Saturday, November 03, 2007

The Tyranny of Ties

I said that I'd have a rant about neckties. And here it is.

I hate ties. Maybe it's some deep-down instinctive fear of strangulation? Maybe my umbilical wrapped itself a little too tightly around me during birth? Maybe it's just some primaeval urge to be as naked as possible? Whatever the reason, I really, really hate wearing a tie.

It's such a pointless item isn't it? It doesn't keep you warm. It doesn't hide your naughty parts. It doesn't act as a sexual signal (show me the woman who gets horny because he's wearing a particularly impressive tie). If anything, they get in the way. You spill tomato sauce and egg yolk on them. They dip themselves in your coffee. They catch in machinery and office shredders.

So what are ties for? What exactly does a tie do?

One thing a tie does is say something about its wearer. I just know that the people I see wearing ridiculous comedy ties have either (a) uninventive relatives or (b) a desperate need to be seen as mad and kooky when, in fact, they are a boring, grey little man with the charisma of a turbot. Particularly nasty are ties with cartoon characters on them. Look at me. I'm wacky. I watch The Simpsons.

Then there are the variant forms of necktie. Thankfully the cravat has almost completely been consigned to the dustbin of history. Is it just coincidence that cravat rhymes with twat? I think not. But bow ties are still around and are even sillier than the standard necktie. Nothing says 'pompous' quite like a bow tie does. And nothing says 'pompous and pretentious' more than someone who wears a proper bow tie when pre-tied elasticated ones are available. Think 'consultant' here ... although the origin of posh doctors wearing bow ties does have a logical origin. Apparently it was so that their ties didn't dangle in the patients' offal.

I did a bit of research to find out where these ghastly fashion items originated and it seems that we can blame the Chinese. I'm reliably informed that the earliest ties go back to China's first emperor, Shih Huang Ti, who was buried in 210 BC. Here was a man so terrified of death that he wanted an entire army slaughtered and buried with him to guard his soul. Eventually he was persuaded that this was a bit excessive so he ordered a fake army of life-sized toy soldiers; what became known as the famous Terracotta Army. Every single one of the 7500 sculptures is different but they all wear a cloth around their neck (Incidentally, I'm going to see the figures in London soon - I'll report back when I have). Apparently, this was not standard dress at the time and may be a way of showing imperial favour - the bestowing of a rich silk gift on his eternal army.

These kinds of neckerchief then appear in different forms all over the world but start to morph into the modern tie around the time that The Sun King - Louis XIV of France - was on the throne. I read that he was intrigued by the colourful silk kerchiefs worn around the necks of his crack regiment of Croatian mercenaries. One theory for the origin of the word cravat is that it's a corruption of Croat. Other sources say cravat is derived from the Turkish word kyrabacs, or the Hungarian, korbacs, both meaning 'whip' or 'long, slender object' (Oo-er!) Whatever the origin, Louis and his boys liked these fancy coloured neck cloths so much that they started to wear them, often ostentatiously garnished with muslin or silk, and trimmed with embroidery and lace. The poorer demographic soon followed suit wearing cheaper versions in cotton or taffeta, trimmed with pestilence and dung. Probably.

The tie then crossed the water to us with the reinstatement of the monarchy in 1660. Cromwell and his puritans were not prone to fashion statements, favouring the trusty dull colours of the religious loon. With the enthronement of the foppish King Charles II, fashion and glamour returned to England and the dandy was born. Weary of war, and tired of the austerity imposed by the puritans, England wanted to have fun. Gambling, drinking, music, dancing, parties, theatre, elaborate clothes, grand wigs, and yes, the stylish, new cravat, were suddenly all the rage.

The tie continued to evolve as a garment for a further couple of centuries until 1880 when something odd happened. A bunch of lads at Oxford University (it was the Exeter College Rowing Club), probably the worse for drink, removed their coloured ribbons from their straw boaters and started wearing them around their necks as team colours. It was the 1880 equivalent of wearing a traffic cone I guess - 'Look how pissed I am ... I'm wearing a hat ribbon AROUND MY NECK! I'm bonkers me!' But the idea caught on and teams began having ties made in distinct colours to denote the team and, ultimately, the college they belonged to. The school tie was born. And soon it had been adopted by universities and schools all over the country. The military got in on the act too. The tie now became your way of showing what tribe you belonged to.

The final evolutionary jump to the modern plethora of hateful neck garments came in the 1920s when a pioneering Paris fashion designer called Jean Patou started making ties from left over strips of women's clothing material. These often sported the very latest styles and mirrored popular art movements like Cubism and Art Deco. They were designed for women customers to buy for their men and became hugely successful. Even today, 80% percent of ties sold in the US are bought by women as presents. The designer tie was born.

It enjoyed a second explosion in popularity during the 1960s when (I can only assume drugs were involved) the youngest and trendiest designers of Carnaby Street decided that ties were It, man. The psychedelic weirdness of pop art and tie-dye transferred itself to the necktie. The Peacock Look was born with young males strutting their stuff before their mini-skirted potential mates. Even the cravat made a short-lived and detestable comeback. The 1970s and 1980s saw ties get Elvis fat and Twiggy thin. But no matter how fashions changed, they were now unaccountably associated with manhood and authority. If you wore a tie, you were The Man or you worked for him at least. Going without a tie became a sign of subversion and laxity. No tie, no moral fibre.

What bollocks.

How in this big wide world of uncountable wonders can a strip of cloth make any difference to a person's skills, performance, morals and intelligence? Madness. But there it is ... from Chinese neck-cloth to designer tie; two thousand years of wearing a completely pointless item of clothing.
I'd like to mention the delicate matter of sex now. For many years I worked in a profession where, no matter how hot and sweaty the weather was, the dress code for men was (and still is) shirt and tie and (preferably) a jacket. Meanwhile, all of the ladies paraded around in sandals and light summer dresses and blouses. My tie spent every summer forcing my collar to stick to my neck and performing a passable impersonation of a sponge. And for what? Did the tie improve my performance? Did it enhance my work? Did it make me look any smarter than the ladies? Hell no. It was a classic case of tradition outweighing common sense. And, to make matters worse, all sense of Peacockery had been removed by the appearance of women in ties. Despite the freedom of choice they enjoyed, some women started wearing ties to show parity and equality with men. On some of the hotter days, I think I'd have preferred to show my equality by wearing a dress.

Lastly, and perhaps most down-to-Earth of all the reasons I hate ties, is cost. Ties share something in common with women's underwear and kid's shoes - namely that the less material there is involved, the more expensive the item becomes. Ties are simply a strip of printed material. Yet I regularly see them on sale for stupid prices - often upwards of £20. You won't be surprised to hear that the few ties I own all came from charity shops and at £2 each, they were bargains. What do they say about me? That I'm cheap, certainly.

So will the tie survive another 2000 years? I look at the younger generation and they don't seem to wear them as often as even I did at that age (I'm 46). Whereas everyone I see over 50 wears a tie, even if just going to the supermarket. So maybe they are on the decline. Maybe the bastards will disappear in my life time.

Lord knows I hope so. The dustbin of crap fashion ideas is bulging with neck ruffs, codpieces, doublets and hose, tank tops, platform shoes and cravats ... but there's plenty of room for a tie or two.

No comments: