Object lesson No 30

15th September 2000 at 01:00
Prince Claus was not happy. "It is a snake around my neck!" he protested, ripping off his tie and throwing it to the ground. The husband of Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands caused consternation with his open-collared outburst at a fashion show two years ago. But he spoke for millions in his rebellion against this most useless article of neck decoration.

Like a kind of sartorial folly, the tie has survived centuries of fashion reforms to become central to society's idea of smartness, a symbol of school uniformity and the slave collar of corporate culture.

Rebel schoolkids wear it short and fat like a napkin, crazy guys choose cartoon characters, and dapper chaps like to sport bow ties. Admission to top establishments depends on your wearing one, and the old school tie can open doors for the well connected. Ties are supposed to be an expression of individuality in the drab uniformity of suit culture. But whatever way you wear it, a tie says one thing - I belong.

And if you were a 17th-century soldier with a natty line in neckwear, chances were you belonged to the Croatian army. These caught the eye of the original fashion victim, Loui XIV, who liked them so much he named a regiment the Royal Cravattes, after the French for Croat. Cravats soon became the neck's big thing, and were sometimes worn so high that they constricted upper body movement. A mini ice age at the end of the 18th century ensured their popularity as protection against colds, stiff necks and even toothache.

The standard 58-inch long, three-and-a-half-inch wide neck tie had evolved by the turn of the century, fastened by the simple four-in-hand knot. The Duke of Windsor is said to have invented the eponymous variation in the 1930s, but there were no more necktie innovations until 1989, when American Jerry Pratt discovered another, and last year two Cambridge academics worked out six new ways to tie the knot.

Like hemlines, tie widths are an unofficial indicator of economic health - there were whopping kipper ties during the booming Seventies and skinny ones in the hard times of the Eighties.

But whatever the fashion there is at least one man of principle who steadfastly resists the pressure to conform. Now when was the last time you saw Nelson Mandela wearing a tie?

Harvey McGavin


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