Why do men wear ties?

Julia Gillard’s comments at the launch of her Women for Gillard initiative have put the spotlight on men in blue ties. And it’s certainly true that blokes who haunt corridors of power tend to disproportionately favour baby-blue as a tie colour. Tony Abbott is notably fond of blue ties, having worn a stripey one on the cover of his book Battlelines which I found curiously reminiscent of his old school tie from St Ignatius’ College, Riverview. He wore it again at a campaign debate in 2010.

Now, I must now confess that there’s a reason I was able to recognise a Riverview tie, and that’s because I went to a fancy private school myself, and we used to debate against boys in those stripey blue-and-white ties. Who, due to the superiority of Jesuit rhetorical education, would always win.

I do feel a bit of a bind about the “old school tie” thing, because while I recognise the problematic nature of the patriarchy, and realise that my schooling perpetrated a powerful boy’s club, I really enjoyed school and very much value my network of old school friends. I was fortunate enough to meet some extraordinary people during those years, and I’m delighted that I can stay in touch with them. And I have to concede that what this means is that I’m quite attached to my old school tie – figuratively, not literally, since my old school ties were made of black polyester and looked pretty ratty even when brand new.

That said, I always wished my school had been co-educational, and I still think that gender divisions in education are an anachronism that inhibits social progress and gender equality (but that’s a topic for another column). If the scourge of single-sex education had been blasted into the history books where it belongs, then the metaphor of the “old school tie” would also be destroyed, and so it should be.

And I would hope that everyone was lucky enough to leave school with a network of close, like-minded friends with whom they stay in touch, regardless of which school they went to. But I recognise that my good fortune in getting into my high school plugged me into a network from which I benefit to this day.

“Old school ties” are such a potent symbol, though, because in our society, powerful men almost always wear neckties. Julia Gillard’s point this week was that if she was removed from the political process, we’d be back to being run by a bunch of blokes in ties: ironically, and perhaps entirely deliberately, that argument holds whether she were replaced as Prime Minister by Tony Abbott or Kevin Rudd.

Now, there’s nothing stopping women wearing blue ties themselves, of course, and admittedly, they can sometimes look rather elegant doing so. But on the whole, women have been too sensible to make neckties a part of their everyday wardrobe.

And this brings me to a question that first confounded me at the start of Year 7, when it became clear that I would have to wear a tie every day for the next six years of high school: why wear ties in the first place? Which sadist made the rule that ties looked smarter and more ‘proper’ than open necks?

Everyday male dress has no other purely ornamental elements, unless you count the cummerbund, and I absolutely refuse to do so. And yet, for some reason, blokes persist in fastening bits of coloured cloth around our necks in the morning – and for some reason, we have been coerced into believing that we look more serious and formal when we’ve done so, rather than less, which is in fact the case.

The necktie tradition is about as practical as making men in high-powered jobs tie a brightly-coloured bandana around their head in preparation for a big, serious meeting – and Peter FitzSimons has already helpfully demonstrated exactly what that would look like.

(Okay, so lots of lawyers still wear white wigs, but honestly – if it wasn’t for the law of contempt of court, people in the dock would openly snigger at them.)

Imagine if every man who held a serious corporate job wore a national flags tied around their neck like a football fan, or Cub Scout scarves fastened with woggles, or beach towels. They’d look thoroughly ridiculous. Why, then, have we convinced ourselves that neckties in an elongated diamond shape looks professional?

I asked this question the other day, and a woman replied that they’re like a giant arrow pointing down below our waist. That’s the most plausible explanation I’ve heard.

Then there’s the bow-tie, which looks and is treated as being far more frivolous than the tie, but is actually less silly when you think about it, because at least it doesn’t flap around and get in your way. You can’t accidentally tip a bow tie in a bowl of laksa, for example, which happened to me during my brief corporate career.

The tie has its origins in soldiers’ neckwear, and the modern form dates back to a fashion that began with Croatian mercenaries, and was picked up by the French monarchy in the form of the cravat – a word which, interestingly, has its origins in ‘Croat’. But that’s no justification – based on this image from Wikipedia, Croatian mercenaries also got around in knee-high boots and cloaks that made them look like Little Red Riding Hood, and we don’t see merchant bankers donning either of those things today.

So, neckties are a throwback to military days – which is surely all the more reason to discard the custom of wearing them. Really, we need to move on from ties. They only get in the way, and is it really so bad for men to have their shirt buttons visible?

Instead, men who feel the need for colourful ornamentation should do what I myself have begun doing in recent years in an attempt to be just that little bit more rock ‘n roll in my day-to-day life, and wear brightly coloured boxer shorts.

I’m sorry, that might be too much information. But a world where powerful men wear undies with cartoon superheroes on them would, in my view, be a far more civilised and sophisticated one than the one we live in now, where if a man wants to be taken seriously, he has to tie a garish piece of silk around his neck.

One Response to Why do men wear ties?

  1. Angela Bradshaw 16 June 2013 at 4:48 pm #

    Love your work, Dom. from the sister of an ex Sydney Grammar Boy!

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