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STYLE / FASHION

The Ties That Bind

October 22, 1995|Colman Andrews

The city of Palm Springs used to host an annual event called Desert Circus, a community festival that featured rodeos, parades, square dances and, of course, parties galore, full of people in silly Western clothes, smoking and drinking and eating silly hors d'oeuvres.

The feature of those parties that most impressed me as a child was that if you showed up wearing a necktie, some arbiter of Desert Circus taste, official or otherwise, would promptly cut it off just below the knot with a big pair of shears. Astonishingly enough, nobody seemed to mind this sartorial affront--or at least nobody dared to complain. To object to the tie-cutting would have seemed uptight, humorless. This was Palm Springs, after all, and you came down here to relax. Ties meant hard work, business, the real world. If somebody lopped yours off at the Windsor, friend, it was for your own darn good.

From time to time, I hear of a bar or club somewhere where similarly inspired tie-cutting is still practiced. These days--when a necktie can easily cost $100, and people are likely to sue you for not warning them that olives have pits--I would think this a dangerous custom. But apparently, even today, few victims complain. Fear of being thought prissy aside, I suspect that this might have something to do with the fact that the necktie is the only article of clothing most men consider disposable--the only one they'll cast aside on the grounds that it is "out of style." Well, sure it cost a hundred bucks. But, frankly, it was a little too wide anyway.

Width may be one reason men dispose of ties, but I'll bet another one is that ties frequently have content, and content expiration dates. Along with T-shirts and baseball caps, the necktie is an article of clothing that can economically and comfortably convey narrative information. By your choice of tie, you can pay tribute to your favorite sport (golf, tennis, bowling, the shooting of small birds); you can advertise your association, real or imagined, with Giggleswick School, the Royal Irish Fusiliers or the Spanish Club at Oxford, and you can amuse friends with portraits of Freud or the Little Mermaid. Ties, that is, have symbolic capabilities--and sometimes people change their minds about what they want to symbolize. In that way, ties are sort of like bumper stickers, but easier to take off.

The ultimate symbolic use of a necktie, of course, is not wearing one in the first place--and at that, Angelenos excel. The visitor to this city, in fact, might be forgiven for imagining that L.A. employs descendents of those old Palm Springs tie-snippers to keep its citizenry from putting on airs, or at least putting on Nicole Millers.

It certainly isn't true that nobody wears a tie in L.A. anymore. But it is true, I think, that, outside of certain professions--undertaking and supermarket managing are two that come to mind--people who wear ties are usually doing it for a specific reason, like maybe they're asking for a raise, or hoping to convince the judge that they're really upright citizens after all.

I rarely wear a tie in Los Angeles myself. Short of weddings and funerals, I can't think of any occasion that really demands it. There certainly aren't any restaurants in town that still require ties; the ones that used to, years ago, have all gone out of business, or have long since figured out that it's usually guys in the polo shirts and jeans who buy all the char-grilled ahi and Puligny-Montrachet.

The worst thing about wearing a tie, in whatever city, is that you have to button the top button on your shirt to do it right. In grade school, there used to be guys who buttoned the top buttons of their shirts without wearing ties, but they were the ones who took clarinet lessons after class.

Today, I sometimes see grown men affecting the tieless but buttoned-up look, and it always amazes me. This is supposed to be hip? I don't get it. Why choke yourself if you're not going to make a statement? Hey, guys, sporting portraits of Freud is the fun part.

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