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Jack Smith

Collared by a crusader for consigning the necktie to the clothes hamper of history

March 25, 1985|JACK SMITH

Richard M. Day urges me to start a crusade against the necktie, evidently forgetful that most of my crusades have fallen in the dust.

He encloses a clipping that tells of Alaskan Gov. Jay Hammond's visit to Peking, where he found himself chatting with Vice Premier Deng through an interpreter. Deng asked what he thought of the Chinese system of government, and Hammond said, "Any regime that manages to do away with the necktie can't be all bad."

Whereupon there was an exchange between Deng and his interpreter, and the interpreter turned to Hammond and said, "The vice premier says you crack him up."

I suppose one of the morals of that story is that if we were to cast out neckties in America, it would be a step toward amity with our Chinese neighbors.

Day adds his own argument:

"A tie is an affectation. Why should we perpetuate a custom of no symbolic meaning? Other customs have been abandoned over the ages. What is the value to society and civilization of not changing ours?

"How senseless ties are is proven by how quickly men loosen them when ritual no longer requires them--as soon as they get out of the office, as soon as they get home.

"Let's adopt dress of which discomfort is not de rigueur , dress that allows enjoyment of our duties, our workday, our hours."

It is amazing that the necktie survives at all in our society, given the freedom of our times. One might think the informality of World War II would have rendered it passe, like spats and celluloid collars. After all, Churchill saved civilization in a jump suit.

But the necktie made an astonishing comeback after the war. It not only returned--it was bigger than ever, decorated with great swirling patterns, and sometimes with hand-painted landscapes and naked dancing girls.

Our neckties took on this flamboyance just as our cars were doing the same thing, with great tail fins and ornamental grillwork. Perhaps it represented some explosion of the spirit, after the regimentation and cramped expectations of the war years.

Then suddenly we were embarrassed by the gross tastelessness of our neckties, our cars and our double-knit suits, and we turned back to simpler, more traditional styles.

Certainly a whole generation escaped the necktie altogether, accepting instead the uniform of revolt and alienation--blue jeans, tank shirts and tennis shoes.

As this generation's heroes found success and big money and turned up in Rolls-Royces and all the best restaurants and hotels, they brought a more expensive version of their clothes with them, and the next thing we knew they were being admitted to our restricted dining places in designer jeans and open shirts with gold chains on their chests. The jacket-and-tie rule was broken.

But those men who hold the fortresses of money and power do not change costume overnight, seeking to look like the brigands who assault their walls.

The men who control the money still wear tailored suits and shirts and expensive neckties, and most of us who work in their aura try to look something like them, off the rack.

As Day asks, why?

Why, as we dress for the day, do we tie a band of cloth around our necks, thus compressing the veins and arteries and closing off the escape of warm air from our bodies? Custom is its own reason. The necktie is a sign that one has conformed. It is one's token of obeisance to the rules of society. It is everyman's mark of civilization. It separates him from the barbarian. It is a sign to his employer that he defers, at least temporarily, to the rules. If he wears a necktie, he can be counted on to conform in other ways. He belongs.

But why do I wear a necktie when I don't have to? For one thing, I think a man looks good in a necktie, if it has been chosen with any care; if it is tied in a proper knot, and does not bear the stains of egg, wine and bearnaise sauce. It gives class to a restaurant when men are sitting about in well-pressed suits, clean shirts and appropriate neckties.

Beyond that, men's clothes are by tradition so restrained, in comparison with women's, that neckties are their only chance to express their taste in color and design. Thus, some of us like to wear a paisley, or a modest foulard, or a bold stripe. I prefer stripes myself, and have several of them. I wouldn't be surprised if some of them happen to be regimentals, belonging to some legendary regiment of Her Majesty's armed forces; or old school ties, representing some elite establishment in British academia. Oh, well, I wear them innocent of the knowledge of any such connection; without pretension.

Though a necktie may denote some such affiliation, I don't think it should be used to advertise a political association or promulgate some social message. That is why I gave my feminist necktie to Gary Lund for his atrocious necktie contest. It had been given to me by my Italian daughter-in-law.

By the way, it won.

I do not wear neckties because of any social pressure to do so. In recent years, when I have been invited to parties attended mostly by members of a younger generation, where ties were thought comical, I have always worn a tie--as a symbol of my independence from their social customs, not in slavery to my own.

But don't give me a necktie, please. I choose my own.

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