A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

What is, or was, the purpose of men's neckties?

January 2, 1987

Dear Cecil:

Has there ever been, in the history of civilization, any functional purpose for wearing a tie, or is it merely an inane ritual held over from ancient times, unwittingly followed on a daily basis by hundreds of thousands of grown men as a blazing symbol of conformity to some unspoken norm, bestowing membership in some gigantic, vaguely defined, exclusive club?

Cecil replies:

I gather, Phil, that you do not like ties, probably because you are some kind of hippie beatnik who would rather live in the forest eating roots and berries than hold down a job like a man. But hey, no problem, I'm a liberal. The wearing of neck cloths dates back at least to the time of the Roman legions, when soldiers wore a neck band to catch the sweat or block the cold, depending on the season. In the 17th century, Louis XIV's Croatian regiment also wore neck cloths, whence we derive our word "cravat," from the French cravate, for "Croatian." Cravats, which were cloths wound around the neck and often tied at the ends, gradually evolved into the bow tie, and by the 19th century into the modern long tie.

Cravats were unquestionably an object of fashion, but at least they kept your neck warm, which is more than you can say for most modern neckwear. Regrettably, the trend over the years, in neckties as in all of life, has been to make once functional items increasingly useless. The State Department, for instance. But I digress. First the necktie migrated outside the collar (this was the high collar, I should note), the better to show it off. Then the collar was folded down, thus hiding the necktie and defeating the purpose of putting it outside the collar in the first place. At the same time the band part of the necktie, which wrapped around the neck, became thinner, until today we have those nerdy clip-on jobs with no band at all.

So far as I can determine, the only thing the tie does at present, apart from enforcing corporate discipline, is to hide your shirt buttons. Such a hassle. No doubt we'd all be better off if we could just get naked and frolic with the animals. I look to you, Phil, to show some leadership.

Ties that blind: A defense

Dear Cecil:

Your treatment of necktie functionality is more than adequate in tracing the tie's historical descent. But you neglect the psycho-aesthetic value the tie serves. You fail to consider that the tie is the male's one opportunity for textile display as flashy as that permitted the female. Women can splash color from neckline to hem. But male shirtings and suitings are evidently designed by some Protestant soul afraid that any color visible at more than two feet will cause moral degeneracy. The tie is a man's only opportunity to strut his stuff.

Cecil replies:

"Shirtings and suitings"? Jim, you one of those fashion-mag guys who call those things people wear on their legs a "pant"?

As for your point about oppressed males, people in the clothing biz claim U.S. men are so conservative you couldn't get them into colorful duds if you gave the stuff away. More likely, however, this is the result of going at it the wrong way. Cecil, for example, was invited a while back to a bash with a nautical theme advertised as "creative black tie." Half the guys showed up in tuxedo jackets and jams, but Cecil stole the show with white Izod shorts, Topsiders, tuxedo shirt, $6 black studs and cufflinks, white tuxedo jacket with black pseudo-velvet trim ($7 from Salvation Army), all topped off with matching sky-blue bowtie and cummerbund featuring palm trees and sailboats. If I had been any cooler I would have been assumed bodily into heaven.

My guess is, if you seriously attempted to get U.S. guys to wear flashy duds, you'd be told to take a flying leap. But if you said they could wear cool stuff as a lark ... ties with blinking lights! neon colors! hats with little fans in the brim! ...you'd get a fashion explosion the like of which has not been seen since the War of 1812. Fashion mavens, take note.

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