They were the best of ties. They were the worst of ties.
Skinny little beatnik ties and mod doublewide ties. Suave and sophisticated Frank Sinatra ties and greedy Gordon Gekko power ties. Bar mitzvah boy clip-on ties and Jerry Garcia trippin' ties.
And, of course, all those closet doors decked with hordes of gifted ties.
But now, with another Father's Day upon us, comes word that the necktie – that elongated swatch of silk or polyester or rayon whose donning has long marked a male rite of passage while serving no discernible utility – may be fading into the fashion sunset.
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The recent decision by the Men's Dress Furnishings Association – the trade group for America's neckwear makers – to shut down has some folks tied up in knots. A calendar crammed with casual Fridays (and Mondays and Thursdays…) has exacted its last, grim toll, some said.
In an age where some people show up for job interviews in flip-flops, the imminent death of the tie seems plausible.
It's been a good, long time, after all, since America was a nation of necktie-wearers.
Look back at pictures from the Great Depression and you'll see men who put on ties before taking their place on soup lines. The stands at baseball games were once filled with men in ties – even on weekends. In the years after World War II, when employers created thousands of new office jobs, the sidewalks of downtowns across the country were thronged by men whose necks were cloaked in soldierly stripes and solids.
But before we deliver the eulogy for the necktie, consider this:
Men have been wrapping and winding pieces of cloth around their necks for hundreds of years. It's clear that the tie, once the very symbol of the male establishment, is far from the icon it used to be.
Predictions of the necktie's demise have been circulating for years. In the mid-1990s, designer Gianni Versace offered his vision of male fashion in a coffee-table book titled “Men Without Ties,” a sure sign of where things were headed. A bronzed Adonis dashed across its cover dressed in nothing but a few ties, lashed loosely around his waist.
The burgeoning popularity of casual Fridays turned khakis and open collar-shirts into suitable wear for workplaces previously better suited to suits. The dot-com boom filled thousands of instant offices with laid-back 20-somethings who saw no point in lashing something tight around their necks.
Clearly, today's tie business is nothing like the old days. In the early 1970s, when sales peaked, manufacturers sold between 200 million and 250 million ties a year in the United States. Today annual sales have dropped to about 50 million, according to Lee Terrill, president of the neckwear division of Phillips-Van Heusen, the nation's largest tie maker.
A Gallup poll last year found just 6 percent of men wearing neckties to work each day, down from 10 percent in 2002. More than two-thirds of the men surveyed said they never wear a tie to work, up from 59 percent five years earlier.
But the necktie still has its devotees, men who invest the kind of affection in their ties that a golf shirt will probably never know.
“A lot of people call me the Tie Guy,” says Bob Smith, the outgoing provost at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville.
Smith has a collection of more than 400 ties. They are vital accessories in a job requiring him to deliver many speeches and presentations – more than 700 in the past eight years. Every Smith speech is punctuated with a tie themed to the subject.
A tie with a giraffe on it for a speech about the qualities that make a good supervisor, one who is able to raise his head above the fracas to see the landscape clearly. Another featuring a painting of a rose inside a teardrop that he saves for delivering eulogies.
“When I walk into a room, they'll look at my necktie. They'll actually pick it up when I walk in, and say, ‘Oh, what are you going to talk about today?' and I'll say, ‘Oh, wait and see.' It actually creates a sense of mystery,” Smith says.