Paul Ryan may not succeed in ending Medicare as we know it, but he might be the death knell for the necktie. Ties have been a required part of the male uniform since the 1920s but, just like the hat — fashion requirement during the 1950s, gone 10 years later — they may soon simply disappear altogether.
Much tsk-tsking greeted Ryan when, at his unveiling as Mitt Romney’s vice presidential pick, he appeared tieless, wearing but a sport coat and collared shirt. (Romney wore a tie but no sport coat, making the pair, as others have observed, collectively one suit). Thereupon followed a kerfuffle. Political analyst James Carville on CNN pronounced himself “shocked.” Others saw Ryan’s failure to wear a necktie as both disrespectful and a missed opportunity to convey his importance.
Men’s dress has traditionally been pragmatic and dull, typified by the suit: matching pants and jacket, collared shirt, and, of course, a necktie. Much of this makes sense. The sport coat is wonderfully adept at hiding bulges and bumps. Matching pants and jacket make life simple for fashion-challenged men: Little brainwork is required to pair up similar patterns.
But ties are silly. Silk ribbons around one’s neck do little to deter the wind and cold, although they certainly hold in heat during summer. The things constrict blood flow, fly in one’s face at the slightest breeze and have an unfortunate habit of falling into the soup (or at least mine do).
Curious, I decided to call up the Men’s Dress Furnishings Association — the folks who represent the necktie industry — to find out what’s going on. No such luck. The association is out of business. Neckties, it turns out, have been a long time falling out of favor. The height of their popularity was 1995, when $1.5 billion worth were sold. Sales have plummeted to less than half that. Paul Ryan isn’t killing the necktie. He’s just throwing dirt on its grave.
And why that demise? Part of it is that American society has become more casual. Where once folks dressed up for theater, restaurants, or even to take a plane ride (remember Richard Nixon in a tie on the beach?), now pretty much anything goes — providing it’s clean and covers the essentials.
You know what they call a restaurant that insists on a jacket and tie?
But it’s not only “casual Fridays” that have done in the tie. Fashion is fickle. It used to be the cloth around one’s neck conveyed authority and virility (I don’t need to spell out why, do I…?). The height of the neckties’ popularity was right before the first Internet revolution. Those new entrepreneurs were mostly young men whose rise to wealth hadn’t come from a climb up the corporate ladder. They had never had to wear the uniform and they weren’t about to do so.
Suddenly, the bosses were not the ones in ties. In ensuing years, the meaning conveyed by neckties changed. Instead of showing power, they have, if anything, become a symbol of weakness. Fashion advisers, for instance, continue to insist that men should wear ties to events such as job interviews, which underscores the necktie’s changed status: It’s something worn by a supplicant. Tiemakers were delighted when more men started wearing them after the 2008 recession, but again, the underlying message was: I’m desperate. “Fifty Shades of Grey” has apparently also spurred a boomlet in sales. But truthfully, being a prop for an S&M tale is hardly good for the necktie’s long-term reputation.
Paul Ryan is hardly the first politician to doff his tie. Four years ago, Barack Obama came under criticism from Republicans for his occasional tie-free appearances (a critique now being hastily walked back). Perhaps politicians originally went tie-free so they would look more like the people. But if neckties are no longer a way to demonstrate one’s status, the reverse now becomes true. It is in refusing to wear them that a man now communicates clout — the power non-tie, if you will. In any event, when it comes to fashion I am, like most men, just a follower. Paul Ryan now gives us leave to cut the ties that bind and my scissors are out.