Before there was the Christmas sweater, there was the Christmas tie. “Season after season, it is the No. 1 gift for men,” wrote Oren Arnold in his 1946 Post article, “How Christmas Ties Get That Way.”
In those days, every man needed a tie, at least for weddings or funerals. If he was in business or a professional line of work, he’d be expected to wear one every day, with no casual Fridays.
Ties in 1946 tended to feature loud patterns. They were the style that women preferred, and they bought most of the ties. No one knew why bold patterns were popular. Some said it was a reflection of an unsettled world: “Violent times, violent ties,” wrote Arnold. Some said it was the reaction of recently discharged G.I.s who were celebrating their return to civilian clothes.
Whatever the reason, ties were big business. With over 600 manufacturers, the tie industry was expected to reach sales of $100 million.
Today, Jim Stratte of Boxelder Inc. runs one of the very few remaining tie companies. He sees very uncertain times ahead. “All the big companies folded some time ago. Sales were down in 2018, even before COVID hit,” he says. “Now, people just aren’t wearing ties.”
He notes that even bankers and insurance executives have abandoned them. “A button-down shirt is as dressy as you need to get for the office.”
Yet one profession still seems to demand ties: sports announcers. “Football commentators are some of the best dressed Americans.”
They’ve not even worn in church anymore, he adds.
Bow ties recently enjoyed a certain vogue, but sales have slowed, says Stratte, who extended his line of ties inspired by M.C. Escher and Frank Lloyd Wright to include bows.
The modern necktie evolved from the bow tie, which evolved from the cravat, a length of fabric wrapped around the neck several times and fastened with an ostentatious bow. Since the 1870s, when the vertical necktie emerged, it was considered the mark of a “gentleman.” The two most commonly used knots were the Windsor (named after the home of the British royal family) and the Four-in-Hand (named after the practice of driving a coach harnessed to four horses — a favorite pastime of young British aristocrats in the Victorian era).
At the peak of their popularity, says Stratte, over 60 percent of men wore ties. In 2007, a Gallup poll found just 6 percent of men said they wore them.
Not coincidentally, the men’s suit is also fading away. Once the sign of having arrived, the business suit has been abandoned by executives in favor of “office casual,” and suit sales have tumbled.
Thinking about a post-tie world, Stratte wonders if there’ll be “a new accessory that’ll lets us display our personality without constricting our airways. It would be great if something better than lounge wear was around the corner.” While he admits it’s not a reliable predictor, Stratte is troubled that he doesn’t see anyone wearing ties in futuristic science fiction movies.
He admits he doesn’t always wear a tie, but he notices a difference when he does. “When I’m walking down the street wearing a tie, I feel like I’m the Jimmy Stewart of the new millennium. I feel like a good guy. The tie is my badge of honor as a gentleman and citizen. But,” he adds, “that’s stupid. No one cares.”
Does ties still make an important statement? Do they do something for men other than declare their personal tastes?
“There was a time when wearing a tie gave you something — a raised level of awareness, a heightened sense of decency, a mark of a civility that we all miss,” says Stratte.
One high school teacher who recently retired after 40 years in the classroom said he wore a tie to school every day. Asked why, he replied, “I needed to keep order in my class. It required some discipline, but it also required respect. And respect is something you have to give in order to get. And wearing a tie was my way of showing respect for my students.”
He feels it worked.
So maybe that Christmas tie you were considering for someone isn’t a bad gift idea. Says Stratte, “I personally hope the tie recovers. It was a good thing for a long time.”
Featured image: Cover by Charles Kaiser from the May 23, 1942, issue of The Saturday Evening Post
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