The editor’s opinion from Marketplace, Northeast Wisconsin’s business magazine. (Obligatory disclaimer: Most hyperlinks go to outside sites, and we’re not responsible for their content. And like fresh watermelon, peaches, pineapple, grapefruit, tomatoes and sweet corn, hyperlinks can go bad after a while.)

May 9, 2008

A subject for casual Friday

The Milwaukee Journal, one of the two predecessors of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel — whose parent company, Journal Communications, owns Journal Community Publishing Group, publisher of Marketplace — once began an editorial by asking this question: “What fiend out of hell invented the necktie?”

To tie or not to tie is a debate that’s been going on since the 1960s, as this 1976 Time magazine column shows. One explanation, which is biased against ties, for how we came to wear ties, blames the French. One can find rationales all over the Web for wearing or not wearing ties, including in really humid areas. The choice seems to be between traditional class and individual style — or, in less florid terms, wearing a tie and giving the appearance of being stuffy, or not wearing a tie and appearing sloppy. Women seem to encourage men to wear ties, perhaps because, since appropriate workplace apparel is more difficult for women to figure out than men (suit and/or blazer and pants, plus shirt), women want men to feel their pain.

As everyone who wears them knows, neckties are a pain in the neck. They make you hot and, if tied too tightly, cut off blood flow to your head (although that may be more the fault of your shirt than your tie). For that matter, excessively tight ties are reputed to cause higher blood pressure within the eye, a contributor to glaucoma. (Then again, someone can come up with a theory about how everything you wear increases risks to your health.)

If I am able to tie a tie the first time that looks right and is the correct length once in a week, that’s a good month for me. For those who have, shall we say, rounder profiles, ties don’t hang straight without a (currently out of style) tie clip. Those of us with long torsos have to buy long ties, which, natch, cost more than the standard-length tie. They are magnets for your coffee or whatever meal you’re eating. It took until relatively recently for me to figure out how to drive with a necktie on (put the tie over the shoulder belt, which makes getting out a challenge, but at least the seat belt won’t drag over your tie). And, of course, wearing a tie makes you a target for the opinions of others about your tie.

Some of the aforementioned objections to wearing ties can be dealt with by choosing a bow tie, described by Slate.com’s Rob Walker as “the nose ring for the conservative,” but then, as Dress for Success author John Molloy wrote, “If you wear a bow tie, you will never be taken seriously, and no one will ever trust you with important business.” (Perhaps that explains in part why bow tie aficionado Anthony Earl served just one term as governor of Wisconsin.)

The New York Times has determined that neckties are now fashionable among men in their 20s and early 30s, perhaps a sign that men of those ages have little experience with wearing them on a daily basis; they will soon make the same discoveries as “men in their 40s and 50s, who after years of wearing a tie to work, finally won the right to hang up the old choke chain.” For that matter, the skeptic in me wonders if those who announce that more formal dress is back actually see a trend or are trying to create one to increase their sales of more formal dress.

And yet, there are cultural signs that, outside the U.S., a tie is a statement about how one feels about the U.S. Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is never seen wearing a tie. Back in 1996, Iran’s government decided to exercise more control over Iran’s film industry, including, in a chapter called “Forbidden Frames and Sounds,” a rule that “no actor is allowed to wear ties or neckties.” Iran definitely seems to have a long-standing thing about neckties; four years before that, “an influential Iranian religious figure attacked Tehran’s doctors for wearing neckties,” and this was before studies found that neckties harbor germs. (Solution? Antibiotic neckties, of course.) Japan’s three largest banks have abandoned ties and business wear so they can increase their buildings’ temperatures to 82 degrees, and European Community bureaucrats got to ditch their neckties last summer for the same reason. Is that to combat (alleged) global warming, or is that a subtle jab at us tie-wearing Americans?

I may not be the appropriate person to comment on this (then again, that’s never stopped me before), since I work in a profession where the traditional dress code has been that you should wear clothes. It is true that wearing a tie to a meeting is a sign of respect for the person with whom you’re meeting. Ties are signs of authority and power. It is also true that judging someone based on whether or not they wear a tie is judging someone based on that person’s appearance, a good way, in an era of labor shortages, to lose out on a prospective employee or to mistakenly choose an empty suit whose competence is only in his or her choice of clothing.

To tie or not to tie is simply an issue of appropriateness. Some would argue that one should dress for the job he or she wants next — which, besides making one wonder how a CEO should dress, is not helpful for those who have jobs where there is no opportunity for advancement. More important than having someone’s definition of the correct choices in clothing is to look put together, and the unfortunate reality is that’s not easy for those who are a different size from the average size person. (My personal list: Standard-length ties, shirts that pull out of my waist, the small number of stores that offer 18–36 shirts, shirts that wrinkle 45 seconds after they’re put on, and white shirts that yellow after a few washings. And for those who would suggest custom shirts and dry cleaning: Remember, I’m a journalist.)

There is also the not insignificant matter of a tieless collar on a dress shirt designed to have a tie within it. Those of us with more body hair than the norm either have to shave larger areas than most or force others to view our chest hair. The shirt alternatives — the collarless dress shirt, the mock turtleneck or the real turtleneck, to name three — either are inappropriate for certain seasons or have other issues, including the conflict between shirt collar and jacket collar. And even though I wore a white Nehru jacket to a formal dinner a decade ago (I called it the “Chairman Mao dinner jacket”), the rest of the fashion world still equates Nehru jackets with either a ’60s refugee or, well, Dr. Evil.

A coworker of mine, who used to work in menswear, says he really enjoys ties … particularly when they’re hanging on his tie rack.

The author of this entry was not wearing a tie when he was writing it.

1 comment:

Erik said...

But it WAS the French!

Anyway, thanks for citing my blog. Anything I can do to help bring about the downfall of the necktie, I will do bravely and without a hint of sarcasm or irony.

Ok, maybe a little ironic sarcasm; perhaps some sarcastic ironies; but that's it.