Friday 22 November 2019

Mary Kenny: Is it the noose for the necktie?

As 'cool Lefties' refuse to wear them, the tie's days seem numbered…

Mary Kenny
Mary Kenny
Mary Kenny

Mary Kenny

Tomorrow, October 18, is International Necktie Day, but let there be no dancing in the streets: the tie is probably on its way out as a marker of masculine style.

Leaders of men will often spurn the necktie these days: Steve Jobs, Alex Tsipras, Richard Branson - shall we add Mick Wallace to that canon? - are noted anti-tie icons. Mr Branson feels so hostile to the gentleman's necktie that he boasts of arming himself with a scissors, the better to go around cutting off neckties.

Careful, now, Rick: women perform just such a ritual in Bavaria during the October festival of Fasching, and the symbolism is clear, if disturbing…

On BBC television recently, their celebrity economics expert, Robert Peston, caused a rumpus by interviewing the Chancellor of the Exchequer not only tie-less, but showing a fine tuft of hair chest. Viewers protested that this manifested a "lack of respect", but Peston replied by saying that "TV dress conventions are nuts".

The fuss hasn't done him any harm - he has since been hired by ITV at a salary of reportedly more than £500,000, which anyone would call smart economics.

Then there was another reaction: that Peston's chest-baring tielessness was actually a distraction from the substance of the interview. Nobody remembered what was said: they were too distracted by what his interviewer didn't wear.

This is always a danger with TV: if the eye follows too closely what you are wearing (or not wearing), the ear doesn't hear what you are saying. I remember engaging in what I thought was a very serious debate on TV and wondering if I'd got my point across. A pal ring me next day, responding to the programme. "Mary," she said. "Never wear yellow. It does nothing for you."

Neckties have seemed doomed since the big global corporations like Amazon, Google and Microsoft have favoured casual attire, and "dress-down Friday" has become dress-down Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday too.

Deputy Wallace pioneered the tie-less look in Dáil Éireann back in 2011, and just a couple of weeks ago, Sinn Féin's Phil Flanagan was reprimanded, in the Belfast Assembly, for appearing without a necktie. Actually, the scolding was delivered by a member of his own party, too, the speaker Mitchel McLaughlin.

But if the tie is dying, it's still expected on some formal occasions, and in some formal places. Weddings, funerals, and any gentleman who joins me for tea at my London club; Michael Palin was refused admittance for being tie-less. Those who like the masculine necktie claim that it is both neat and neutral. A man wearing a discreet tie is not drawing attention to himself: a man wearing a pink shirt with his chest hairs showing seems like someone looking for notice.

And a tie can say quite a lot, in its own way. There are 85 ways to knot a necktie (according to a guidebook on men's style, The 85 Ways to Tie a Tie), each expressing a feeling and a mood, and sometimes a character.

Men who tie a very tight little knot are said to be mean. The extroverts have a floppy, loose style.

The British Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, does not wear a tie for preference - he prefers to show his vest under an open shirt - but forced to do so in parliament, he complies. Yet he manages to don the tie in such a casual way - so that it doesn't quite fit the shirt, or match the ensemble - that blatantly professes his reluctance.

Eschewing the necktie shows contempt, anyway, for bourgeois convention: why should cool Lefties wear something around their necks which denotes conformity?

But tielessness can also be conforming. On German TV, some men wear ties and some men don't. But the essential German style is itself so neat, so punctilious, so correct and respectful that the tieless guys look equally impeccably suburban.

I have no strong ideological feelings about the male necktie, except that it can add a dash of colour to a man's appearance, and it can enhance the looks of a very plain man. David Beckham doesn't need a necktie to look beautiful: but I can think of many an ugly mug improved by an elegant tie.

The necktie is also a reminder that men once were dandies. The great Regency fop, Beau Brummell would take endless care over his morning cravat. Many would be rejected until the perfect tie was tied.

Personally, I'm fond of the dickie-bow. In America, the bow tie once represented "the intellectual". Ivy League professors favoured them. So, of course, did band leaders.

The necktie's pattern can signal so many messages. Old school ties mean a lot to some chaps. Guy Burgess, communist, spy, promiscuous, gay and drunk, ended up in a dreary Moscow flat: he renounced King and Country, but he could never relinquish his Old Etonian tie.

International Necktie Day may attract a little more attention in Croatia, from where the necktie derives. The cravat was the ancestor of today's tie, and it just meant a cloth "in the Croatian style". So at least it's a cause for celebration in Zagreb.


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