroy shirt. Some weeks later our cleaner, observing me with secateurs and shears in the back garden, noted she had never before met anyone doing the gardening wearing a tie.
Despite having been around for the better part of 200 years ties and tie wearers continue to come in for a good deal of stick. More than cardigans and overcoats, snap-brim hats and suits, in the eyes of many ties represent work and or the establishment – the embodiment of uncool. And yet I recall waiting outside a nightclub in Victoria some time ago with a friend, whom David Bowie none the lesser once asked approval from for what he was wearing, when the doorman intoned “you can waste the tie.” I thought our other friend was going to clout him. Some years later I pulled out of a local west country society tired of fellow members forever reminding me that the wearing of a tie is not required, and is indeed even frowned upon. Where I come from fleeces and cargo pants are frowned upon. Some blokes even wear lairy patterned socks of that I don’t mind admitting I have a problem with but which I still get given at Christmases and birthdays. Others wear hoodies and jumpers with designer labels on them or ‘old guys rule’ t-shirts. And they complain when I wear tie! It’s not on.
OK, I’ll admit I wasn’t always so taken with them. Like the other boys in my year I couldn’t wait to get shot of mine the second I passed the school gates in the misguided belief that west London girls would find me irresistible in a two tone striped blue blazer, 17 inch turn up trousers and a hair shorter at the back and sides than the Peaky Blinders’. But hey look sister, no tie.
Looking back I think it was the hippies that changed my perception. If the prevailing style of the western world was going to be intentionally unkempt I was going the other way. While pals listened to Jethro Tull and dressed like Big Issue sellers I was spinning Gladys Knight and spending my Saturday job earnings on three piece suits and ties as wide as tea trays. My knotty predilection coming to chime with the prevailing fashion trend among urbanist-as some years later when New Wave and Punk embraced ties as a sort of piss take. A kind of ‘yeah, a tie, what of it?’ My girlfriend at the time found/bought/stole me a plastic one that was tricky to knot but kept the beer off my shirt.
Because I’m the sort of person who likes looking at myself there is a photograph in the kitchen (one of many of Kim and I ) of me in a jacket, shirt and polka dot blue and white tie lunching on a some baguette and camembert in La Tuileries. I’m guessing it was taken in 1977 when I was 24 years old. 43 years later I’m doing the weeding in a brown corduroy shirt and green tartan tie that I found in the pocket of a vintage jacket. It’s probably my favourite tie along with two Yves Saint Laurent ties bought in a Liberty sale around 1988, a pair of Ralph Lauren ties (a black and white one with cars and a red and white with race horses) a present from a musician maybe a year earlier, and a blue knitted one, also from a sale at my favourite department store. My most expensive tie (about the price of a main course at The Seafood Restaurant) and also knitted I found in a vintage shop in Bath.
So what’s the big deal with ties? They cover the line of buttons down the middle of your chest, provide a symmetrical centre point within the contours of a shirt and notched lapel, and further more set a fella apart from scruffy oiks that make up most of humanity by placing something interesting in that scrawny gap below the chin. In my case (and I’m not fishing for sympathy) they furthermore serve to draw attention away from a sizeable neck scar that’s been both my maker and nemesis since I was a child. It’s one of the reasons I veer on the side of the slackened knot with a top button generally undone look (the scar objects to a stiff buttoned up collar) and with a cardigan rather than a jacket; not a rule that’s set in stone. I can also appreciate the temptation to opt for the buttoned up shirt and tie behind a crew neck sweater as favoured by Carlo Ancelotti. A relaxed smartness. Strong on coordination, ties in wool or cotton and rarely of silk. As rule of thumb anything your geography teacher may have. Come to think of it that may be where my sombre shirt and tie look originated. I remember him (not his name) telling the class he wore a dark blue shirt every day because he could wear it for a week without the dirt showing. How woke.
In keeping with the classic notched lapel jacket its sartorial partner the tie has its antecedents in military uniforms, appearing first in 17th century when Croatian mercenaries, in the employ of Louis Xlll during the Thirty Years War, arrived in France sporting seriously suave scarves. The French were so impressed they called the scarves cravats (a derivation of Croat and the French word for tie). The tie was more flamboyant in them times and worn by women just as much as men. After centuries of floppy bows by the start of the 20th century those cravats became ties, narrower, less ostentatious and hanging the entire length of the torso from top button to waist. They came to symbolise a certain correctness, professionalism, military rank and status, school, and sports club membership. The tie said who you were.
I’ll admit these are different times, exacerbated by the pandemic and the drift toward lounge wear. According to research (!) only a third of UK office staff wear ties to work, largely as a result of the ‘dress down Friday’ campaign launched around the turn of the century. Personally I blame David Cameron for a lot of things (the present prime minister included) but the tieless open neck shirt was the final straw. In California the tech companies that supply so much of what we don’t need but make billions in the process make employment conditional on staff not wearing ties (or suits). The Facebook chief even appearing infront a congressional hearing in a hoodie.
I’m not saying you must wear a tie with a shirt and jacket. Just don’t leave the tie in the drawer because you think you’ll look hip without it. It’s aesthetics and comfort that count not some half baked belief that dressing down and not like a Croatian military officer means you’re out of step with the street. For three generations of men the tie has come to represent old fashioned; an unnecessary piece of kit long past its sell-by date that means you’re either at work or old and quite possibly both. The sort of men who in their 50s wear cap sleeve T-shirts, quilted biker jackets, beanie caps, Crocks and designer sports footwear and skinny jeans in the delusional belief that they make them appear younger than they really are. My advice to them – buy a tie; better to be dapper than a dope.
OK, under pressure I’ve tried fleeces (too itchy) and I’ve tried t-shirts (too much neck). I really like roll/turtle necks (but sometimes a bit too artful) and open necks are fine (with a cravat although I prefer the word scarf). But when all’s said and done I’m never happier than in a dark blue button down shirt undone at the top with a loosely knotted darkish tie (result). I should have been a geography teacher.