The Tie Lie

Why your business suit with an open-neck shirt is fooling precisely no one

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I don't generally wear one in bed. When I do, I try to remember to remove it before plunging into my morning bath. Failing that, I hang it, damp and slightly sudsy, on the radiator before heading downstairs for my kippers, cheroot and the fortifying half-bottle of fizz — poured by my amanuensis, Serge, and shared with my dachshund, Werther — with which I begin each day.

I make too much of the tie thing but only because everyone else does. "Do you wear it at the weekend?" "Aren't you hot in that?" "Why don't you take it off?" "It's very ageing." (That last from perhaps Britain's most celebrated stylist. She stands by it, the meanie.)

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It's true I wear a tie to work every day, even though I don't have to, even though no one else at Esquire does. So, in the strictest sense, like Spinal Tap manager Ian Faith's cricket bat, my tie is an affectation. It's also true that hardly anyone else in my business — magazine journalism — bothers with a tie any more. Indeed, plenty of people in other businesses — even fustier, crustier businesses like banking and the law — don't bother with ties any more, either. And so the tie begins to look increasingly anachronistic, the tie-wearer a throwback, or a man in fancy dress; we're not quite at the monocle and spats stage, but we might be on the way. And I suppose I'll be leading the charge: a traditional menswear dragoon.

Somehow, having never been a public anything, nor wished to be, I've become a public tie-wearer. In June, on the morning after the Speaker of the House of Commons, that snuffly little woodland creature John Bercow, decreed from his cushioned perch that it was no longer necessary for MPs to wear ties in the chamber (he was wearing a kind of cloak at the time, the pompous pillock), I was phoned by both The Guardian and The Times requesting my furious opinion on this matter of great national import. LBC radio, I think it was, urgently required me to take a strong position, too.

So I did: for all I care, MPs, male or female, can turn up for work in the garb of medieval jesters or Russian cosmonauts, but if the men choose to wear business suits, as most of them do, with business shirts underneath, then they'd be better off with a tie than without. I went on to say many disobliging things about men who wear business suits and/or shirts without ties, with reference to Nick Clegg, Evan Davis, the Match of the Day panel, various spurious public entrepreneurs and "business leaders" (God protect us), and others.

The following week, my fellow tie-wearer, Private Eye's eminently sensible Sir Herbert Gussett, in one of his memorable letters to the editor, had the following wise words to say on "the vexed issue of neckwear": "There is a thin line between wearing an open-necked shirt and the complete collapse of civilisation as we know it and the ill-advised Speaker, Mr Bercow, is in danger of unleashing barbarism and chaos on an unsuspecting nation."

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Yes, I know we sound silly. That doesn't mean we're wrong. Tom Wolfe, dapper man of American letters (alongside the resplendent Gay Talese, perhaps the only truly dapper man of American letters still standing), was also recently asked his opinion of the abandonment of the tie. "Today," he said, "men tend to think that if they dress younger they are going to look younger, but they don't, it's the opposite effect." He urged men to "cover up your neck, for God's sake. Once you're past 35, it corrodes."

For serious, as another male style icon (Derek Zoolander, obvs) might have it: the suit sans tie is not a good look because it is an incomplete and therefore incorrect look. Formal menswear is not really about good and bad; it's about right and wrong. It is also not a good look because it is boring, drab, anonymous and conservative. It's not even interesting enough to be fugly. Finally, it is not a good look because it is inauthentic, even dishonest. It is a lie.

Let's deal with the incomplete and incorrect part first. Men's tailoring has developed over centuries with the tie at its geographic centre. The shirt collar folds over it, the buttons are covered by it. The jacket lapels are arranged either side of it, symmetrically, to set it off. It is the centrepiece, so taking it away leaves an unsightly hole. Sid Mashburn, the excellent men's outfitter from Atlanta, Georgia, has said removing the tie from a traditional ensemble of shirt and suit is akin to removing the lead singer from a rock band. The tie, claims Mashburn, is Mick Jagger, focal point for the ensemble. Without him, it's Keith on one side, Ron on t'other, Charlie at the back and a yawning chasm in the middle where the frontman should be. That sounds a little superannuated, no doubt, The Rolling Stones being hardly the sprightliest of style icons. And Mashburn might also like to consider, when using the analogy, that it is Charlie Watts, not Jagger, who is the tie-wearer in the band; and Watts who is and has always been by far the most stylish Stone. But you see his point.

That's the incorrect part. Now the aesthetic challenge. The menswear palette, once past puberty, is not kaleidoscopic. Business suits, mostly, are blue or grey. Shirts are white, light blue, pale pink at a pinch. Cuts, fits, silhouettes, all are fairly standard. One white business shirt looks not entirely dissimilar from another. Shoes are black or perhaps brown. Some chaps like their socks to pop — I caution caution — but ties are really where the mid-ranking executive, the urban professional, gets to show a glimpse of taste, of personal style, of panache. Even, if he has one, of personality. I'm not one for the peacock approach. I don't go in for Jon Snow's look-at-me neckwear pyrotechnics. (I mean the Channel 4 newsman, not the spaniel-haired Night's Watchman.) But I am in favour of colour. Of print, pattern and texture. Of a bit of showiness. Because without those… what? Just grey wool, white cotton and a couple of inches of neck? That's it? That's the alternative to what I've got round my throat today: a beautiful, bottle green, knitted silk tie from Drake's, which elevates an otherwise utterly unremarkable outfit to something considered, elegant, distinctive?

Now, the most important part. Because, as I say, I don't give a four-in-hand what you wear to work or anywhere else, as long as you're not wearing a lie. There's a craven, cringing dishonesty to wearing a business suit with an open-neck shirt, as if to signal some sort of groovy, rule-breaking rebel spirit. As if not wearing a tie makes you somehow rock'n'roll, telegraphs your otherwise hidden, anti-establishment bona fides. Who are you kidding, granddad? You're a junior minister, or a fund manager, or a partner in a firm of solicitors, or a BBC foreign correspondent, or a medical registrar, or — in my case — a middle manager in a media corporation. You're not a young Iggy Pop. You're a less successful David Cameron. Dressing like him only makes that more obvious.

Essay taken from the Autumn / Winter issue of the Big Black Book, out now.