We’ve come undone

Long a symbol of power and masculinity, the necktie has fallen out of favour

We’ve come undone

Richard Wahlstrom/Getty Images; iStock; Photo illustration by Stephen Gregory

As a councillor for Montreal’s Mile End, a district both celebrated and derided for its post-bohemian plethora of ragged duplexes, coffee shops and handsomely disaffected residents, Alex Norris has fought some righteous battles. Yet few of Norris’s fiercely progressive measures garnered as much attention as showing up for work without a tie.

It turns out that Montreal, as louche and freewheeling as it may be, is the only major Canadian city to enforce a dress code, and last spring then-council president Claude Dauphin threatened to expel Norris when he turned up without the required strip of fabric knotted around his neck. Norris borrowed a tie, but didn’t back down: the 49-year-old father of two again showed up tie-less for the following council meeting.

It didn’t go over well. “You’re a juvenile delinquent,” roared Coun. Marvin Rotrand. “This is an affront to the institution, the president and council,” bellowed his colleague Lionel Perez. “Your provocative behaviour caused council members to lose 20 precious minutes,” Dauphin wrote in a subsequent formal letter reprimanding Norris’s conduct.

Norris again obliged, donning a perfectly hideous blue and white number that he happened to have­ in his drawer­—and one that, on video, looks like it was cut from a pair of acid washed jeans. The episode clearly still stuck in his craw, as he contemplated it over a grilled cheese sandwich at La Boîte Gourmand restaurant in his district about a year later. “It’s stupid, anachronistic and bush league to impose a dress code on an elected official in a modern, cosmopolitan city,” he says. “I campaigned without a tie. I was elected without a tie. Claude Dauphin wants me to be someone I’m not.”

Alex Norris isn’t alone in his disdain. The once-ubiquitous male “neckcessory” has fallen on hard times, with sales of neckties plummeting nearly 65 per cent over the last 15 years, according to U.S. research market firm NPD Group. The Men’s Dress Furnishings Association, the trade group for American tie makers, gave up the ghost in 2008, thanks largely to a trend reported in a Gallup poll that year: fewer than six per cent of American men wear ties to work.

Across the pond, ties aren’t only frowned upon—less than 20 per cent of men wear the things, according to a recent poll—but, in the case of British hospitals, are banned outright for doctors, for hygiene-related reasons.

In Canada, blessed as it is with frequent federal elections, the no-tie trend is as clear as the necks of the country’s leaders. During the 2004 campaign, every party leader wore a tie in his official photo. In 2006, Stephen Harper first broke the mould by doffing his tie for the Conservative website. In 2008, he put it back on, while that playful scamp Stéphane Dion took his off. (A lot of good it did him, but still.)

In 2011, neither Harper nor Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff wore a tie in their official photos, while Jack Layton frequently campaigned sans cravat. The lone holdout: Bloc Québécois leader Gilles Duceppe, who almost always stepped off his campaign bus in full business regalia. Coincidentally or not, many Quebecers believed Duceppe was too dour and negative throughout the campaign. (And coincidentally or not, nearly every campaign attack ad, regardless of party, featured its target wearing a tie.)

Some find the no-tie look disturbing. “When I look at old photographs, men and women used to dress better and seemed to take more pride in their appearance,” sniffed a letter writer to Dear Abby recently. “Now they wear pyjamas to shop, torn jeans to work and clothes that are too small for large bodies. I feel we are a nation of slobs.”

Despite the dressing-down trend, men are still accessorizing, says Toronto-based fashion writer David Livingstone. “Men are wearing more ascots and scarves,” he says. “You see guys walking around with these scarves, skinny little raggy things, wrapped around their necks. It’s a way to decorate the neck, a way of finishing things off the way a tie might.”

Being relegated to the closet—or replaced by a scarf—is a sad twist for such a celebrated garment. According to the proudly Croatian Internet site Academia Cravatica, the tie began its life in 1618, around the necks of that country’s mercenaries fighting in the Thirty Years War. French King Louis XIV hipped to the style, and the rest is history.

The necktie trend reached its apex in the 1980s, when it was a mark of success as obvious as the shoulder pads in suits were big. L.A. Law’s Arnie Becker, Wall Street’s Gordon Gekko, Dallas’s J.R. Ewing: their ties seemed less a dress code than an extension of their manhood. Open collars were for Thirtysomething types, men with feelings and hang-ups and self-doubts; the tie was as raw and conspicuous as a bloody steak.

Fast forward a couple of decades and the trend has reversed. Real men—the ones with fangs, like Bill Compton of True Blood, or satchels full of knives like Dexter’s Dexter Morgan—don’t wear ties, if only because they get in the way of whatever homicidal task is at hand.

There are other equally practical reasons not to wear one. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, a dedicated sneakers-and-hoodie type, reportedly despised the suit-and-tie look because it made sitting and writing code in his living room uncomfortable; interestingly, the Winklevoss twins, his real-life nemeses, are rarely seen without a necktie in The Social Network. It took no less than a visit from President Barack Obama to convince the 26-year-old Zuckerberg to wear one at Facebook headquarters.

Yet as much of a sartorial beating as it has taken, the necktie is not extinct yet. Sales in Canada are up a modest six per cent between 2009 and 2010, according to NPD. Blame the scads of unemployed, who still feel it necessary to don one for job interviews. Blame Mad Men. Or blame the hipsters with their black-rimmed glasses and square-toed boots, who favour those skinny Blues Brothers numbers. No longer part of a dress code, it seems ties are being reborn as a luxury, ironic or otherwise.

“We have noticed that our contemporary customers are experimenting with new types of neckwear, statement bowties and narrow ties,” HBC fashion director Suzanne Timmins says. “It’s not necessarily a ‘wear to work’ look, but rather a very smart casual look. It’s a contemporary take.”

Dressing down suits Alex Norris just fine—but he’s going to carry a spare tie just in case. Though the councillor and former investigative journalist has spent much of his career enraging the status quo, he says he has had enough for now. “It’s taken up too much time already. The city has far more serious issues to deal with.”

Indeed. Claude Dauphin, lifelong politician and enforcer of the dress code, recently stepped down as council president, pending a police investigation into conflict of interest charges over a grant awarded to a demolition firm in his borough. It seems a man can be more—or less—than what he wears around his neck.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.