Dress codes are sometimes appropriate. Social taboos as well. True freedom means a diversity of arrangements, voluntarily chosen, that effectively limit what people may wear. It is not oppression, but rather a product of liberty, that, for instance, actors and actresses are generally limited in how they may dress on stage or screen. This example alone demonstrates that certain occupations and events warrant proper attire, however precisely designated, but surely we can conceive of many other, more banal reasons that people would find themselves adhering to some decorum of dress or another.
In terms of public policy, I support a total separation of clothing and state. I don’t approve of uniforms in public schools, or dress codes for the military, or even nudity laws. I understand why most people would want to live in communities that uphold like-minded social standards, and I certainly seek no central plan to make every day Casual Friday. But it seems to me that the state has no right to tell people what and what not to wear.
As to social norms, I am something of an ideological hybrid on clothing. A fan of theatrics, I potentially love a wide range of it. I’m amused by fantastical and exotic regalia. I think it’s fine that people wear t-shirts.
But I also think it’s fine to wear a tie.
I swear, wearing a necktie, for its own sake, I have many times been asked why I was wearing it. Many times.
“Did you just come from work?” “Are you going to the opera?” “Who got married?” “Who died?”
I’m just wearing a tie! No one died! Relax. Look around. People are dressed in all kinds of ways. Everything is either in or retro. You can get away wearing anything, at least in the more permissive parts of the land. But for some reason a necktie is considered a violation of some unspoken law.
Now I don’t know if this is just where I’m from — I doubt it — but many people for some bizarre reason seemingly don’t know the difference between a tie and a suit. If I wear slacks, a collared shirt and a tie — even if I’m wearing Converse shoes and no jacket! — suddenly I’m wearing “a suit.”
“Why are you wearing a suit?”
I’m not. A suit is a matching set of a jacket and pants, sometimes with a vest. I’m just wearing a tie.
This confusion is even worse, in my opinion, than the common false identification of skirts as dresses. I could be wearing jeans, a short-sleeve collared shirt and a tie — not that I typically would — and I just know someone out there would ask me why I’m wearing a suit.
I guess it’s because ties are supposedly formal and thus signal the death of joviality. It has even been suggested to me by certain types in the freedom movement that a devotion to liberty is best revealed by rejection of such formal apparel.
Well, I never understood this hostility toward the formal. I mean, it’s not always for me, not at all times, but I see no reason not to tolerate it. I see no reason not to celebrate it, bask in it, when the moment is right.
So I’m all for the formal when it’s fitting, but as it so happens, I see the necktie itself, as most often worn, more as the grownup version of the t-shirt than as anything stifling to personal identity.
Young men (along with young ladies) often wear t-shirts to display their interest in or loyalty to something — political causes, silly humor, or a particular rock band, to name typical examples. But the awesomest t-shirts usually feature generic but wonderful designs, snazzy, colorful patterns, tie-dyed or otherwise made to jump at you with excitement.
Ties are really man’s most affordable, flexible and socially accepted way to express himself by buying something to wear on his chest. Sometimes, it should be a very simple something. I myself think the completely plain-colored tie is underrated. But sometimes, and actually quite often, even the man with a serious, bourgeois role in America’s division of labor can brandish a tie exploding with personality.
Women have the benefit of having a wide range of styles of dress. There’s a thousand shapes. Many colors are appropriate much of the time. Dresses and skirts come in all sizes and sorts. And on many occasions women can, if they want, even wear men’s clothes too. A woman in pants might be called eccentric and independent, but only in certain contexts is a man in drag considered proper.
Men are stuck with sports coats and suits. They are cut somewhat differently from one another. There’s some variety in material. There are about seven accepted shades of color. Overall, the choices of garb for a man wishing to be slightly formal or presentable are dreadfully finite. A dressed man’s silhouette is nearly identical to any other’s. With the decline of haberdashery, this is even more so.
But ties can have anything, especially today. Some ties have pictures on them. They have reprints of M.C. Escher and Edvard Munch. They have swirls of colors. They can be classic, spotted, polka-dotted, striped, starred or psychedelic. It is at least as often that you’ll find a novel or fascinating tie as a similarly worthwhile t-shirt.
Ties are soft or loud, wide or thin, conspicuous or subdued. Some men can even get away with the bow tie. And this in turn opens the door to restoring that wonderful tradition: suspenders. Next, we might reclaim the pork pie hat and even cufflinks. The struggle for the right to wear a tie is every man’s struggle for dressing with dignity and pluck.
Learning to tie one’s tie is a great rite of passage for men. It is a grand part of our culture. Tying a tie reminds men to consider how they look in the morning. It is a skill of patience and precision. These days, many men wouldn’t know how to tie any knots if it weren’t for the half-Windsor.
Ties look good. I know they are going out of style, but I will miss them. I am sad that we will probably lose this battle against time. One day, a necktie might be as unusual as a kilt or corset. Men of my generation might be the last to wear them much, and even only a fraction of us will hold on to them in our old age. Those of us who won’t know what else to wear as we gray, consulting mainly our childhood recollections of old men adorned in neckties, will be more dated relics than today’s oldsters with their own aging fashions. By the time I reach the golden years, all that will remain of the tie in the popular culture will be memories, artistic remembrances and video recordings. Most male necks will be liberated.
I am not a conservative, but I do admit that part of me wishes ties were one of those permanent things.
My thanks to Mark Brady for offering to me the title for this piece.
Anthony Gregory [send him mail] is a writer and musician who lives in Berkeley, California. He is a research analyst at the Independent Institute. See his webpage for more articles and personal information.