We need to talk about ties

Once a symbol of white-collar work and an inviolable custom in business and political circles, the tie is dying a slow death.

On the night of the recent Victorian state election, the loser, Denis Napthine, wore a tie for his concession speech, but the winner, Daniel Andrews, claimed his victory tieless.

Was this the first time a political leader made a victory speech without a tie? I think it might have been, in which this was a key moment in the slow, silent death of ties.

At least he’d had a shave. Increasingly, tieless and unshaven is The Look, at least in business if not in politics yet.

Not that I have a problem with that. I’m not some kind old-fashioned prude, and there is no point fighting the juggernaut of fashion.

I just want to know the rules. Is it OK to not wear a tie to business meetings now? When can I stop wearing a tie on the ABC news? If I did, would the switchboard light up and Mark Scott give me a call?

In fact, a lot of men even show up at a black tie event these days without a tie at all, let alone a black one as required. No one says anything, as I sit there uncomfortable in my tux. Is it OK to ignore the black tie thing now? Or is it just OK if you’re under 40 and don’t shave?

Neckties, as they used to be called, seem to have been invented about 300 years ago, but didn’t come into their own until the first decade of the 20th century, when absolutely everyone wore some kind of tie.

Most common in those days was the cravat. But gradually the tie, as we know it today, took over from both the cravat and the bowtie.

And so it has remained till the 21st century. Ties got thin in the '50s, wide in the '70s, and then thin again. A few blokes, usually professors, have hung onto bowties, and fewer still to cravats (Matt Preston anyone?), but the wearing of a tie has always been the sign that a man belonged to the professional classes -- that he was 'white collar' as opposed to the 'blue collar' (and no tie) of the working classes.

In the late '90s Bill Clinton and his image-makes took ties to a whole new level, researching the voter impact of certain tie colours in the way that magazine editors understand the effect on sales of cover colours. Prime Minister Tony Abbott has refined this idea down to one colour only: blue. When you’re on a calming thing, stick to it.

Now ties are disappearing. Only CEOs, broadly defined, and CEOs-in-training wear them, and even then not all the time. I often encounter a tieless CEO, especially in the world of technology, but not only there.

Ties are no longer the sign that a man belongs to the white-collar class, and of course collars are anything but white. Nor is a clean-shaven face, or a neat moustache or goatee a sign of anything at all.

What is fascinating is the process by which this change happened.

There was no process. No decision was made; no one blew a whistle, took out an ad or wrote a book, but nevertheless 100 years of inviolable custom has simply melted away through a sort of collective agreement that combines passive resistance and active rebellion.

I suspect that’s it for ties: it’s nearly over. It was a 100-year fashion flash in the pan, soon to disappear, never to return.