Stephen McGinty: Ties are coming undone

David Cameron at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Conference last week. Picture: Getty
David Cameron at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Conference last week. Picture: Getty
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Once the epitome of true sartorial elegance, or at least helping to earn the wearer a little respect, the necktie seems to be going the way of the monocle, laments Stephen McGinty

You know when the toothpaste is getting a little run down and you have to roll the tube up from the bottom to force the minty white paste to the front of the nozzle, and how when you do it just right, the toothpaste is perfectly positioned so all it takes is one little squeeze to squirt it out?

Well, for me, putting on a tie and knotting it tightly around my shirt collar, does for my brain what rolling up the tube does to the toothpaste: it seems to lock it in position, ready for immediate use.

I like wearing a tie. I like that it sends a universal signal of a readiness to work. I like how a shirt and tie can act like the equivalent of an office sundial, charting the stages of the day relative to their positioning, at the beginning all is buttoned up and tightly knotted but as the day progresses and, depending on its difficulty, cuffs can be unbuttoned and sleeves rolled up.

The top button around the throat on a gentleman’s shirt is the equivalent of a pressure valve, the simple act of unbuttoning it can be worth a bucket kicked in frustration and loosening the tie a smidgeon or two can sometimes prevent an angry regrettable retort.

Now, not all shirt and tie wearers are the same. I’ve worked with individuals who wear perfect white shirts, tightly knotted ties and who would never, on even the hottest day, so much as loosen the knot a little. Then again, those are the ones I see at some distant date climbing a water tower with a self-loading rifle and nefarious intent.

He who wears a tie has a full panoply of options denied to the tieless. A bad day can have a line drawn through it and a side door opened to a fresh start by the simple act of popping to the toilet to re-tie one’s tie. The breathing slows down, the hands go about that complicated ritual of movements that has been 30, 40, 50, 60 years in practice and is so ingrained as to be a subconscious daily act.

One emerges from this act of office Tai Chi with fresh zeal and steely focus. Then, at day’s end, there is the sweet relief of taking off one’s tie, rolling it around one’s hand like a knuckle duster and putting it away. The day is done.

Now, don’t get me wrong, in no way can I be described as a clothes horse but when it comes to officewear I make swift prejudicial judgments. Red socks are out. A man’s character should not be waved as in semaphore by anything worn below the knee and as for cuff-links I have long considered them an insult to the common button.

I ask you at what point in a man’s life does he look down at his cuff and think: “No this will not do, these round plastic objects that have held my hand since childhood are no longer enough, they fail to satisfy my honour, quickly fetch me metal bolts and jewels and ivory attachments!” Shirts should also either be blue or white, any other colour is entirely unacceptable, and salmon pink is a colour no man should carry beyond the crib.

I am writing this ode as the tie is unravelling. Sales are plummeting and this week Tie Rack, the national chain of purveyors of, yes, some of the most unsightly neckwear known to mankind, has gone into administration.

The British male is turning his back on the tie. There are white collar industries that have long since left the tie behind. Television, for instance, is a parched sartorial Sahara, where visitors will scan miles of open plan offices and modular desks in a fruitless search for a tie.

At television centre in London, which I recently visited, the only ties on display were worn by the security guard at reception and the news presenters on air. Or, some news presenters.

To be tieless and unshaven was the definition of a tramp in the seventies, but today it makes you the presenter of Newsnight.Hospitals too have ditched the tie as an unnecessary garment, no longer is it viewed as a carrier of status and respect, but as a potential carrier of disease, liable to dip into wounds during examinations.

The civil service is the last bastion of the tie and even there things are looking decidedly dicey. A few years ago Sir Andrew Turnbull, who was retiring as Cabinet Secretary and head of the civil service said; “The bowler hat has gone. The new Lord Chief Justice has questioned wearing the wig. It is quite likely the necktie will be an issue.”

Still, the tie as a stylish fashion item has had a good run. The earliest equivalent was the neck cloth worn by the soldiers of Qin Shih Huang, China’s first emperor, after whose death in 210BC, the famous “Terracotta army” was buried to guard his afterlife.

Like a historical Zelig, the tie then appeared on Trajan’s Column in Rome, which was erected in 113AD, at a time when it may have been worn by soldiers as a mark of honour or promotion.

Yet if these appearances were the equivalent of the Neanderthal in relation to the modern tie, a distant, loosely connected strand, the first direct descendent of the tie as we know it today was worn by the Croatian army in the early 1630s. When these loyal troops who had fought on the side of the French in the Thirty Years War were presented to Louis XIII, the king was taken by their colourful, knotted neckerchiefs.

Within a generation the “cravat”, the French word for tie, (and some believe a derivation of “croat”) was an essential accoutrement for the well-dressed Frenchmen and, in terms of fashion, where France led the rest of Europe quickly followed.

The cravat arrived in Britain with Charles II in 1660 and grew into a confection of embroidered linen, cotton and lace and by the 18th century wearing a strip of cloth around the neck had permeated all levels of society.

In 1815 Napoleon wore a white cravat at Waterloo as a nod of respect towards the Duke of Wellington who favoured the colour and after defeating the French, Britain also co-opted the cravat which within a few years was known by the English word “tie”. Three years after Waterloo, the Neckclothitania was published, a satire on the various complicated knots in which the English gentry were tying themselves.

In 1828 H L Le Blanc published, The Art of Tying the Cravat, in which he demonstrated in detailed lessons 32 different styles.

The tie a decreasing number of us wear today, a knot at the throat with the two ends draping down towards the belt (never below) evolved during the Industrial Revolution, while the first tie any of us were introduced too, the distinctive “school tie” was invented in 1880 by a member of Oxford University’s rowing team who took off the ribbons from his boater and fashioned them into a neck tie.

It is said that John F Kennedy killed off the hat for the average American male. During his election campaign hat manufacturers presented him with panamas and trilbies at every stop but he knew it would be a sin to crush so spectacular a head of hair and hide those fecund locks from view, so while he always accepted them politely none was ever worn.

The public took note and began to question the necessity of a hat and within a year sales stepped off a cliff. The tie is two steps away from the same exit.

Yet the reason I still wear a suit, shirt and tie is that in my early days as a reporter I was told that such an ensemble would carry respect at any location you could conceivably find yourself, from a doorstep in a grim council estate to 10 Downing Street or Buckingham Palace, for with a shirt and tie, one size fits all.

It is a piece of advice I still believe to be true and politely pass on to those on work experience who arrive in denim jackets and Van Halen t-shirts. Yet I do fear that within a decade to wear a tie will be the equivalent of wearing a monocle today, the mark of an eccentric.