First it was the book, then the magazine - now we’re led to believe the humble necktie is dead. Whatever next, asks men’s style writer Lee Osborne
Fewer people seem to be wearing ties nowadays, indeed some banks have even abolished them from their dress code manuals altogether. Even Prime Ministers have fallen foul - in 2008 Labour leader Tony Blair famously became the UK’s first premier to pose for his official No.10 portrait in an open-neck shirt. Merde I hear you cry! And rightly so.
And while we remain under the grip of the Covid-19 pandemic with the majority of us still working from home, one wonders if there will ever be a need to dress up again, when, or even if, we finally return to the office.
A Quick Backward Glance
Ties appear as though they are going out of fashion, yet still linger on. But for as long as I can remember this has been the case. Mainly because everyone and their dog wore one back in the day. Google any picture from the 30s/40s and 50s and no matter whether it’s an England International at Wembley or a Saturday afternoon shopping spree on Oxford Street the imagery will undoubtedly feature men bedecked in suits, ties and even top hats.
Nowadays not everyone does. But it doesn’t mean to say they’ve lost their place. We are well and truly spoilt for choice in the tie stakes, never before has there been such a plethora of styles, textures, widths and lengths. A lot of people I speak to are of the view that the tie’s decline owes much to its price, although I disagree. Even if you’re only going to wear them a handful of times a year, the better-made ones' value will depreciate really rather well, and to coin the Patek Philippe phrase, you’re merely looking after them for the next generation. So comparatively speaking, I’d argue premium ties are an investment piece.
The Origins of the Tie
The tie, which has its origins in Croatia - after all it was a delegation of cravat-clad Croats that caught the eye of French King Louis XIV. So impressed was he by the dignity and elegance these bold cloths exuded, that he introduced the wearing of the cravat – à la croate – to the Parisian court and the rest as they say is history.
Tie styles can be attributed to certain eras of fashion of course: From the French Steinkirk which followed in the footsteps of its Croatian cousin in 1692, through to the Stock tie, Ascot and Bow tie in the 18th and 19th centuries. The Kipper tie, of course, is perhaps the most notorious having been preceded by the self-conscious in comparison Langsdorf necktie, the Bolo tie and the Skinny ties which proliferated in the 50s.
The wild child of the neckwear world, courtesy of its extreme breadth and often garish patterns and colourways, the Kipper had its heyday from 1966-1979 - and was famously the butt of a classic joke by Black Country comedian Jasper Carrot: “A Brummie walks into a tailors and says: Alroit, mate. I’d like a 70s suit, please.” To which the tailor responds: “Certainly sir, and would you like a kipper tie?” Brummie says: “Thanks mate, two sugars.” Puns aside, It would certainly have been the tie of choice for the ineffably stylish Tommy Nutter who was cutting quite a dash in Savile Row at the time.
The tie is one of the only accessories with no proper use or purpose other than to look good, although it shows no sign of abating in the Osborne household even in these times of Covid-19 enforced working from home. I often get direct messages on social media along the lines of “pull the other one! Do you really wear ties even when you’re at home?” And my answer to that is always yes.
As I touched on in my recent WFH article on this very website, wearing a tie and looking smart sets the tone for a productive working day for me - even if I don’t necessarily have it on for the entire day. Start as you mean to go on.
Little did I realise it at the time, but my penchant for these knotted neckwear accessories owes much to my dear late Grandfather, who I honestly don’t ever remember seeing without one. He steered towards the knitted variety which, even now, I’d consider slightly unusual to the untrained eye. But I’ve always liked something different, never just gone with the flow. It certainly sowed a seed which would flourish in later life in his Grandson and I hope he’d be proud of me as I carry on the mantle.
Barring the bordering-on-novelty elasticated style tie I wore on the night shift at Tesco during my student days, my teenage years were largely mis-spent in the tie stakes: I hardly touched one - perhaps it’s because we have this ingrained association with school uniform? In that the majority of us, and I include myself in that, would barely have left the school gates without dispensing with our ties as quickly as we could. If that isn’t bad enough, we then start work and have the dreaded association with the office and the tie.
But I can honestly say, my tie-wearing days didn’t properly manifest until my early thirties. I’d just landed my dream job as Creative Director on Condé Nast Traveller magazine, and the moment I sashayed through the revolving doors at Vogue House in London’s plush Hanover Square, surrounded by the hopelessly glamorous editorial teams, I knew I had to up my sartorial game.
Even more so as it was an 80/20 female/male split - being in the minority there was a subconscious pressure to be as similarly coutured as my female colleagues. And that feeling really hasn’t left me three years on from setting up my own business and I can honestly say that I’ve never had the association with business when I wear one, even if other people do. It’s just what I choose to wear and it happens to be smart.
I really believe we should keep embracing wearing ties and continue to take great joy from them as our ancestors once did. There really is no excuse to be boring about it either. Ties bring such personality to an outfit - wear one for pleasure on a date and notice how many plaudits you gain. There is no obligation to wear one of course, but if you can get the aforementioned work/office association of wearing one set straight in your own mind, then that’s half the battle. While conducting research for this piece I stumbled upon a great observation by a certain American gent named Daniel Ippolito, a Liberal Arts College Professor. He was responding to a thread on the subject of ties going out of fashion put together by Mitchell Moss of the Menswear Musings blog, and he made an interesting observation that ties draw unnecessary attention: “Past a certain age, the neck becomes the least attractive and most age-revealing part of a man’s anatomy. That is one of the reasons for such disparate types of neckwear as Elizabethan collars, silk cravats, ascots, and neckties.” But surely that’s even more reason to experiment with colours and patterns that will avert the viewers eyes to your tie, not your double chin.
A large proportion of office workers will tell you that ties are actually a hindrance to their everyday lives. In fact Otto Mantero, of the great Italian Firmo Fossati silk weaving dynasty, which produces fabric for a large proportion of the luxury menswear market, will only wear a bow tie to work, as in his own words, “it not only helps me show off the hand-sewn buttonholes on my shirts, but does not dangle down or get stuck in the Jacquard Loom.” Whilst Otto is undoubtedly debonair, he is in the minority and I would argue that if anything, the bow tie (evening wear aside) while not quite at death’s door, is teetering on the brink.
A well-worn one tie garners respect from the onlooker - a mark of distinction and class. Ties are very personal and people definitely judge you on your choice/design as well as taking you more seriously - unless of course you turn up in a novelty tie. But I’ll caveat that by saying this is only the case if the tie has been tied properly - being able to pull off a tie has much to do with the execution of the tie knot itself, and how it’s presented. Too narrow, too small, too flat, wide or fat can look clumsy and amateurish. Despite its association with the school kid knot, I pretty much always err on the side of a Four-in-hand as it produces a nicely-sized knot (not too big, not too small) and yields that nice dimple us sartorialists hanker after. In terms of alternatives, I rarely do, but if I was to trade up I’d go for something more asymmetrical with a little more bulk like The Prince Albert. I’m conscious to always pull the knot quite tight though in order to achieve a shapely and polished appearance - I rather like its croissant-like overlapping curves. And the rakish way to wear a tie of course, is with the long end lower than the tip and always touching the base of your belt loop. Anything shorter is frowned upon as the void it leaves draws unnecessary attention to your midriff.
The tie, much like the British seaside holiday you were bored of as a kid, is something you appreciate far more the older you get. What tie you wear says a lot about you, and there’s proof in the pudding to support it. Experts seem to agree that no matter the audience in front of you, be it clients, staff or children, picking the right colour tie can help you get your message across. A 2014 study by the BBC’s Worklife team, found that tie colours can give off very specific signals. According to David Zyla, author of ‘Colour Your Style’ a simple suit can be transformed with different tie colours, each with a very different impact and message. It cites the tie-wearing tendencies of Joshua Blue, Vice Principal of the Kennedy School in Hong Kong. Ahead of performing lectures, Blue is always mindful to lean towards, no, not blue, but more muted colours such as pale violet, as opposed to anything brighter which could be distracting to his students.
WHAT THE COLOUR OF YOUR TIE SAY ABOUT YOU
Here’s a quick round-up of what the BBC Worklife study concluded:
Red: Historically associated with power, strength and passion, red is the playground of politicians. The brighter the hue, the more it reflects your inner creativity, while a more demure tone such as burgundy can denote trust. “Pink can even signify solidarity with women”, says trend analyst Mark Woodman who took part in the study.
Purple: Despite its royal connotations, purple can signify self-confidence and lasting first impressions. “Wearing a colour that’s less traditional shows clients the wearer is comfortable in his/her own skin and someone whom you can build a relationship with” according to New York Financial Services Executive and purple proponent Ross Znavor.
Black: When worn correctly as part of a monochromatic look, black ties can exude a sophisticated vibe. Zyla warned that while it can look cool in certain quarters such as at dinner parties or events, black can sometimes come across as arrogant or even overdressed”. Then of course there’s the funereal connotation. Grey on the other hand can make you look just as sophisticated but far less pretentious.
Yellow: “Can make you more approachable to colleagues”, according to the study, due to its vibrant association with the sun. Hong Kong image consultant Roth Lindsay even goes as far as saying that it can “show optimism and a positive outlook on life”
Blue: The all-purpose, can’t go wrong hue. Lindsay says the popularity of blue owes much to people’s association with the sky and the ocean which have a calming effect. “Patterned blues tend to give off a classic professional feel, while a subtle blue can be more soft and introspective.”
WHAT TIE TO WEAR FOR EACH OCCASION (BOX OUT)
Work - everyday:
Don’t be afraid to experiment with colour and pattern. There are 5 days in the working week so don’t be unimaginative and wear the same one for the duration. I tend to mix things up: perhaps one day I’d wear a knitted silk tie, then a club stripe and move on to different patterned silk variations or an untipped plain cashmere.
Work - important business meeting to seal the deal:
When all eyes need to be on the signing of that important business deal, avoid anything too colourful or distracting. Instead, opt for more muted tones like navy, grey, black or brown. Pared back but equally as stylish.
You’re not in the office now and you want to impress, so don’t go plain. Think more along the lines of a nice bold yellow (without going as far as having your date reach for their shades) but if that’s too much burgundy will do the trick and your attention to floral detail won’t go unnoticed.
Bolder tones: Suits are still the norm for most men at weddings, but in my mind there is nothing smarter than a morning suit. I speak from experience here, just be sure to not end up being the only guest wearing one as you’ll look like the Groom. Similarly if the invite says morning dress, don’t turn up in a lounge suit. Don’t underestimate the importance of etiquette. Pairing a floral repeat tie under your grey waistcoat and black morning suit tails oozes style and sophistication:
So while there remains a perception that the tie is on its last legs, the jury is still out as millions of us continue to take great pleasure in wearing them. You only have to search the ‘classicmenswear’ hashtag on social media to see that they are still alive and kicking. It’s not adieu, there’s life in the old dog yet and long may that continue.
Lee Osborne is a men's style writer, photographer and blogger. He is founding editor of Sartorialee: dressing the globe-trotting man www.sartorialee.com; @sartorialee