Last week a civil servant who works for Birmingham social services accused his bosses of sexual discrimination for asking him to wear a tie to work; his employers are to be taken to an industrial tribunal because, apparently, the same requirement is not asked of the women employees. The civil servant says he finds ties “uncomfortable”. His employers say the wearing of one makes for a more “professional environment”; the employee counters that “doing your job well is what I call being professional. I don’t see how a tie will affect this”.
Doubtless the man in question does a professional job, despite his neck going naked but – and it’s rare that I come down in favour of some seemingly petty rule against the good old worker – I couldn’t be less sympathetic to his cause. Because the tie must be saved. It is the fulcrum upon which the professional man’s wardrobe turns; take it away and the collar, then the shirt, then the suit all become redundant, to be replaced by more casual outfits, and attitudes. It’s a delicate eco-system and worthy of protection.
Over the last five years, the tie’s status has become – if such things were measured – endangered. Where once it marked the demarcation between work and play (how delicious to undo that tie knot and relax, just as women kick off their heels) now, news, money and health prognoses are delivered to us by bearers in increasingly casual dress who call us by our first names. No thank you. I want to see my news-readers, bank employees and doctor dressed as if they care, not as if they think we might go for a pub lunch together afterwards. I realise that murderers and do-badders can come dressed smartly but, on the whole, what you wear does affect how you behave because it affects how you are perceived. Why else would the tie be brought out for weddings, funerals and court appearances? To give a vestige of respectability and show us up as the scallywags we are: no one wants to wear at tie, until a tie can do something for them (let us see if said civil servant wears a tie to the industrial tribunal).
Ties are also the canaries of the fashion world. They tell us what’s going on. If they are to be banished to the carousel at the back of the wardrobe, we shall lose a valuable sartorial semaphore. Just what would Middle England have had to talk about in the afterthroes of the Queen Mother’s death if Peter Sissons had selected a black, instead of mauve, tie to announce the news to the nation? How would Monica Lewinsky have known that Bill Clinton was thinking of her if he didn’t wear one of the six ties she supposedly gave him?
Closer to home, it’s our own parliament’s choice of neckwear that makes interesting sport. As the last election progressed, Gordon Brown couldn’t give vent to his inner frustrations but his ties could – they got redder and redder; Michael Portillo’s desperation meant he was overzealous with the “shooting up” of his tie knot, resulting in a noose-like effect, so tight his collars actually puckered under the strain. And as for Peter Mandelson. If one man represents what can happen to a society if the tie stops being worn! But there is someone in the public eye who knows how useful a tie can be and that man is Tony Blair.
To quote from a book called The 85 Ways to Tie a Tie: “The tie’s silk reflects light, in contrast to the dark cloth of the plain suit. It remains the central point of a man’s costume.” The tie, you see, is man’s sartorial manifesto. Whereas we choose our shoes for our own gratification – thereby revealing how we really see ourselves; men choose their ties to project the image they want – how ever subconsciously – to the world. (Lest you wonder, the female equivalent of this is the neckline.) When Blair addresses a sympathetic Labour audience (if such a thing still exists), when he’s talking on social services for instance, he will usually dress in his team’s colours and wear a red tie. When he is in front of businessmen, or corporations, however, his neckwear will invariably be some nice unscary Conservative shade of blue.
As we get closer to war with Iraq, however, Blair’s ties have become even more telling. They’ve turned purple, a fusion of red and blue. Purple is a terribly arrogant colour. Historically it was reserved for royalty or noble men – certainly not a man of the people – because it was once the most costly of dyes to make, it took 10,000 molluscs to make one gram of dye. In ancient Rome, only emperors had the right to wear it – Nero went as far as having purple-wearing offenders killed. And had he got his purple neckerchief out in Henry VIII’s day, Blair’s head would have ended up in a basket; when Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, was tried for high treason, part of the “evidence” against him was that he’d been seen wearing purple, which only the King could wear.
No such risks today, instead Blair’s tie tells us a lot about how he’d now like to be seen – no longer just leader of the Labour voting members of the country, but of a nation – that might go to war – as a whole. Do we really want to lose an item of clothing that so successfully grasses up our politicians?
First published in The Guardian.