Monday, July 30, 2018

Tie and Jacket

Last week I watched a rerun of How I Met Your Mother. One of the running gags on the show is Barney’s obsession with suits. In a flashback we learn how it started: during his hippy days Barney lost his girlfriend to a successful man in a suit. The scene prompted me idly to wonder if I even own a suit.

This uncertainty might seem strange, but there are three explanations. The first, which the reader already likely has surmised, is that I haven’t had occasion to wear a suit in years. Second: my semi-formal wear (I have no fully formal wear) is stashed in a walk-in closet with a non-working light fixture. Replacing the fixture is one of those long-needed repairs that “I’ll get to someday.” Access to the recessed fixture’s wiring is in an extremely awkward far dark corner of the attic tight under the rafters, so it’s been easier (for the past 18 years) just to use a flashlight in that closet. I store in it my less commonly worn clothes along with other infrequently accessed sundries including my dad’s old military uniforms. I don’t see anything in the closet unless I shine a flashlight directly at it, so I’m not reminded of the full contents every time I open the door. Third: last year (see The Raiment under the Tree) I finally accepted that most of my clothes would never fit me properly again and so removed permanently from my closets anything that interfered with my breathing when buttoned – if it buttoned at all. Accordingly, while I knew I once owned a blue suit and a grey one, I truly didn’t remember if both were among the excised.

School days, 1969
A subsequent quest into the closet with a flashlight revealed that there still is one grey suit hanging there that I can use in a pinch. The word “pinch” is literal, but not so much as to render it unwearable. It will fit perfectly when I lose those 10 pounds, which will be about the time I fix the closet light. That is not to say it ever will be worn even then. I can’t recall ever having worn it in public outside of the store where I bought it 20 years ago: a real brick-and-mortar store back then. (I wore a blue one that I no longer own twice: once at a wedding and once at a funeral.) This might be surprising to white-collar types who wear suits as a matter of course, but my sartorial progression followed a path opposite of most of my generation: from tie-and-jacket in school to denim at work. (My work blended blue and white collar, so I tended to dress in the middle.) There are always occasions to spiff up just a little, though, so I’ve always kept the basic semi-formal ingredients for that on hand and still do, even though I apparently misjudged the need for a traditional business suit. There are sport jackets and blazers on my hangers that fit and they do get worn from time to time – sometimes even with a tie. The jackets don’t get worn so often as to be in one of the closets with a working light, but they do get worn; the tie rack is on the back wall of the dark closet, too.
Hard at work 1995

While checking for the suit I somewhat playfully (I was wearing a tee shirt) grabbed one of the ties off the rack just to see if my muscle memory was intact, though I had no reason to assume it wouldn’t be. It was, fortunately, for while I tie a half-Windsor (my preferred knot) in seconds without thinking about it, I’d find it difficult to describe to a newbie how to do it.

Tie rack in the dark closet
Ties are rather odd articles of clothing really, but they have a long history. Soldiers on Trajan’s column (finished 113 CE) are wearing them, or something very much like them. (BTW, the general doesn’t look too pleased by their gruesome gifts, does he?) Some of the Chinese terracotta soldiers, crafted some 300 years before Trajan, also are wearing something similar. It wasn’t a persistent fashion though: it came and went over the centuries. The modern necktie is usually traced to the 1600s when it was worn as a bit of flash by Croatian mercenaries in the service of Louis XIII of France. Louis liked the look, named it la cravate, and specified it as proper attire for royal events. It has been with us ever since in one variant or another including cravats, bowties, and bolos. (The bolo is official neckwear in Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas; other US states, to my knowledge, do not have state neckties.)
Roman soldiers' neckwear: irony unintended

The standard necktie to which we are most accustomed became standard about 100 years ago. Fashionistas have played with tie widths, patterns, and colors over the years since then, but a conventional tie from the 1920s always has been wearable and still is. This also is the case with sport jackets and business suits. Men who enjoy being edgy in fashion will find that their choices inevitably age badly; 1970s garish colors, extra wide lapels, floral shirts, and bell bottoms come to mind. There always are conservative clothing options however that don’t go all-in for current trends; a conservative business suit or semi-formal tie-and-jacket from any of the past 10 decades remains wearable today. Some older styles might seem affectations today, but not outrageous ones.

All this persistence of standard style is fortunate since, like most men, I don’t get rid of clothes for any reason other than 1) they don’t fit anymore or 2) they truly are worn out. The grey suit in the dark closet isn’t at risk of wearing out anytime soon. Perhaps I’ll give it away before its style begins to look like an affectation.

Barney suits up in How I Met Your Mother


  1. I could probably stand a new suit or pants and sportscoat. I wondered where ties come from and why they seem to be such an important fashion accessory. I have to admit though that it's the one item in a man's wardrobe that actually gives it a bit of panache and color. Still it seems ridiculous to pay $35. for one, which is why I usually buy them at estate sales, etc.

    1. Some of my favorite ties, which long since have vanished from my closet, were my dad's from the 1940s. Along with conservative ties he had fashionable ones, which in that decade meant loud colors and bizarre prints such as champagne bubbles or a big spider on a web (real examples). I wore them ironically in the 1960s until it was "suggested" by my prep school's disciplinary officer that I stop.

  2. Hah, that reminded me of some of my dad's old ties. I remember some were quite garish. You would have thought wearing them in the psychedelic 60s they would have fit right in.

  3. Yeah I think I still have a suit somewhere in the closet. I have a couple of long sleeve dress shirts and yes a few ties. But I'm not sure I have a full suit any more. When I first started working in the office, it was business attire with business casual on Friday. That meant you could skip the tie.

    These days I'm one of the few who actually bother's wearing a polo shirt or any shirt with actual collar. Jeans are the order of the day, and I stand out a bit in my slacks and khakis. I'm not the only one, but you can usually tell the old timers who are hanging on to a little bit of a "uniform" for work. But I find it helps me separate the work mind from the home mind. I get home change into my shorts and t-shirt and I'm off the clock.

    1. The de-formalizing of America has been a slow process but a remarkable one. When I was young people dressed for Broadway, dressed for club meetings such as the Rotary, dressed for airplane travel, dressed for pretty much anything except physical labor. Tech firms were no exception: IBM had a strict dress code. Back in the 40s my mom worked on Pine Street (around the corner from Wall Street) up on the 40th floor dressed in what we now would consider a cocktail dress and heels. I first started seeing jeans in Broadway theaters in the 70s but they weren't commonplace for another two decades. Workplaces began to shift noticeably then too, and the trend accelerated in the 21st century. I wonder if it ever will swing back in our lifetimes.