As America struggled to recover from a global pandemic, a shattered economy, and record unemployment levels, headlines despaired: “NECKTIES DOOMED.” Men were “slashing their clothing bills” to retailers’ chagrin, the Associated Press reported. Those who continued to wear ties were downgrading from colorful, expensive silk to plain, cheap cotton. The year was 1921, and reports of the tie’s death were premature, to say the least.
A century later, as Americans begin to emerge from another financially devastating pandemic, another rash of headlines is predicting the tie’s imminent demise. Last fall, the Financial Times wondered, “Is This the End of the Tie?” More recently, The Wall Street Journal asked, “Will Ties Ever Be Relevant Again?” For more than a year, many men who once felt bound to wear ties have shown up on Zoom each day wearing polos or even T-shirts. Now that they have tasted freedom from the necktie—and have seen their colleagues, clients, and bosses doing the same—how can they ever go back to working with their necks encumbered?
After this pandemic, many fewer men will have to. The arc of fashion has always bent toward informality (and androgyny—since the late 1800s, women have sometimes worn ties too). But a major disruption—like a war, a recession, or a global pandemic—can accelerate that natural change. Ties as an everyday accessory have certainly taken a hit, from which they’re unlikely to recover fully. The deeper functions that ties have long provided—such as social signaling and personal expression—will be absorbed by other garments. But ties will continue to be worn on the most formal occasions, and as quirky accoutrements for the self-consciously old-fashioned or whimsical. In other words, neckties are the new bow ties.
Spending on clothing fell overall during our collective work-from-home experiment, but attire from cubicle-friendly labels such as Brooks Brothers, J. Crew, and Banana Republic was particularly affected. With an estimated 25 percent of us now wearing a different size than we did pre-COVID—whether bigger or smaller—we’re going to have to buy new clothes eventually, but they may not be the same things we were buying before. While many employers are now more open to flex time or pets in the office, they’re also relaxing workplace dress codes to allow leggings, hoodies, T-shirts, and sneakers. Men assembling wardrobes for these newly informal workplaces are likely to leave behind stiff-collared dress shirts and the ties traditionally worn with them, just as some women may ditch pantyhose, skirts, and high heels. Even as events constantly reshape people’s preferences about what they wear, some fashion habits are surprisingly resistant to change. Ties have so far avoided the fate of spats, bowler hats, and pocket watches. To persist for hundreds of years, a garment needs to serve powerful practical, social, or emotional needs that individuals may be only dimly aware of. Though decorative and somewhat superfluous now, the necktie was highly functional at the outset. Its ancestor, the cravat, became fashionable in Europe in the 17th century. Thought to be a military style introduced to France by Croatian mercenaries, it kept men’s shirt collars closed while protecting the neck from the cold.
But from the beginning, the necktie has also been an important emblem of both group identity and individual taste, sending subtle signals about the wearer’s wealth, social affiliations, culture, and intellect. Soldiers tied the ends of their plain cravats in knots or threaded them through buttonholes; courtiers decorated them with lace. As men’s suits became soberer and more uniform in the 19th century, their neckwear grew more intricate and individualistic. The effect of the Jane Austen–era fashion influencer Beau Brummell’s elaborately tied cravats was such that “dandies were struck dumb with envy, and washerwomen miscarried,” according to a contemporary humorist.
Throughout its history, the tie has often stood in for its wearer’s personality. Balzac wrote in 1830 that “of all the different aspects of an outfit, the cravat is the only one that truly belongs to the man; it is the sole repository of his individuality.” When the 10th Earl of Chesterfield died in 1933, his New York Times obituary singled out his good taste in neckties, which “achieved the triumph of being brilliant without being loud or vulgar.” The famously stylish Duke of Windsor had a knot named after him. A tie might indicate loyalty to a prestigious school, club, sports team, or military regiment. Beyond these flattering associations, a tie was a marker of maturity and respectability; it set management apart from manual laborers.
A tie is never just a tie. When, in 1930, the playwright Noël Coward advised a young fashion photographer, Cecil Beaton, that an “unfortunate tie exposes one to danger,” he wasn’t being hyperbolic but cautioning him about homophobia. At key moments, though, well-chosen neckwear could help a man become a star. When Elvis Presley made his 1956 network-television debut, the largely unknown 21-year-old wore a dark jacket and shirt with a strikingly light-colored tie selected by Bernard Lansky, the owner of a Memphis menswear shop. “If Elvis had worn a white button-down Oxford cloth shirt, he would still be driving a truck,” Lansky’s son once said. The 1960s fashion designer Mary Quant neatly summed up the tie’s psychological import as “something between a comfort blanket and a public penis.”
As the ’60s wore on, American men dressed down, embracing tieless Nehru and Mao jackets. European designers including Pierre Cardin, Guy Laroche, and Nino Cerruti promoted turtlenecks and collarless styles. They also sold tie alternatives: loosely knotted silk foulards and ascots, many of which came in bold prints meant to complement an equally eye-catching shirt. Once again, the end of the tie was said to be at hand. “Neckties are doomed,” the New York Daily News proclaimed in 1967.
Ties (and socks) took another hit when Miami Vice debuted in 1984, only to rebound in the late ’80s as Wall Street and Working Girl glamorized the financial sector and introduced the “power tie.” According to the Men’s Dress Furnishings Association, a tie-makers’ trade group, tie sales in the United States peaked at $1.3 billion annually in 1995, before entering a steep decline. “Casual Fridays” introduced a laid-back ethos to the American workplace. In 2008, the Men’s Dress Furnishings Association folded because of low membership. By the following year, according to the market-research firm NPD, U.S. tie sales had dwindled to $418 million—a mere $300 million or so in 1995 dollars.
The tech industry’s culture of youthful egalitarianism demanded hoodies and jeans instead of suits and ties. Wall Street began taking its cues from Silicon Valley, prioritizing “innovation and daring” over the “prudence and sober judgment” that the suit and tie represented, wrote Richard Thompson Ford in his recent book, Dress Codes. In 2016, the Wall Street giant JPMorgan Chase relaxed its famously rigid office dress code; Goldman Sachs did the same, acknowledging that the move was necessary in order to attract top tech talent. From 2015 to 2019, sales of men’s suits dipped 8 percent, and sales of ties fell with them.
Ties have slowly disappeared from red carpets, a trend led by a new generation of Hollywood stars such as Jared Leto, John Boyega, Donald Glover, and Harry Styles. The presidential candidate Andrew Yang leaned into his dot-com roots by showing up to the first Democratic debate of 2019 without a tie—a political milestone that launched not one but two Twitter accounts purporting to be the missing garment. Although most male characters in the Emmy-nominated Bridgerton sport starched cravats appropriate to the Netflix show’s 1813 setting, the breakout star Regé-Jean Page wears open-necked shirts to sexy effect. Today’s tieless norms, in other words, are beginning to take hold even in period dramas. The monarchy may fall next. When 7-year-old Prince George showed up in the royal box at London’s Wembley Stadium to watch Euro 2020 matches dressed in a suit and tie, social media cried foul.
Indeed, ties were in retreat long before COVID-19 turned business casual into business pj’s. “Let’s face it, the tie is dead,” the New York Post crowed in 2016. And, in the summer of 2019, Philadelphia Magazine declared, “The Necktie Might Finally Be Dead.” Meanwhile, alternatives to ties proliferated. Henleys and collarless “grandpa shirts” offered a compromise between overly casual T-shirts and overly formal dress shirts. The collared shirt—whether a tieless button-down or a polo—became the new standard of formality in many restaurants, schools, and offices. Yet no one should confuse the relaxed clothing norms with the suspension of judgment about a worker’s class and social status. Underneath his famous work hoodies, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg wears drab T-shirts, but they’re custom-made by Brunello Cucinelli and reportedly cost hundreds of dollars apiece.
Men’s fashion will always have a place for “prudence and sober judgment,” even if it’s not necessarily the workplace. Ties will continue to make appearances at weddings, graduations, funerals, trials, and ceremonial events, as well as anywhere that strict dress codes still hold sway, whether in country clubs or on cruise ships. Even Zuckerberg put on a tie to testify before the Senate in 2018.
But that age-old link between neckties and power is rapidly fraying too. One of Zuckerberg’s toughest questioners now holds the second-highest office in the land. And she doesn’t wear a tie to work, either.