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Commentary: Lost ties - a knot that no longer binds

by on January 25, 2014 10:39 AM

A nationwide alert, no, a worldwide alert, should be issued for the necktie. It is in great danger. It is disappearing. Soon it may be consigned to history, to live on only in old movies, like people smoking and men in hats.

I’m not sure who signed the death warrant for the necktie, but I have my suspicions. It is a long chain of perfidy.

First, there was Hollywood. Actors who appear on TV talk shows — and most actors do more appearing on talk shows than acting, in the hope that this will get them jobs, so they can do more acting than appearing on talk shows — did in the necktie. One cannot calculate what these innocent little strips of cloth did to the Hollywood Hills crowd — but actors won’t be caught in a suit and tie unless they are playing someone who wears a suit and tie.

Then there is the dotcom crowd; billionaires who declared by their actions that creative people ought to dress as though they worked for a landscaper not the estate owners. Remember Steve Jobs, who starred in many iterations of his own show “Genius in Jeans”?

Well, Jobs was a genius, but he was also dressed like a slob, flaunting an everyman image when he was anything but. Now every man is going around the way Steve Jobs did, except minus the genius and the billions.

No! No! For me the suit and tie is my native habitat. It is where I am secure — as safe as ordering chardonnay.

It all began with my first day of school, when I first put on what was to become the suit of my life: shirt, tie, jacket, hat or cap. When I left school, my father bought me a suit, two shirts and four collars (those were the faraway days when shirts had detachable collars) and told me I would be paying rent if I chose to stay at home. Who said the good old days were so good?

My first serious sartorial crisis was at a newspaper in London. It was Saturday, and I ventured inside in a sports jacket, tie and flannels. The news editor (city editor) exploded.

“Are you going to a cricket match?” he demanded.

“No, sir, I thought it would be all right, as it is Saturday.”

“All right, it is not bloody all right! I cannot send you to Buckingham Palace dressed like that.”

“You want me to go to Buckingham Palace?”

“No! I want you to go home and contemplate a career change!”

So I stuck with a suit and tie, but it didn’t save me awkwardness. At a party in Tel Aviv, given so that I could meet members of the Knesset (parliament), I showed up in a summer suit and tie. I was the only man in a suit. The only man with a tie. The only man with a jacket. The odd man out.

I trailed around China, as a member of the press corps accompanying President Clinton on his visit. My colleagues joke about my formality of dress, so I took the plunge. When we went to the Great Hall of the People, off Tiananmen Square, to watch Clinton appear with Chinese President Jiang Zemin, I went casual.

By some secret telegraph, to which I was not privy, my colleagues dressed up; every man in a jacket and tie except me, looking ridiculous and disrespectful in a golf shirt. That is what happens when you let go of your principles.

Sometimes sartorial failure is collective. At a U.S.-Japan conference on the Big Island of Hawaii, the first morning the American delegation, including myself, showed up in island wear. The Japanese delegation wore formal suits. After the refreshment break, lo and behold, the Americans had rushed to their rooms to get into suits and the Japanese to get into island wear.

If President Barack Obama were to appear at an international conference without a tie, it would be all over for the necktie; it would move from the endangered species category to the extinct. He would do it in as thoroughly as bareheaded Jack Kennedy did in the gentleman’s hat. Are we better off, I ask you?

Llewellyn King is executive producer and host of "White House Chronicles" on PBS. His column is written for Hearst Newspapers.
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