I was seated in the second row, in the aisle seat of the coach section of a jetliner packed full of seats placed three abreast. For some odd reason of design, the row in front of me only had two seats. This absence of a third seat gave me at least twenty feet of legroom, legroom that stretched all the way through first class and up into the cockpit. I typically have to sit like a crab in my tiny coach seat, knees wide apart as if waiting to birth a large-headed baby, so I was giddy with the possibilities. Clearly, I did what any tall person would do: I sprawled straight out as far as I could go. I was nearly horizontal just for the fun of it, splayed out like a bored little kid in a waiting room.
After a few minutes of this, I straightened up, crossed my legs, and started reading an article in the Wall Street Journal I had grabbed from the airport. I like the Wall Street Journal, but I seldom, if ever, buy it. I only had it now because it was free but mostly because it was the only English-language newspaper they had in the tiny, secured section of the Berlin airport.
This particular article caught my eye because it was about neckties and how they are presumably going away. The last time anybody seriously checked this was 2008 when the annual ties sales in the U.S. had dropped to $677.7 million dollars from a record high of $1.3 billion dollars in 1995. This shocked me. Just how many neckties need to be sold to pull in even $677.7 million dollars? I bought a tie last summer for forty-five dollars, which will serve all of my necktie needs until the whims of fashion mess with the width, but even a steady wearer of ties can’t possibly buy more than a few each year. By comparison, people in the U.S. are projected to spend $1.22 billion dollars on adult Halloween costumes this year, so while hordes of grown men will flock to dress up as a zombie werewolf vampire, wearing a tie is on a downward spiral.
With all of this decadent legroom and about eight hours to fill, I put down the paper and began to ponder the death of the necktie. I wondered if this open collar/no collar at all rampancy had a much larger impact than simply fashion. Perhaps this slippery slope of slovenliness explains why men now feel perfectly guilt-free going out of the house dressed in clothes once reserved for a flu-ridden week on the couch. Does personal comfort now trump the societal norms that have spanned centuries? I didn’t know, but I had three quarters of a day to figure it out, so I thought I’d start on the airplane.
It used to be a big deal to get on an airplane for a flight somewhere. One would board the plane, coat draped over your arm and a small carry-on in your hand, and be greeted with a sincere, “Enjoy your flight, sir.” People were dressed up nicely, as if this was a big important thing they were doing. Now a flight on an airplane is just a 1998 Dodge Caravan with wings, on its way to pick up a quick bucket of chicken at the KFC drive-thru.
These days, on almost every flight I take, I’ll get some guy in a tank top, shorts and flip-flops standing next to my seat, crotch to eyeball, trying to cram an old canvas duffle bag full of more tank tops, shorts and flip-flops into the overhead compartment above my head. The flight was planned, wasn’t it? What—it came up so suddenly that these guys simply leapt out of the swimming pool and onto a Boeing 737? How can one expect to see a necktie when there are fair amounts of grown men who aren’t even wearing pants?
After a while, I took a casual stroll through the cabin and even crossed the threshold up into first class, looking for somebody who was wearing a tie. Oh sure, several European men were wearing scarves, but that didn’t count. I was looking for a full-on Windsor or even a half-Windsor. I didn’t see a single one. Not even a casual four-in-hand. The only man wearing a tie was the cabin steward, and I think that was a clip-on.
Maybe it was true. Maybe the tie was dying.
I was born in 1954, a child molded by a generation of men who wore ties to watch a baseball game. They wore them everywhere. The only men who went outside wearing a T-shirt were running out of their burning house, and even then they took the time to tuck it in.
I have pictures of myself as a baby wearing a tie—and a hat and an overcoat. At three years of age, in my own kitchen, I was wearing a shirt and tie for my own birthday. In 1961, the year I first set foot into St. Johns Elementary School, I wore a tie and continued to wear one for the next eight years. Boys in Catholic school wear polo shirts now. Polo shirts. We used to look like sharp, miniature businessmen. Now everybody looks as if they work at Best Buy.
There was a tie-less period in public high school, but I had a series of jobs after that where I had to wear one, and oddly enough, I didn’t mind. I felt comfortable. Even after I switched to a thirty-year career that was more mud and work boots than neckties, I still wore a tie when we went out. OK, not to the movies but out to dinner or on holidays. I just didn’t feel dressed until I tied on a necktie.
In that WSJ article I read, they quoted producer Gavin Polone voicing his opinion about wearing a tie. “It’s stupid. It makes no sense. What does it do? It’s just a decoration, an affectation. If I see a colleague wearing a tie, I usually ask if they’re going to a funeral or a job interview, or if they’ve been indicted,” he said. That’s a little harsh coming from a guy who still wears a T-shirt under the pushed-up sleeves of his sport coat, like Sonny Crocket in Miami Vice. Lots of things are a decoration. We’d all be walking around wearing fig leaves if we hadn’t advanced to some degree of sartorial affectation.
I’m not suggesting that we go back to a time when even the Three Stooges wore a suit every day, but I’ll tell you something—a nice necktie will spiffy up just about any occasion, but what’s more important is what it signifies. It shows that something is important enough to make the effort and as a pleasant side effect, people act a little nicer when they wear one.
Maybe that’s putting too much importance on such a simple thing, but for those of us over a certain age, it does seem that things were a little more congenial when people made an effort to care about what other people thought. Business people seemed more professional too. Now everything feels as if the “I can go to work in my PJ’s” tech industry runs the world. It’s all first names and casual now, as if we’re all old friends going camping.
I have a scrapbook that was given to me by my mother years ago, and it’s filled with the usual stuff that mothers save. In the back of the book, folded up and a little yellowed, is the white knit tie that I wore for my First Communion. She kept that thing not because it was worth much, but because I wore it on an important day that meant something to her. I can actually imagine how she and every other parent felt, looking at their boys with their neckties and their starched white shirts tucked neatly into pressed trousers. The word that comes to mind is pride.
I know this sounds slightly ludicrous. After all, it’s just a decoration, an affectation. If the President of the United States can go to meetings with the leaders of foreign countries with an open collar, why should a little kid care about the tradition of such things? When it comes right down to it, isn’t it what’s in a person’s heart that matters most, not what he wears around his neck?
Eight hours after I started thinking about this, I came up with the answer. Yes it is, but sometimes the cake simply looks better with a little icing.