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The International Writers Magazine:Ties

The Male Necktie
James Morford
While struggling mightily to master an unknown knot, every boy has questioned the purpose behind that piece of cloth society decrees he loops around his neck and drapes down his chest. Grown men are puzzled as well. But wearing so many for so long has taught them the stoicism of accepting the inevitable, like combing their hair or zipping up their pants.  Simply put, what many men have to do five times a week lacks utility.

The Tie

So why do men wear ties? The usual answer is that ties improve personal decoration by filling the space created by coats or sweaters failing to meet at the chest. The decorative explanation is usually accompanied by a treatise on the tie being a key to personality. To most, this argument applies to other people and not to oneself, few people believing anything as mundane as clothing able to capture that complex nuance known as “me.” 

“Show me the ties he wears and I’ll show you the man,“ we say, much as we do when seeking ulterior reasons as to why a man prefers this food to that food, or that beverage to this beverage, etc. In fiction, these clues illustrate personality; in a novel or a movie an introvert is seldom seen wearing a flashy tie, and an extrovert’s ties never lack for bright colors. “Situation” comedians almost always wear ties that delineate their characters, the late Jackie Gleason’s “poor soul” character’s lower tie much too long for the upper portion. There are the ubiquitous “naughty” ties worn by burlesque comics, or bow ties seen on the country bumpkin or his opposite, the “wise guy” standup comic outfitted in tuxedo.  

The historical derivation of the tie is unclear. Most histories trace it to the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) when Croatian mercenaries serving the French wore a traditional neckerchief, dubbed “cravat.” In trendy Paris the “cravat” caught on. Often tied in a bow by strings and having a lace body, it was a fancy adornment indeed. King Louis XIV adorned his neck with many a cravat.

Although most historians date its origination with Croatian mercenaries, there are earlier, although perhaps apocryphal, historical examples of what we now call the “tie.” In ancient Egypt, a short rectangular towel was draped over the shoulder and wrapped around the neck. This acted a socio-economic symbol only nobility could wear, and perhaps the precursor of the “old school tie” popular today.

There are many more questionable legends about the tie’s origination, a colorful one deriving out of the Middle Ages: a tie was used to wipe food off the shirt or coat (rather hard to imagine wiping food off “armor” but why not? Your breast plate wouldn’t smear nearly as much as your smock). Anyway, when knighthood was in flower apparently gravy stains were okay if they only appeared on your ties. It is doubtful, however, medieval damsels made a fuss out of proffering a “wipe off” tie as gift to a beau; the male dismissal of an unwanted and fawning woman “What do I like about her? I like the ties she picks out,” having had to arrive later in the courting chain.

Beau Brummell helped change the status of the tie in the early years of the l9th century when he began wearing innovative ties sporting distinctive “knotting.” Lord Byron wore fluffy and snazzy articles around his neck. Royalty got into the act when in l820 King George V introduced the black tie. During the l9h century colored neckties arrived on the scene with activities depicting warfare and hunting. During both the l8th and l9th centuries painted ties made their debut, their wearers including Napoleon, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Mozart. With such notables making much to do over their ties it was only natural that Oscar Wilde said: “Tying a tie was the first serious step in a young man’s life.”
In l827 Honore de Balzac authored “The Art to Bear a Necktie” that offered the reader aesthetic principles of wearing a necktie. As time went on it became easier and easier to tell by a man’s tie the origins and style of the bearer. Ties had other uses, one was that to touch a man’s tie an invitation to a duel. In the United Kingdom this practice now (without the dueling parallel) goes by the names “peanutting” or “squatnotting.”  To be “peanutted can be a serious matter indeed: a tie is grabbed and pulled upon with such force it can cause injury to the spine. In Oxford in Surrey a 13 Year boy was sent to the hospital for 3 days, the victim of squatnotting.   

As we have seen, the military influenced the history of ties. In the l9th century British military powers concluded, quite sensibly and one wonders why it took them so long to do so, their famous “redcoats” an easy target for enemy musket balls, so they   outfitted infantry with drab green uniforms. Since the early l800’s British military dress uniforms had included a tie, and now needing a bit of color to offset the new drabness, a painted red stripe was included on the tie. The stripe went from the left shoulder crossing the heart. The striped tie soon made its way to the commercial world and striped ties are now quite common, the American version reversing the left to right of the British. Since both stripes cross the heart but come from different directions, it would be interesting to hear a Wilde quote on this. Unfortunately this was not much noticed by the world before Oscar died in a Parisian bed laughing at the wallpaper in his cheap hotel room (“One of us has got to go.”)

A famous personage associated with history of ties was the Duke Of Windsor, and undoubtedly the most famous tie knot of the actual 85 different ways to tie, is the Windsor Knot. The Duke’s name is associated with the knot even though it is said his father passed on the secret formula to his progeny, a secret claimed by those who knew the son much too complicated to be invented by such a simple soul, a man appointed by Churchill to be Governor of the Bahamas (Winston’s way of getting the German sympathizer and suspected traitor out of his hair, not to mention out of England.) Anyway, the Duke never abdicated title of creator of the knot that bears his name, and the legend lives on.

The influence of the tie has not been without opposition. One argument to eliminate its existence is the none too obvious charge that ties can carry infection. This was taken so seriously that in September of 2007 British hospitals banned the wearing of ties inside hospitals. This sounds ludicrous, but it must be admitted by even their most avid advocates, that ties are not washed as often as other garments. Then, so goes another objecting, that after becoming hooked and snagged on inanimate objects, ties cause strangulation. A too tight tie can exacerbate glaucoma as well as further weaken a defective retina. The “tie defense” in these three cases might point a finger at a too tight collar, and the tie being nothing more than an accessory to the crime. But remember before making final judgment, the peanuting or squatnotting menace. 

Other than their aesthetic reasons, the importance of tie colors should be pointed out because they are so silly. To the “colorists” a red tie indicates desire for power and attention. The tie bearer in red tie always gets what he wants. This probably comes as news to those Wily Loman types who adorn their necks and chests with red ties. A ruby red silk tie is the ultimate in power effect (not for the Middle Eastern potentate however, as ties in general are frowned upon as too Western, and besides, silk clothing is forbidden). As contrasted with a red tie, a blue tie is calming and radiates peace and tranquility. It is also persistent and everlasting. The yellow tie is, as imagined, stained with cowardice. To be a principal at a summit meeting you should not wear a yellow tie unless you have the personality to overcome limitations imposed by what you have strung around your neck. In politics it could also indicate, particularly when worn with a yellow suit, a tendency to give away more than Czechoslovakia.

In OPEC meetings, or anything approaching financial gatherings, green ties are advisable for reasons not needing elaboration. Brown ties have their good points, declaring that you are earthy, basic, and approachable. Under mild pressure at a European summit meeting, it has been said that brown tie wearers representing threatened nations might favor a change of venue to Munich. 

I suppose a tie that incorporates the above colors might (even though aesthetically disgusting) denote a desire to eliminate nonsense about clothes making the man, and get down to business. This could also be used as a reason at formal meetings to not wear a tie at all, something nobody but Muslims, certain native tribes in Africa, and nudist negotiators do.  

Ties have certainly played their part in social history. In economic history their role has been as great. Americans alone buy l00 million of them a year. Even the “work casual” craze of the l970’s, and the resultant crescendo of open-necked linen  shirts, failed to kill the modern cravat. A stroll down today’s corporate corridors attests to the continuing existence of the tie.
By the way, if you collect ties you are a “grabatologist.” I don’t believe this label has anything to do with “peanutting or squatnotting.” If truly interested, further research is required.    
© James Morford November 2011

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