"If men can run the world," asked the American network news broadcaster Linda Ellerbee, "why can't they stop wearing neckties? How intelligent is it to start the day by tying a little noose around your neck?"
The necktie, as Ellerbee calls it, is apparently the most unnecessary and impractical item in the working man's wardrobe. It flops into soup, entangles itself in revolving doors and flies over shoulders on blustery days. Isn't it time we dispensed with the formality?
This is a question that, it seems to me, is asked with increasing frequency, as senior figures once uniformly knotted at the neck – politicians, business leaders, media grandees – attempt to signal their man-of-the-people credentials by appearing in public with their collars open. Meanwhile, professional men and members of the managerial classes follow suit, no pun intended.
Last week's most prominent tie non-wearer was Tim Davie, who chose for his first round of media interviews as acting director general of the BBC to dress in a dark navy suit and crisp white shirt – so far, so ho-hum – without the tie that would traditionally complete that outfit.
Given the harshness of the spotlight into which Mr Davie had just shuffled, it might be reasonable to suggest he could have been forgiven a minor sartorial oversight. But John Bradshaw, a retired PR executive from Warwickshire, emailed Mr Davie to tell him he looked "very silly". "I do wish you well in restoring public confidence in the BBC," he wrote. "And a small piece of advice, if I may – remember ties? Buy and wear a tie. You will not be taken seriously without a tie." No doubt eager to demonstrate his sensitivity to the concerns of a licence fee payer,
Davie wrote back: "Thank you for your feedback. You will be happy to hear that I am wearing a tie today."
Mr Bradshaw is right: men who wear suits and business shirts but not ties do look silly. But it's not fair to single out Mr Davie. Jeremy Paxman, another BBC bigwig, caused a minor menswear scuffle over the summer by appearing tieless on Newsnight. Perhaps Paxo was merely following the lead of the men he grills. Because for a decade at least politicians have regularly chosen to appear in public with their top buttons undone. The idea, one suspects, is Blairite, in a pretty-straight-guy kind of way.
So perhaps it's no surprise that it is the Cameroons, particularly before they came to power, who embraced it most warmly, with Cameron himself quite frequently appearing in a suit but not a tie. This has the reverse effect to the one intended. Rather than suggesting a seriousness of purpose – I haven't time for such ornamental fripperies, I've a nation to run; or a down-with-the-kids lack of formality: yo, dude, who needs all that old-school nonsense? – the wearing of a suit and business shirt without a tie actually demonstrates an obsession with presentation to the detriment of substance. It is shallow. It is insincere. It is vain. It is a pose.
And, anyway, surely no one is fooled into thinking a powerful man is younger, groovier, more democratic, more likeable, more open to new ideas, less conventional, just because he's not wearing a tie? Rules about what to wear and what not to wear are tiresome. You should wear whatever you like. But you must be prepared for the consequences. The consequences of not wearing a tie with a suit are that you look not only less authoritative – lightweight, as Mr Bradshaw put it – but plain wrong. Aesthetically, a suit without a tie is incomplete. Suits have developed and continue to be designed to be worn with a tie, which is framed by the lapels of the jacket and the collars of the shirt. Without a tie, a jacket and shirt is an empty frame.
A suit without a tie, moreover, is boring, colourless and unimaginative. A tie is one of the few – often the only – flamboyant adornments that men in conventional jobs are allowed to wear. Suits tend to be blue or grey, shirts white or blue, maybe light pink. Ties can be bright, patterned, textured. They can reflect and influence mood. Of course, there are any number of professions that have long forsworn the tie, almost as many as those that insist on it (the police, hospitality, ticket inspectors). Architects regard themselves as too stylish and maverick for neckwear. In other creative fields – sections of the media, advertising, design, the arts – it has also been the case that senior professionals go tieless. But they replace them not with open-necked business shirts but with roll necks, T-shirts, polo necks or button-downs, all of which can look fine if you know what you're doing. It's the tieless business suit and shirt wearer who looks wrong.
Consider the kind of man who adopts this look: Simon Cowell, Roman Abramovich, Hugh Grant. All believe they look like debonair Euro-smoothies, when in reality they look like hedge funders who've fallen asleep in the sun.
There's also the not unimportant matter of fashion. Those of us who follow movements in menswear have witnessed an explosion of interest in traditional tailoring. History, tradition, provenance: all these are celebrated where once they were considered stiff, square, fogeyish. Dapper young men wear ties even when the occasion doesn't call for it. They wear them for the pleasure of it, because it looks smart, elegant and, yes, dandyish.
One final observation. A few years ago Jamie Oliver was invited to Buckingham Palace to receive an honour from the Queen. Presumably believing himself above the sartorial considerations usually demanded by such an occasion, and wishing to telegraph his anti-establishment, devil-may-care attitude, Oliver arrived without a tie. Asked his opinion of this, the late fashion designer Alexander McQueen said that men should always wear a tie on those sorts of occasions. He was asked why. "Because it looks better," he said.
Alex Bilmes is editor of Esquire magazine
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