Rummaging through some stuff the other day, looking for something else, I came across a photograph of myself, taken in 1950 at the first school I ever went to.
Nothing unusual in that, of course. We’re always finding things we didn’t expect when we’re looking for something else.
No. What struck me about the image was that, even at the tender age of nine, I was wearing a tie.
A couple of days later, a friend of mine emailed some pictures he’d turned out while he was rummaging through some of his own stuff.
They were of him and me, and me on my own, and dated back to the early nineteen-fifties. Once again, I was struck by the fact that we were both wearing ties.
What was even more intriguing was that, in the short time it had taken me to graduate from primary school to grammar school, I’d figured out how to look sharp.
I’d even learned how to tie my tie in a Windsor knot!
A dandified stylist
In those days, the Windsor knot was de rigueur for dandies.
And, boy, did I fancy myself as a dandy! I even turned my droopy shirt collars inwards and upwards, to mimic the shape of the sharp, cut-away versions worn by society’s fashionable elite.
All this fancy fiddling came to an end when, at the tender age of thirteen, I went to a pre-sea training school and spent the next three years dressed as a small but nimble able seaman in Her Majesty’s navy.
No ties in that uniform, sadly, but plenty of opportunities for razor-sharp trouser creases, fancy-dan cap-ribbon bows and jaunty-angled cap wearing to keep me happy.
It was much the same when I joined the Merchant Navy.
The only ties that offered much joy were the black bows required for dress uniform. So I quickly learned how to tie my own. There’s class!
In the mid-1960s, I left the Merchant Navy and went to work in the City where, if I thought about it at all, I imagine I’d expected everyone to be dressed the same. And probably in drab.
Not a bit of it. To my great surprise, I discovered an entirely new set of uniforms.
I soon learned to recognise old school and regimental ties, and to distinguish between a discount broker and a stock broker. The former wore a silk top hat, the latter often wore a bowler.
But most intriguing – even exciting – was the joy of personal ties. I encountered striped ones, spotted ones, tartan ones, psychedelic ones and plain ones in slim, wide and even kippered versions.
Good grief, I even bought some Liberty fabric and made some of my own!
I was in tie heaven.
The advent of the trademark
When I left my job in the City and finally found my way into advertising, I soon discovered yet more liberties to take with ties.
I took to wearing bows bearing patterns.
I’d haunt the halls of Harrods at sale time, scouring their displays for ever more outré offerings.
I drew the line at the county set’s dogs and horses, looking instead for ideas born of original thinking.
Eager as I was for examples of creativity, I have to admit some of the patterns didn’t bear much thinking about!
Nevertheless, bows – the ones you have to tie yourself – had become my trademark. And I loved them.
I could even be seen sporting one as I cycled to work.
A passing identity
In the late 1980s, when I left my job as Creative Director of a somewhat sadly and eventually badly managed advertising agency and started working as a freelance writer, I was still wearing bow ties.
Perhaps, in a changing world, I was clinging to the last vestiges of my working identity.
Maybe I was simply still trying to be different.
All I know now is that, when I look around at today’s world, it saddens me to see so few men wearing ties.
And even fewer wearing bows.
I shouldn’t carp for, these days, I seldom wear one myself.
But, when I do, I feel – not trussed or buttoned up as some might think – simply more complete.
Like anyone else wearing any kind of uniform, I feel more composed, more grown-up, more responsible. Even, dare I suggest it, more authoritative.
All of which raises an interesting question for me: does the demise of the tie, and the shedding of so many uniforms we used to respect – doctors’ white coats, teachers’ black gowns, bus drivers’ peaked caps – signify some kind of diminution of societal responsibility?
Are we, in becoming less formal in our dress, becoming less formalised as a society?
As we loosen the knots around our necks, are we casting off the ties that used to bind us together in coherent, organised groups?
Or is it – as has been so often said of late – that society is becoming increasingly divided along its old class lines and – in the choice of wearing or discarding ties – we’re seeing a resurgence of the split between the old boy brigade, who still wear ties and cling to uniform habits, and their counterparts, the hoi polli who, the brigade might say, know no better than to tear about tieless?
A knotty problem
Of course, there’s nothing sinister in being seen tieless. It doesn’t mark a man out as a bad hat.
But it does worry me when I see male journalists on television, standing in some august setting, reporting on a serious subject in an open-necked shirt that doesn’t fit very well.
They seem to lack authority.
I’m not suggesting reporters should be made to wear evening dress – which used to be the case for newsreaders when television was young – but I do think it would be better if they were dis-encouraged from looking as if they’ve just got up from a deck-chair on Brighton beach and wandered into shot.
Perhaps the answer is quite simple.
Those who like ties, or have to wear them, should exercise their choice or play by the rules. Those who don’t shouldn’t or needn’t.
So long as I can wear one when I feel like it, I won’t get into a knot about it!