(Today’s post is guest written by my friend, colleague, and fellow neckwear aficionado Ben Plum. Follow him on twitter @beenplum and let him know what you thought of the post).
The Death of the Necktie in the Modern American Office
It’s another day in the office, and the mundane tasks of the modern American white-collar worker are well under way. Something is missing, however. A certain constant in the office, a fashion staple, if you’ll allow me, has all but disappeared over the last decade. Looking across the room of a busy modern American office you’ll still see white collars, but what you will not see is the device that has held them taught for a century: the common necktie is all but gone from the modern workplace.
Let’s go back for a moment to that now seemingly abstract construct of the ‘white collar’; the business professional wardrobe. Since the industrial revolution, when the masses left behind the fields, orchards, and farms of the agrarian economy of the 1800’s for the efficiency and brilliance of factories, people have worn ties to display professionalism and authority. It has always been requisite in the business place. Where neckwear was once reserved for the formal occasions of the rich and proper, after the industrial revolution it permeated into the workplace, transcending social classes. Simply put, everyone wore a tie. This became so prevalent that the ideological concept of the ‘business man’ now necessarily conjures the image of a necktie. It’s permanently ingrained in our minds, as well as the media. Despite this, however, the reality is that the tie is losing its foothold in the modern office.
Where did it go? To answer this question, we have to look back again at a time where employees were not only expected to wear ties, they were often required to. You simply could not show up to work without one and expect to be taken seriously. This was the reality for our parents at their respective jobs, and is still true to some extent in many disciplines. However, when you tell someone they have to do something, that it is non-negotiable, their first instinct is resistance and pushback, even at the psychological level. The product of that pushback was a generation of workers with a disdain for wearing ties. Perhaps they felt ‘constricted’ by the feel of the tie around their neck, which they associated with the immense stress they were under from a job they hated. Fashion, after all, is a choice. When the choice is taken away from you, what do you have? No one likes to be forced to do something, and as a result, the tie became a symbol of oppression.
The response to this was simple: quit wearing them. But how? Most professional companies required their employees to wear ties to work, and rules are rules. The thought process for most of these disgruntled employees was: How do we get out from under our oppressors and gain our fashionistic freedom? We’ll start our own companies. Be our own bosses. We’ll make our own rules. No employee of mine will ever have to wear a tie again.
And that’s exactly what they did.
I worked for one of these companies. My bosses were old employees of Key Bank in Cleveland, OH, who lived and operated in these exact same circumstances for decades, and they hated it. So when they started their own independent marketing analytics and consulting firm, they made it a rule that their employees could wear whatever they wanted to the office (within reason, of course). In their minds, they were granting the office freedom. They had won.
What they were doing, however, was killing off one of the best and most beautiful fashion pieces available to the modern man’s already limited array of accessory items. Oh, employees could wear ties to work, if they wanted to, but they didn’t have to. They wanted the office to have the easy going, open-minded feel that was lacking under the strict limitations set by their former employers. What they didn’t realize, though, was that by singling the necktie out, they were setting a precedent for bias against it.
The consequence of this, of course, is that no one has a desire to wear a tie to work anymore, if they ever did. There are several potential reasons for this. The first being for the same reason the rule was changed: some people just don’t like wearing ties, and that’s okay: You can still dress and look very nice without a tie. However, those of us who understand and embrace the elegance and complexity a tie can add to your ensemble are left in a predicament. Do we conform to the standards of the tie-less office, or do we go against the grain and express ourselves as we see fit? Frankly, in my experience, it’s an uphill battle. When I wear a tie to work, I am inevitably asked, “Why?”, or told, “You know, you don’t have to wear one of those here.” I am judged and almost discriminated against for wearing an article of clothing that for most of a century has been standard practice.
This happens all the time.
This particular company I’ve described is by no means the exception to the rule; literally every office I’ve worked at in my (admittedly limited) career has had this very mindset. In college, I interned at Meijer’s headquarters in Grand Rapids, MI. For those who don’t know, Meijer is a major grocery retailer in the Midwest that, having originated in West Michigan, has a notoriously conservative leadership team. Yet even Meijer, a privately-held company whose leadership has been passed down from generation to generation in arguably one of the most conservative regions in the nation, has eliminated the tie from their dress code restrictions. Furthermore, no one in my current office, aside from myself, is wearing a tie today – nor were they yesterday, or the day before, and I can tell you with absolute certainty that if I wear a tie to work again tomorrow and every day from now until time ends, I will be the only man here to do so.
Indeed, some people are threatened by it. They look at the person wearing a tie and view them as an outsider. They label them as a kiss-ass, or worse, a threat. The guy who wears a tie to work becomes ‘that guy who wears a tie to work’. To work, of all places! It makes people uncomfortable, because they view the man dressing nicely as someone who is trying to out-do them, and are in effect making them look bad. Is this an over-exaggeration? Maybe, but the fact that the tide in the modern office has shifted is a reality. The tie is no longer a given in American business, and it may never be again.
Sure, there will always be professions where the necktie is essential. In any court of law there will be neckties. Doctors will wear ties when meeting with patients, and politicians will always wear ties when giving speeches or arguing in Washington. The tie conveys authority and professionalism. It also provides a subtle and yet decadent platform for expressing one’s individual fashion and taste. It’s an unfortunate thing to have lost, and it is up to us as fashion-forward young professionals to break the stigma.
Hope for the tie as a socially acceptable and celebrated accessory lies with us – not the generation before us. That ship has sailed. No one who isn’t wearing a tie today will ever do so because they suddenly want to. The only way to propagate neckwear in the modern workplace is to reset the standard, in hopes that those younger than us will follow suit. We have an opportunity to set an example of what fashion awareness can provide professionalism, and it’s not too late. Don’t know how to tie a tie? Youtube can show you. Don’t own one? Buy one here (at relatively affordable prices, I might add). Start with a neutral color like navy, black, or gray (I personally feel every man should have one of each, but that’s for another article) Feeling brave? Why not a bow tie? This article has some excellent advice for matching ties to shirts, in case you’re new to this – hey, we all were at some point.
Ties have a rare power to transform an outfit. They’ll add class to your look, and if you do it right, they can also add credibility. Let’s reclaim the workplace by putting the tie back where it belongs – at the forefront of the American business.
Ben Plum is a young professional working for a healthcare management firm in northeast Ohio. He appreciates bright colors, straw fedoras, and being barefoot. He cannot grow a beard. Follow him on Twitter @beenplumb.