April 13, 2015

"Think of it this way: if none of us wore any clothes, then it would be the male genitalia sticking out visibly..."

"... while women’s would remain largely hidden. Maybe the entire point of formal attire to invert this possibility, to say, 'Yes, in nature, it is women who have mysterious hidden powers of creation, but once we get all dressed and civilized, it’s precisely the other way around.'"

The last paragraph of "Dickheads/The paradox of the necktie resolved," a Baffler article by David Graeber (with an excellent illustration).

Via Metafilter, where there are many comments, including:
Couldn’t we say that a tie is really a symbolic displacementof the penis, only an intellectualized penis, dangling not from one’s crotch but from one’s head?

Is this a comp lit undergrad class in 1986?
I see I have a neckties tag. I'll have to publish this post so I can click on it to see what the hell I've said about neckties over the past decade. Beyond this past decade, for the past half century, the most common insight into the necktie has been that it's a phallic symbol. But what I liked about Graeber's take was the seen-and-unseen angle — and seen and unseen is one of my all-time favorite tags.

ADDED: From the necktie-tagged archive. This is from a 2004 post about shopping for a suit at Brooks Brothers:

Ah, I suppose I also believed, back in the sixties, that men were about to toss aside their business suits for good! Didn't we, the know-it-all baby boomers, see the folly of those uptight clothes? Neckties: what were they for? No one would dress like that in the future. But now, I'm shopping for a suit with my son, respecting the rationality and clarity of the traditional men's store, and I'm genuinely impressed by how great a suit looks.
From a 2005 post about the obituary for William Rehnquist, in which Linda Greenhouse wrote:
In one of the Watergate tapes, Nixon was recording as referring to "that group of clowns" at the Justice Department, "Renchburg and that group." According to an account by John W. Dean, Nixon's White House counsel, Nixon stopped by briefly at a meeting that Mr. Rehnquist was running and later summoned his counsel to ask: "John, who the hell is that clown?"

"I beg your pardon?" Mr. Dean replied.

"The guy dressed like a clown, who's running the meeting," the president said in an evident reference to Mr. Rehnquist's pink shirt and clashing psychedelic necktie.

Nonetheless, Nixon nominated him...
From a 2007 post titled "When one word is funnier than another":
Dave Barry's 1991 book Dave Barry Talks Back reprints a column on linguistic humor. He contrasts the phrases "Richard Nixon wearing a necktie" with "Richard Nixon wearing a neck weasel", and "Scientists have discovered a 23rd moon orbiting Jupiter" with "Scientists have discovered a giant weasel orbiting Jupiter." He concludes that weasel is a very funny word - "You can improve the humor value of almost any situation by injecting a weasel into it."
Whoa! A random dip into the archive pulls up 2 Nixons.

56 comments:

Opinh Bombay said...

Take a sturdy piece of cloth and tie a slip knot in it. Place it around your neck. If your breathing is cut off for much more than 2 minutes you are dead. Now don a jacket cut to allow easy access to the noose you put around your neck.

I think the necktie / jacket thing is a lawyerly ploy. "See? You can trust me! I've made it easy to throttle me if I do you wrong!"

rhhardin said...

Naked is not sexy.

That's the reason for clothes in females. The illusion is that something is being concealed and you're supposed to imagine it; where nothing is being concealed.

The microbikini is the extreme, giving the illusion of clothing so as not to be naked, while still showing what you're supposed to be imagining. So you get sexy.

Males don't care about male nudity, and don't even notice it. Any gym class graduate can verify that.

tim maguire said...

Seems like a lot of dime-store philosophizing to me.

Ann Althouse said...

I want to write a novel with a character named Dan Gling.

traditionalguy said...

I always think that Ties, which take extra time to tie and arrange for color, signals a leisurely indoor life with money and servants. Did you notice that local stores that will sell suits on sale for $175 wants $80 for a tie.

As I recall the big deal fashion statement about male virility for aristocrats was the shape of a mans calf and thigh. And the codpiece had importance too.

We have come a long way from those to tight blue jeans.



Ann Althouse said...

Did you notice that local stores that will sell suits on sale for $175 wants $80 for a tie."

My instant marketing analysis says that's because ties are gifts. They're not very creative gifts, so you can't give a cheap tie. You have to feel secure that it's a nice tie. Buying a suit is more utilitarian and nearly always bought by the man who will be wearing it, since it has to fit precisely. No one ever got surprised by a wrapped present that contained a man's suit, I don't think. That would be weird. The tie, however, is the most normal possible gift.

LCB said...

And here I thought Ties were the direct descendants of the colored scarfs soldiers used to wear so you could tell which branch of the Army they were with: perhaps yellow for Calvary, red for artillery, white for infantry, etc.

Silly me. Like guns they turn out to be penis substitutes...

Schorsch said...

What insight this analysis allows! We can explore, for example, the simultaneous allure and repulsion of the ascot: the rakish opening of the shirt, revealing colorful, vibrant, vivacious, alluring depths within; the powerful sign of femininity peeking out from a masculine frame...

Ann Althouse said...

"And here I thought Ties were the direct descendants of the colored scarfs soldiers used to wear so you could tell which branch of the Army they were with: perhaps yellow for Calvary, red for artillery, white for infantry, etc. ..."

The question isn't where they came from but why they have such strong staying power... especially if the original useful reason is gone.

I would guess that a tie at the neck originated in the days before buttons became the norm and you were actually trying to hold the clothes together at the neck.

Ann Althouse said...

Actually, buttons have been around at least since 2000 BC.

Clayton Hennesey said...

You know, when the monster comes, I'll bet it catches and eats the people sitting around thinking of things like this first.

rhhardin said...

Rush sold power ties in the 90s.

They're probably worth dollars today as collectors' items.

Paul Zrimsek said...

Remember how we found out when Dilbert finally got lucky? His tie stopped curling up at the end.

LCB said...

The question isn't where they came from but why they have such strong staying power... especially if the original useful reason is gone.

Oh, that's easy. So that kids have something useless to give fathers on father's day and Christmas.

~ Gordon Pasha said...

Tie is a derivative of the cravat. The history of the latter is definitive.

EMD said...

Just wear The Fuxedo and be done with it.

robother said...

Nixon's observations about that clown Rehnquist may have been more apt than we thought. Wasn't Rehnquist the guy who added those Sgt. Pepper stripes to his SCOTUS Chief Justice Robes? Of course, republishing pictures of any man (myself included) during the 70s is the cheapest of shots. Unfortunate hair (facial and head) atop patterned polyester suits. What were we thinking?

William said...

It was an interesting article, but he did overthink it.......There used to be a joke in the seventies that opium, not religion, was the opium of the masses. Nowadays the most commonly seen phallic symbol is the penis.

wildswan said...

Before the tie there was the ruff which was worn by men. It was a circular piece of cloth with a hole in it. I think we know what that means.

So does this mean that the penis was invented along with the tie a few hundred years ago? Or maybe it was just finally noticed - "hey, what's this?" and men wore a "tie" to show they had found out about it?

Anyhow, what does it mean to wear a T-shirt and never wear a tie? A fashion for guys being hunted under Title IX regulations? "Look, I don't have one, I don't have a tie!!"

St. George said...

Interesting how ties have gone out of fashion. Seems like it all started with the Iranian revolution whose leaders declared the garment a type of Western oppression

lgv said...

"The question isn't where they came from but why they have such strong staying power... especially if the original useful reason is gone. "

The original reason was military identification, rather than holding anything together.

Perceptions evolve. Now, it is an issue of formality. A man, absent a necktie, is or was considered informal. I think we may be evolving to "less formal" as opposed to informal. I think we ties for a long time as the epitome of formality (other than tux). It is also the only fashion accessory that can differentiate the narrow range of suit choices, e.g. black, blue, navy.


I think we should switch back to the dickey.:)

mccullough said...

Maybe casual Friday's can be dicks dangling through zippers

Tank said...

LCB said...
The question isn't where they came from but why they have such strong staying power... especially if the original useful reason is gone.

Oh, that's easy. So that kids have something useless to give fathers on father's day and Christmas.


Actually, if you wear a suit to work, a tie is the perfect gift for a child to give. Especially if Mom "helps" to pick it out.

Saint Croix said...

"It's the truth that you should never trust anybody who wears a bow tie. Cravat's supposed to point down to accentuate the genitals. Why'd you wanna trust somebody whose tie points out to accentuate his ears?"

That's from David Mamet's best movie. It's his only comedy, he has a raging comic mind, I wish he would do another one.

Quaestor said...

Clothes and therefore the distinction of nudity are old stories. There is some controversial evidence of sewing needles among Neanderthal remains, however indisputable sewing needles belonging to the Magdalenian tradition of Upper Paleolithic, around 17,000 years ago, have been identified. Sewing needles imply sewing, which implies clothing. Neanderthalers may have been nudists, but the forebears of modern Europeans (and me) weren't. David Graeber's doesn't explain why it took nearly that long for Man (i.e. Western Man) to discover the need to display a symbolic penis around his neck. If his thesis isn't absolute horseshit from between the ears of an over-schooled, dumber-than-a-box-of-rocks, humanities major I'll eat my neckties, which include some non-pre-tied bowties, several white linen stocks, and a morning dress ascot left over from a wedding.

It is possible that Graeber has seen this chap on TV and was unduly influenced.

The remarkable convergence of ideas between the Althouse blog and my musings continues. Just last night we were watching a BR remaster of Evil Under the Sun starring Peter Ustinov as Hercules Parrot (oops). Since the mystery was no mystery to me I was paying attention to the styles rather than the plot. Kenneth Marshall (the character played by Denis Quilley) wore his tie in an unusual way. In several scenes the character was dressed in an open-collared white shirt with white linen trousers and white buck shoes -- white over white over white -- his only dash of color was a regimental striped ascot and a matching necktie. The ascot was around his neck, but the tie was around his middle, threaded through the belt loops and knotted slightly to the left of center. Wow, I thought, what a cool way to wear a tie, especially with a matching ascot. I have a paisley ascot somewhere. If I can find a tie to match I think I'll try on that style this summer.

YoungHegelian said...

My first introduction to Brooks Brothers growing up in northern Alabama came about when the older brother of one of my buddies bought a recording of modern poets reading their works from the library for a nickel. This was a Caedmon recording & featured Ferlinghetti on one side & Kenneth Rexroth on the other. I remember we'd crank up the volume & listen to Kenneth Rexroth bellowing out his poem "Thou shalt not kill" which ends with the stanza:

The Gulf Stream smells of blood
As it breaks on the sand of Iona
And the blue rocks of Canarvon.
And all the birds of the deep rise up
Over the luxury liners and scream,
'You killed him! You killed him.
In your God damned Brooks Brothers suit,
You son of a bitch.'


As sixth-graders, we were not precociously interested in the intellectual antecedents of the Beat Poets. We just thought it cool to have a record where some important guy screamed curse words at the top of his lungs.

Now, I always buy the Brooks Brothers Oxford pinpoint cotton business shirts (not the no-iron kind!). They last forever, and look good until they start to fray. But I always remember Rexroth when I pull them out of the closet.

MadisonMan said...

Maybe casual Fridays can be dicks dangling through zippers

And the Company Announcement of the new policy can be Mapplethorpe's photo.

TMink said...

Sometimes a tie is just a tie.

Trey

Sigivald said...

I'd say the tie has staying power because it lets one express individuality (or not, as one wishes) and add color to the most uniform and bland of not-literally-uniform clothing: the business suit.

(I mean, yeah, pocket squares do that, too.

But they're no longer universal like a tie is, with a suit.)

Ralph Hyatt said...

If the tie was a phallic symbol then all men would still be wearing them every time they were in public and the fashion would be for them to fall to somewhere below the knee.

JPS said...

Saint Croix, 11:46: If you hadn't posted that, I was going to have to. Great movie.

Caroline Walker said...

TMink nails it.

EDH said...

Is that illustration a take on the Bill Clinton Esquire cover photo?

Quaestor said...

Some have claimed the necktie drives from the cravat, and there's some truth in it. The etymology of cravat is revealing. Cravat is from the French Cravate, which means a person of Serbo-Croatian nationality, in other words a Croat.

In the 18th century the Bourbon monarchs employed mercenary troops from across Europe. From the Adriatic region came cavalry troopers whom, whether or not they were actually were, the French called Cavates. Frenchmen of the day closed the neck of their shirts with a stock made of the same stuff as the shirt, sometimes with finished with lace. The Cravates wore a stock of contrasting color, which was unusual. Some Frenchies thought it was cool, so they adopted the Cravate stock. Some English types copied the French who copied the Croats, but they dropped the final e.

That being said neither the French nor the Croats invented the necktie. It was the Romans, the Roman legionaries to be precise. The Roman soldier wore a neck scarf called a focale, also called a sudarium ("sweat cloth"). The focale was used to protect the neck from being bothered by the armor, and was tied like a modern ascot. Usually the focale was made of the same stuff as the soldiers tunic, which was typically wool dyed a dark red (though not always, Tacitus refers to one legion that dressed in wool dyed with saffron). The focale had no significance other than practicality. Roman civilian dress included no such neckwear, neither did a legionary want or require a phallic symbol around his neck. He wore a sword on one hip and a dagger on the other, and he carried two spears, phallic enough to impress any freshman in Psych 101. Besides the weapons the Roman trooper wore specific pecker protection, the cingulum militare, a kind of studded sporran.

PatHMV said...

Professor: The ties at those types of low-cost suit stores are not more expensive because they are gifts. The suits are nearly a loss-leader to get folks in the door. EVERYTHING else is more expensive as a result. Just like checked baggage fees by airlines, it's a method to charge higher prices to those who can afford to pay more, or are too busy or foolish to work a bit to pay less.

All of those places (I'm thinking of you, celebrity men's clothing pitch man) push HARD to sell accessories with the suits. You come in and just buy a suit, they've failed. Every time I used to go, they pushed socks and pocket squares and suspenders (!?!) on me. I look ridiculous in suspenders. But not according to the sales clerks at the warehouse!

Quaestor said...

Althouse wrote: I want to write a novel with a character named Dan Gling.

You could novelize A Fistful of Yen. Here's a clip.

Balfegor said...

The question isn't where they came from but why they have such strong staying power... especially if the original useful reason is gone.

A necktie breaks up the visual monotony of the shirt. Because of its verticality, it has a mild slimming effect which is of course lost if you use a bowtie. You could achieve a similar effect by colouring the placket with a contrasting colour, but then you'd be limited to just that colour combination. A shirt in colours similar to the suit proper can also have the effect of obscuring the gross swelling of the body, e.g. wearing black on black, but this is even more restrictive in terms of colouring. All of this helps only on the margin, of course -- the grossly obese will not benefit. But for those of us who are only a little overweight, the advantage is considerable.

Were we to remove the necktie from formal wear, the most natural change would, in my opinion, be to close the lapels back up, to cover the chest entirely. I wouldn't be opposed to this, but it would have the effect of making the suit more uniform-like, and also making us all look like Bond villains. Which has long been my cherished dream.

Re: PatHMV:

No one should be able to tell you are wearing suspenders, other than indirectly by the absence of a belt. The suspenders should be hidden by your suit jacket. The advantage (at least for people who are a bit heavy, like myself) is that when wearing suspenders you no longer have to worry about adjusting your trousers to the proper level as you move about through the day.

Fen said...

rhhardin: Naked is not sexy. That's the reason for clothes in females. The illusion is that something is being concealed and you're supposed to imagine it; where nothing is being concealed.

Exactly. Its one of those instances where imagination works better than reality, same as fear.

Mark said...

Now I want a tie with weasels on it.

Sebastian said...

"Think of it this way: if none of us wore any clothes, then it would be the male genitalia sticking out visibly..."

On the plus side, we wouldn't have to endure any more criticism about wearing shorts as a fashion faux pas.

I'm sure the fashionistas would find something else to signal that male (un)dress serves to satisfy female taste and desire.

Larry J said...

For years, I've wondered if the necktie was invented by a masochistic, pain-loving man or a sadistic, man-hating woman. Then I learned that the inventor was French, so probably a bit of both.

Balfegor said...

People, if the necktie is too tight and you feel like you are being choked or your neck is muffin-topping out of your collar, your shirt collar is too small. I know it's hard to accept, but bump it up to a 16" or 17" or whatever. Or 18" or 19". I won't judge.

Balfegor said...

Also, while you're at it, stop buying dress shirts with those ridiculous skinny collars. It's a trick, people! It's a trick so the manufacturers can save money. And get you to buy something you won't be able to use in 5 years. I'm not saying everyone should wear Eton collars or anything, just that your collar should make it roughly to your lapels. At bare minimum, it should be big enough to cover your necktie as it goes around your neck.

The whole point of the suit is lost if we don't keep to the uniform -- it ceases to be equalizing and anonymizing! It's a tragedy of the commons.

Sam L. said...

I say The Baffler is baffled, bamboozled, and bummed. That's my considered opinion.

Saint Croix said...

Naked is not sexy.

Naked women are very sexy. If they are naked all the time, like in a nudist colony, it would not be sexy. But to see a woman naked who has been hiding her body? Extremely sexy.

What's critical for sexiness is intimacy. You get to see her nakedness, and other men do not. That's sexy, and why clothes are so important for women. Clothes simultaneously hide her nudity and, if they are sexy clothes, give us the desire to see her nudity.

Clothes are a tool of sexual repression and control. They are a mechanism for the control of human sexuality, which is all the more exciting when those controls are released. A woman hides her sex from society, while showing her sex to the man she loves.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

Following the Tailhook scandal, I was in a protoype training course on sexual harassment at a national lab. In the Q&A a guy said "I'm a manager, there's a girl that dresses provocatively in the office. One of the engineers asked one day, what are you trying to say with that outfit, to which she replied, your tie, what's it pointing at, whattre you trying to say to me?" The manager asks, what am I supposed to say in that situation? But being a basically useless course developed because something had to be done to show how PC that lab was, there was no attempt at an answer

Unknown said...

wearing a necktie is sexual harassment and war on women

Unknown said...

that's why I refuse to wear one

Roughcoat said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Roughcoat said...

When I was young and dumb I didn't like ties. Then when I was almost but not quite grown up I found a photo of my dad from World War 2. He was a navy ensign and in the photo, which was taken in a saloon in Panama City (c. 1942) he's wearing the tan navy officers' shirt and brown tie and he's 22 years old and he's trim and fit and handsome, with his hair slicked back, and he's drinking with several of his fellow junior officers and they're all smiling and clearly having a good time. He looked great! I wanted to look like him and I started wearing ties and at that point I was almost grown up. But not quite. Then ...

I was in my mid-twenties before I realized that women wearing nylons were sexier than women with bare legs. It hit me like a thunderbolt. THAT'S when I grew up.

ALP said...

I am a woman who loves ties. Its the first thing I notice when a male character wearing a suit and tie is on TV (or other preferred device for watching moving picture stories made of pixels). I love to critique all shirt/tie/pocket square combos, or note if a Windsor knot is worn with the wrong shirt collar! I rank TV shows by how many good tie/pocket square combos I like ("The Closer" was on top for a while), and I always know when I've seen a particular episode of "Conan" when I recognize a particular tie.

Maybe its my own frustration with the fashions of my female gender and my deep hatred of shopping for my own clothes, but I would work for a men's clothing store, dressing up men in suits and ties....in a heartbeat. The male frame is so much more angular, simpler, a flatter plane for design. The splash of intense color or a wonderful complex pattern against the simplicity of the suit coat....wonderful eye candy!

And I squealed when I saw that paisley/sperm tie! How creative!

Fernandinande said...

As Mr. Died Fungus said, "Sometimes a tie is just a cigar."

Drago said...

Unknown: "that's why I refuse to wear one"

A necktie or a woman?

Trashhauler said...

Ties look good in a formal military uniform, but it's been over half a century since people went to war in their best uniform, much less a tie.

A tie can be mistaken for a noose or a leash. Either is reason enough not to wear one.

TCR James said...

People react very differently depending on how a man is dressed, I don't think anybody cares what the Freudian subtext is. Visit a car dealership while wearing a suit, then try visiting a week later wearing jeans and T-shirt and see how you are treated.

People judge on appearances and this is about social signalling. Unless it's exquisite casual clothing or you drip money (Bill Gates in a golf shirt), casual dress lowers you to an egalitarian level. You are inviting people to treat you just like any other random person - somebody from accounting, the barista at Starbucks, some guy on the street, or Phil from the IT helpdesk (he wears the same golf shirt as Bill Gates, but Phil isn't treated at all the same...)

Somewhat more formal dress, a good suit with a tie, French cuffs, serious shoes (wingtips, cap toes, none of that silly Italian loafer garbage) and a nice knot in your quality tie makes an implicit request that you be treated in a somewhat proper and serious manner, as a grownup. Sure, you may let down the team by getting caught running a Ponzi scheme, sleeping with your legislative assistant or face down at the bar in the local steakhouse, but a good professional look will ensure that others take you seriously and treat you decently at least at the outset of a social interaction. Nice clothes keep you from being socially disqualified on the basis of looks alone.

That is important for some of us. I'm a big, surly looking fellow and in my usual clothes I wear away from work, jeans and T-shirt, I scare small children and horses. I know that I look like a potentially dangerous redneck galoot, probably unemployed and living in a meth-cooking trailer with strippers and a dog with fleas. In nice professional clothes, they think I'm probably a professional of some sort and a gentleman, probably live in a house that doesn't have axles, and maybe even am in a committed relationship to a decent woman who is not a stripper or pregnant with Earl's (who lives over yonder) baby, and have a darling labradoodle.

Who cares what Foucault thinks of ties, and of the phony eqalitarianism of rich techies who dress downward. I like to be treated well by people. I'll keep the tie, thanks.