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All societies have rites of passage. In some parts of the world a boy becomes a man when he has slain a lion. Elsewhere he is taken to a brothel or a pub. In western societies a boy is judged to have come to man's estate when he has learned to tie a tie.
In this brave new century the question must be asked. Is the necktie dying? Many lads mocked those few and weedy boys who wore their top button done up without a tie. But they were fools to do so because those boys now run the world. The computer age has brought about their revenge. At the head of their army stands 'King' William Gates1. Even the term Bill hints at tielessness. Is he the forerunner of a tieless future?
Learning to tie a tie takes years and tears. For sure ties were worn at primary school but they were false things. They comprised a hoop of elastic around the neck and a pre-tied knot. Though the elastic could be whipped off for use as a slingshot, the pre-tied tie announced we were children still. We were miming manhood.
Some boys never quite become men, for even today they can tie a tie only with their eyes closed. If they look in a mirror, left becomes right and they become confused. But once any child has mastered tying a tie he wonders why he bothered. For a tie is a useless thing. It has a master but that master is not the owner. A tie obeys only gravity. A tie acts like a builder's plumb. It sneaks its snout into soup. it loves to lie flat in gravy and in middle age it settles unflatteringly on a paunch to form the profile of a ski-jump.
A tie is just a bad scarf. It descended from the stock, the white neck-wrap worn by Beethoven's2 bust. The stock was a throat-warmer but as the ice age receded the stock shrank to the cravat, which today is seen only in golf clubs round the necks of the terminally strange. In more recent times the cravat begat the tie.
A tie is like the ribbon on a gift. It serves no practical purpose but it gives the sense of completing the wrapping. It conceals the buttons on a shirt to suggest seamlessness, like a sort of Star Trek outfit. There is no sane reason to want to conceal buttons, but even with the most formal of ties, the bow tie, the dress shirt hides its fastenings behind a false hem or a frilly ruffle. The ruffle also serves to catch peas.
A tie denotes conformity. It is a badge of belonging. Sports clubs provide ties. On a sunny day the attractive blend of purple, mauve, baby blue and pus yellow stripes can damage a retina.
The tie symbolises management. It goes with a white collar, not a blue one.
Some people cannot understand why the business pages of newspapers show photographs of anything other than money, but a survey of the snaps of businessmen any morning will reveal a 100% tie quotient.
But the tie is also ambiguous. While it represents conformity, it also sings a song of independence. It adds a splash of self to the grey uniformity of the business suit, like the butter yellow beak on a blackbird.
A tie is not simply a tie. It has been said that it is phallic, that it encodes a man's masculinity beneath his dowdy exterior. If so, a picture of Mickey Mouse seems an odd thing to wear. But a tie is also the way it is worn. A huge Windsor3 knot implies a self-confident dandy. A bootlace fixed with a metal animal skull implies a man who has a penchant for Dolly Parton4. A loosened tie implies grit. Fearless investigative journalists wear their ties at half-mast, as do television detectives. These men may tire but they don't give up. Their ties are the low-slung badges of exhausted integrity.
In the 1970s ties spread as broad as the flares. In the '80s they narrowed like the money supply. In the '90s they became funky. Disney designs and fluorescent patterns announced that a fun-loving rebel lurked beneath the suit. But now in the naughty noughties it seems that the tie may be dying. And most men will not lament its passing.