The Magazine

Fit To Be Tied

Joseph Epstein, fit to be tied.

Sep 14, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 48 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
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In an idle moment in an otherwise indolent life, I recently counted my neckties. I have, I am slightly embarrassed to report, 86 of them, some purchased as long ago as the late 1970s. The preponderance are bow ties, though I've bought a few brightly colored knit four-in-hand ties in recent years from a Charleston haberdasher called Ben Silver. I also have two four-in-hand ties owned by the poet John Frederick Nims and given to me by his widow, one of which has small red octopuses against a background of forest green. The whimsicality of it is, for those who knew John, very Nimsian.

Eighty-six is a lot of neckties. Since they do not take up much room, I have not felt the need to winnow them, tossing away the more hopeless. None, so far as I know, is stained, faded, or frayed; nor is any of them outlandish. Each of these neckties represents an aesthetic choice on my part. Each tie, I must have thought at the time I acquired it, would make me more dashing, dignified, dandaical, who knows what. As I gaze upon them now, I wonder whether I am likely to wear even half these neckties ever again.

The fact is that the necktie may one day before long go the way of spats, becoming a laughable anachronism. Should this happen in my lifetime, I won't be among those laughing, even though I, too, find myself wearing neckties less and less. Putting on a necktie is not part of my everyday dress now that I no longer go to a regular job. I wear neckties only if I am invited to give a talk or lecture or to go to a dinner party or one of the few remaining restaurants where neckties are understood to be de rigueur.

Lawyers still wear neckties in court; so do most physicians when seeing patients. Businessmen seem to be wearing them less and less; casual Friday is increasingly becoming casual everyday. A not uncommon photograph in the New York Times business section or the Wall Street Journal shows two powerful CEOs upon the merger of their companies, both with open collars.

When I began teaching at Northwestern, in 1973, then in my mid-30s, I was faced with two choices: neckties or not, calling students by their first names or not. I went for the more formal option in both cases and never regretted it. My wearing a jacket and tie to class put some useful distance between my students and me, and also gave the impression, or so I liked to believe, that in a crunch I might have a chance of finding work elsewhere.

Until the 1980s, most even moderately expensive restaurants assumed that male customers would wear neckties. This was also true of private clubs. I used to be a member of the Tavern Club in Chicago, and when one night I invited the film director Edward Zwick to meet me there for dinner, Zwick, originally a Chicagoan but long a habitué of Los Angeles, showed up in a black silk shirt open at the neck and a black unconstructed jacket. The Tavern Club made him put on a necktie, of which they kept a few in reserve, which he did in amused good spirits. Not many years later, the Tavern Club dropped its necktie rule. I am not sure that a restaurant or club today could stay in business if it insisted all its male customers wear neckties.

The West Coast has never been necktie friendly. Neither has Israel, a country I have long assumed has only enough neckties for the male cabinet officers of the government in power. The tieless movement has now swept up orchestra conductors, many of whom have turned in their grand white-tie-and-tails for one or another black trousers and tunic get-up. Toscanini, I daresay, would not have approved; Furtwängler would have tossed his cookies.

The only defense for the necktie is tradition, not, in our time, an easy defense to make. I recall an older salesman at Brooks Brothers, a man who had devoted his life to being well turned out and helping his customers do likewise, telling me with chagrin that his 26-year-old grandson did not know how to tie a necktie. His sigh after reporting this reverberated around the shop.

The two movie stars who wore neckties best were Fred Astaire and Cary Grant. They knew that a bit of color at the throat brightens up the countenance of an older player, and they knew which colors did the job most elegantly. Churchill wins in the bow tie division of this competition with his perpetual dark blue bow tie with small white dots. What we can learn from these gents is to button our shirt collars, tie a bit of silk at our necks with a careful crisp knot, and move out smartly.