Pity the poor necktie, hanging on for dear life. Consider that male attire, unlike female, is, unless completely wacko, basically standardized. The lapel may get narrower or wider, the indentation may be higher or lower. But the essential structure remains the same.
Which is where ties come in. It was the one area where a man could exercise his fantasy and good taste, if he had any. There were shapes, patterns and colors to play with, on a spot that attracted immediate attention. The necktie separated the boor from the connoisseur, the gentleman from the barbarian. And now that touchstone is pretty much gone.
Like so much in the field of fashion, it seems to have originated in Paris. Young, upper-class Frenchmen all of a sudden unbuttoned their shirt collars, and made it acceptable for all occasions. It was as startling as when they started refrigerating red wine, an innovation that happily did not catch on.
True, in the summer, a touch of bare neckline means less sweat. But what is a little bit of extra comfort compared to a great loss in elegance? It became hard to tell what kind of a man his clothes were making him. Remarkably, though, neckties are still being fabricated and displayed in large quantities, although leaving one wondering who is buying them.
I myself own hundreds—alas, yes, hundreds—of ties I bought mostly while I was a bachelor making a good living and squandering wage. My fellow critic and tie gatherer, Harold Clurman, commented on however many ties one owned, it was only a few of them one kept wearing. Nowadays, though, nothing makes me sadder than that, on top of the many ties prominently and expectantly parading in my closet, there are at least as many, equally desirable, squashed and entombed in plastic bags, transparent in painful reproof.
Fashions in general are a funny business, as they have evolved over the centuries, or merely seesawed over the years. I wonder, for instance, when and how the so-called play clothes made their debut. They surely weren’t with us all along—or can you imagine Francis Bacon or Walter Raleigh in play clothes? Even incarcerated in the Tower, they don’t seem to fit into T-shirts and dungarees.
To be sure, change seems to be a powerful human need. Just see in the Times pictures of what rages on the runways. It looks positively Martian even on young, beautiful women—not that some models couldn’t double as scarecrows. On older women it looks like a beret on a donkey.
Personally, I recall accompanying a very rich and very chic lady to a number of Paris haute couture salons, where with a little effort she could have picked up some fairly bizarre outfits, but she stuck with the more reasonable, or even sedate. Assuredly, I have never seen anyone, anywhere wearing some of those outré duds, though it may be that I am not getting invited to the right parties.
Now, why exactly this need for change? Because boredom sets in far too easily, far too soon. It is one of humankind’s chief problems—just think what it does to marriages. I have even heard of a marriage where the wife wore a different wig to bed every night, and it worked wonders. But what happens to a wigless marriage? It would seem resignation or divorce.
In the play “The Audience,” Queen Elizabeth II says that she never allowed her televised Christmas greeting to run longer than eight minutes, which she considered the limit of the human attention span. Granted, eight minutes may be excessive caution, rather like wearing both belt and suspenders, but the principle is sound; as she goes on to say in the play, never outstay your welcome.
Well then, let us admit that other than in marriage, there is no compelling reason to resist change. So in fashion, always presupposing that money is abundant, there is no reason for constraint; you are free to wear something different on the outside as often as you change underwear. In fashion, at any rate, you can play chameleon with impunity.
So, in women’s fashions at any rate, every change from hair ribbons to heels, is readily and regularly available. What really matters is personal style. That, however, is anything but facile. As the French sage Buffon remarked, “Le style c’est l’homme meme,” i.e., style is the man himself, and, a fortiori, the woman herself. But it is not as easy to come by as you might wish. Clothes will contribute to tour style, but are they the last impression, which may more likely be your conversation and your behavior? But they are very probably the first impression of style, and we know how important first impressions are.
Which brings me back to neckties. Suppose I were to advertise selling ties I bought for very considerable sums now for a mere ridiculous fraction of their price. Suppose further that buyers showed up. Wouldn’t you feel a huge pang anytime one of them was purchased? Wouldn’t they, a la Buffon, be part of your humanity, so that it would be like the buyer cutting off one of your fingers or toes?
To make a long story short—sort of like turning a four-in-hand into a bow tie (none of which I ever wore)—is there anything we can do to prevent the extinction of the necktie? The seemingly obvious answer is to keep wearing one. Yet what does that really do except make you look absurdly overdressed? Say, a stuffed shirt? Expose you to being laughed at? That, in what is far from a life-and-death cause, takes a lot of courage. Much easier to undo that top button and go tieless.