David Graeber: Dickheads - The paradox of the necktie resolved

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by David Graeber

The Baffler

Some people (me, for instance) put a great deal of energy into organizing their lives so that they’ll never have to wear a tie. I’ve often wondered why this should be. Why should ties have such symbolic power? It’s not as if other parts of a formal suit—white shirts, tailored slacks, vests, or blazers—inspire the same sort of indignation. Somehow, it feels as if tying the necktie around your neck marks a final act of closure. It’s the act that transforms all those items into a suit, with all the suit implies, whether it’s the power of the boardroom or the ceremonial formalities of weddings and funerals—that whole world of official business over which men in suits invariably preside. No doubt, part of the objection to the tie is to the pure arbitrariness of the thing. A tie serves no function. It doesn’t hold your trousers up or keep you warm. But at the same time, it’s uncomfortable, so much so that putting it on does somehow feel like a gesture of submission, a reluctant pledge of allegiance to everything the suit is supposed to represent.

Still, if you think more about it, there’s something peculiar going on here—a kind of paradox. Yes, a tie embodies the message of the suit, but in many ways it’s the very opposite. After all, the rest of the suit is almost entirely bereft of decorative elements. Suits tend to be dark, sober, boring. Ties are supposed to be the exception. The tie is the one place where you’re allowed to add a little color, to express yourself a little. Why, then, should the one thing that’s least like the rest of the suit somehow feel like it embodies the message of the whole?

Ready, Aim, Attire!

Formal male clothing wasn’t always boring. In Elizabethan times, for instance, men—particularly rich and powerful ones—were just as inclined as women to deck themselves out in flashy jewelry and bright decorative colors, and even (as in the court of Louis XIV) to wear wigs, powder, and rouge. All this changed in the eighteenth century, a period some historians of dress have referred to as the age of the “Great Masculine Renunciation.” Suddenly, male clothing was expected to be less ornamental, more generally businesslike than women’s. Eventually, something very much like the modern business suit began to emerge: uniform, dark in color (the more serious the context, the darker it should be) with little or no patterning—its very dullness embodying seriousness of purpose.

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