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Bill Maxwell

So long, pain in the neck

When I read in the Wall Street Journal that the Men's Dress Furnishings Association, the trade group of U.S. necktie makers, was shutting down, I wanted to celebrate.

The good news, at least for me, is that American men just are not wearing ties anymore. I hate wearing ties. The Journal reports that the number of men who wore ties each day to work in 2007 fell to a record low of 6 percent, down from 10 percent in 2002. According to NPD Group, a market researcher, American tie sales have plunged to $667.7-million during the 12 months ending March 31, from a high of $1.3-billion in 1995.

Although I will not miss the passing of the tie, I am experiencing a fit of nostalgia. The tie, like RC Cola and Moon Pies, was an integral part of my childhood. My grandfather, a Pentecostal minister, never left the house without wearing a necktie. His reasoning, which has not proved to be historically accurate, was simple and clear: If a "Negro man" wanted to achieve in America, he had to wear a tie and a long-sleeved shirt. A white shirt was preferable. This was back in the 1950s and 1960s, mind you.

He said that "everybody respects" you when you wear a tie. White people became more tolerant of you, and "Negroes look up to you and trust you." And since the preacher was the pillar of most black communities, the tie was de rigueur for any man who dared to stand in the pulpit and wave a Bible in front of his flock.

And, yes, I remember when people approached my grandfather on the street. Black men would smile, nod and greet him: "Morning, Rev. Bentley" or "How you doing, Pastor Bentley?" White men, smiling that white-man-smile, would say, "Reverend." Older black women would touch his arm and talk on and on. White woman would smile, make eye contact but never say a word, which, for an old black man without pedigree, was a huge victory.

On Sundays, when I went to church with my grandparents, I wore my lone black tie. After experimenting with the various knots, I settled for the common four-in-hand knot, which I wore in the loose, informal style. Whenever I wore a formally knotted tie, I felt like I was being hanged. To this day, I call the tie a "hangman's noose."

During my undergraduate years in college, I avoided formal events that required a tie. I graduated from Bethune-Cookman College in 1970, during the height of the "Black Power" movement. My male classmates and I were free to wear dashikis, without ties, during the grand ceremony.

Over the years, I have been careful to take jobs that did not require ties. Actually, I had one teaching job at a college that "unofficially" required professors to wear ties. After I showed up for work tieless during my first semester, my chairman quietly told me that the dean had told him that I was hurting my "prospects" for tenure by "bucking the dress code."

I glibly told my chairman that I had not seen the empiricism showing that wearing a tie enhanced student performance. Because I was young, single and did not have children, I resigned after one year there. If I had had family responsibilities, I probably would have donned a tie every day and stayed on.

No one I have ever met argued for the significance of the tie more fervently than my friend, Jesse J. McCrary Jr., who died in November at age 70. He became Florida's first black assistant attorney general in 1967 and the state's first black secretary of state in 1978. He was the first black to argue before the U.S. Supreme Court for a Southern state. Years ago, he told me that a large part of his success derived from his natty dress, especially the white shirt and tie. "A tie means you have authority," he said.

Like his father, the Rev. Jesse J. McCrary Sr., longtime pastor of Greater Hopewell Baptist Missionary Baptist Church in Ocala, McCrary Jr. never left the house without a tie. The Rev. McCrary even mowed the yard wearing a tie.

At any rate, according to Pew researchers, the glory days of the necktie are gone. It will become a sartorial relic. Only the eccentric and those hanging on to the past will wear ties.

So long, pain in the neck 06/07/08 [Last modified: Monday, June 9, 2008 1:46pm]

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