On an inside page of my morning paper today, after the news that the Americans have been spying on us since the day after they declared independence, came a short piece about the closure of Tie Rack, the British necktie shop. After that news came not one but two mournful pieces decrying not just the loss of a well known retailer, but also the declining use of ties in general. To me it hardly seems a surprise that Tie Rack has closed down, as it seems to be appealing to the very limited demographic of people who are currently tieless but going to a place where they need a tie, and are passing through a major train station or airport. More astonishing by far was the subsequent torrent of necktie nostalgia. For who, really, can convincingly explain the point of a tie? Who enjoys wearing one? As far as I can tell, there is no more redundant, uncomfortable, soul sapping piece of attire. It is the sartorial equivalent of the words “audit committee” at work or “And now, time for You and Yours” when listening to the radio. It bespeaks boredom, drudgery and discomfort that no amount of novelty pattern can ever overcome. My argument, the first blast of the trumpet against pointless neckwear, runs as follows.
Firstly, ties have absolutely no practical purpose. They originally came into fashion during the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), when Croatian mercenaries fighting for the French used a kind of knotted neckerchief to distinguish themselves on the battlefield, and the fashion caught on among their a la mode Parisian comrades. Ties became so associated with the Balkan troops that our word “cravat” comes from Hrvati, the Croatian word for Croat. Now, wearing a necktie in battle to ensure that you don’t mistake someone for the enemy and inadvertently slice off a compatriot’s limb is eminently sensible. However, I fear that is a situation of some implausibility in the modern business world. I tend to recognize people working for the same company not by their necktie, but because they are in the same building as me and I presume that anyone coming to work is doing so because they actually work here, not because of a deep desire to do some incognito, unpaid auditing work.
So, shorn of any practical identification function, are there any other reasons to wear a tie? One colleague suggested that ties are useful because they cover up your buttons. I can only offer my sincerest condolences to the poor souls who are so sensitive they can be discombobulated by the very sight of shirt fastenings, for their lives must be a daily catalogue of trauma. A second colleague mentioned that they keep you warm, giving you an extra layer of warmth in that upper chest region that a suit jacket leaves brazenly exposed. I don’t know that such a foolhardy argument dignifies a response, but I’m quite sure that when tasked with going to the South Pole, Ranulph Fiennes is not detained for long by the tough decision over whether to take a Gore-tex triple insulated coat protect against the sub-zero temperatures, or a necktie. If I challenged someone to design a piece of clothing to keep me warm, and they came back to me with a scrap of fabric two foot long but no wider than a post-it note, and then told me I would have to pay ten pounds for it into the bargain, I believe I would have him consigned to the asylum post-haste.
Secondly, neckties are simply a depressing piece of attire. Does anyone believe that the best way to start a productive and enjoyable day is to get a length of cloth, tie it in a knot, and tighten that knot around your neck? Aside from the health issues involved, it can’t be good for one’s mental health either. After all, should one want to hang oneself, it strikes me that there are two steps to the process. First, tie a knot around your neck. Second, tie a knot around something higher than you. It can hardly do our collective psychological wellbeing any good when taking half the steps required to commit suicide are as much a part of our morning ritual as having a cup of tea or brushing our teeth.
Thirdly, for something entirely unnecessary, ties are impressively uncomfortable. In summer sweat from the constricted neck area builds up, leading to discomfort and unsightly sweat marks on the rest of the shirt, spoiling the very image of smartness the tie supposedly promotes. Like ill-fitting shoes or racist elderly relatives, the tie can be ignored but never forgotten entirely. It will dig in to your neck at inopportune moments, or fall out of your jacket and be magically attracted to fall into the fresh cup of tea you’ve just poured. On a more serious level, having a flapping piece of cloth attached to one of the most vulnerable parts of your body can be a recipe for disaster around machinery and moving parts. Unfortunately I couldn’t find any statistics on the number of deaths and accidents caused by neckties, but the possibility for blunder around shredders, lifts and other large, clattery implements is clear. In the United States, some hospitals have banned their doctors from wearing neckties because they are such efficient carriers of bacteria, pathogens, and other microscopic nasties that will leave you in a state of discomfort. Indeed, one Alain Picard has seen it necessary to write a whole article on how to avoid the risks inherent in necktie usage; an article I find it hard to imagine has been written about bowler hats or gloves, say.
So, neckties are useless, uncomfortable and dangerous. Surely it is time for a change. Time to ditch preconceived ideas of what is “smart” and instead prioritize being comfortable and unrestricted. Time to accept that the day of the necktie, like the day of Tie Rack, has passed. Heinrich Heine once said that those who start by burning books will ultimately burn people. If we start by burning neckties, we’ll just end up a lot more comfortable.