The Ties that Bind

Attire, for whatever reason, has always been a favorite frontier for young people to battle the norms of their elders. At my Memphis high school, the boys once objected to the neckties we were made to wear: to their constriction, to their formality, and, most of all, to their impracticality. We raised the great rallying cry of modernity, “They’re not good for anything!” One of our teachers gamely played along.

The uselessness of the necktie is its virtue, he said. It gives us not only the obvious, an appreciation for ornament, but also something far more valuable: a way of expressing our human character that is not explained by our immediate needs or wants. That signaling, I now realize, helps explain the necktie norm in schools and work alike.

It is worth noting, perhaps, that the tie’s origins are a hybrid of ornament and utility. Derived from traditional Croat military dress, the tie was initially adopted in Paris as an alternative to the ruffled bib developed earlier in the seventeenth century. It was little more than a colorful scarf worn around the collar. It kept the neck warm, the collar closed, and it could be made of anything from coarse cloth to the finest silk.

Over time, western countries came to see the tie as a symbol of class, elegance, and enterprise. But although other relics of men’s dress like buckles, pocket watches, all manner of hats, and even cuff links (for the most part) have fallen by the wayside—victims of cruel utilitarian impulses—the tie remains, the last extraneous article in a businessman’s closet.

Noting the tie’s impracticality is hardly to suggest that it is an enemy of efficiency and productivity. The employment law firm Jackson Lewis, surveying human resources executives, found them evenly divided. In one survey, 40 percent believed casual dress improved office productivity. In another, 44 percent claimed that casual dress boosts absenteeism, tardiness and a more lackadaisical attitude.

Neither side of the necktie-efficiency debate carries prescriptive merit. As a useless wardrobe item, a tie may hinder a sense of innovation and flexibility necessary in the workplace. On the other hand, a classy tie denotes professionalism. In many work environments, it is compulsory. The tie, along with the suit, is an effective uniform generating esprit de corps—employees are joined at the tie, as it were.

Today’s apostles of sartorial laxity might be hard pressed to imagine that, as recently as 60 years ago, the typical white-collar worker wore a suit and tie not only to work, but also to restaurants, to run errands, to any sort of social gathering, and to church. Beyond tradition there are, alas, scant data. The purely economic arguments for or against the tie have little weight, leaving the debate firmly on an aesthetic and cultural footing.

When “professionals” reject the tie because of its impracticality, they reject a part of what makes us human. What they express, unwittingly, is a lack of concern for the ornaments that set mankind apart from the animals. As C. S. Lewis once wrote, “the lion cannot stop hunting, nor the beaver building dams, nor the bee making honey”—but men and women can engage in activity beyond that which is necessary for survival. They can practice love, meditate upon philosophy, and create art. When a businessman embraces the tie, he humanizes himself, trading utility for ornament. He steps free of the economic forces that dictate so much of his activity. What a strange irony that this individuation is, in many of today’s workplaces, forced on employees from above.

This article was originally published on on November 27, 2006.