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Last Updated: Wednesday, 22 February 2006, 10:58 GMT
What's the point of a tie?
The Magazine answers...

George Clooney
George Clooney checks his tie at this week's Bafta awards
Doctors should stop wearing "functionless" ties which could pose a hygiene risk, says the British Medical Association - as part of the drive to stop the spread of hospital superbugs. So what is the point of a tie?

It doesn't give warmth, it doesn't cover up anything that needs covering up, and you can guarantee it's going to end up covered in annoying stains after a lively night out. And now doctors say they could be germ factories.

The BMA has advised doctors to remove their ties, in a bid to stop the spread of bugs such as MRSA. No doubt thousands of reluctant tie wearers are looking on jealously, wishing they too had just such as "medical excuse" for not having to wear a tie every day of the working week.

Four years ago, a JobCentre worker in Manchester won the first round of a sex discrimination case that it was unfair for men to have to wear a tie, when women did not have a similar dress code.

So what is the point of a tie?

The modern, western necktie is the successor to the cravat - with the name supposedly derived from the Croat soldiers in France who wore distinctive neckties as a form of identification.

And from the outset, a primary function of the tie has been to act as a visual symbol - not just fashion, but a way of saying you belong.

Question Mark - from original architect's doodle design for BBC TV Centre
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In 19th Century Britain, ties were used by universities, military regiments, sports clubs, schools and gentleman's clubs. And a phrase like "old school tie" still conjures up a whole series of associations of privilege and exclusivity, just from the colours on a strip of cloth.

Windsor knots

Wearing a tie conferred respectability. As Oscar Wilde had said: "With an evening coat and a white tie, anybody, even a stock broker, can gain a reputation for being civilized."

Blair, Cameron
No old school ties for Blair and Cameron

And for most of the 20th Century, ties remained a marker of the well-dressed male, either required for work or expected for a special occasion. Weddings, funerals, job interviews and trips to the bank manager were assumed to require a smartly-knotted tie.

Fashions changed in how the tie appeared - from the four-in-hand, the Ascot, the Windsor, the Pratt knot - but it has remained remarkably durable as a male uniform, appearing in offices from the Victorians through to the present day.

Assisting its survival has been its ability to adapt. Even if you wanted to be a rebel, there was still a tie for you. Teddy Boys in the 1950s wore boot-lace ties and New Wave youths showed their angst in the late-1970s with thin ties, a defiant vertical reaction to the horrors of the kipper tie.

Open-neck democracy

Ties are not only about establishing social status or showing your musical tastes. When men are often wearing rather sober clothes, it's a way of showing a glimpse of personality.

Costello and Edmonds
Through thick and thin ties: Elvis Costello and Noel Edmonds in the 1970s

And if you're sitting next to the guy at the meeting wearing the Homer Simpson on a surfboard tie... well, you know you're in the room with Mr Entertainment Committee.

But the new century has proved more testing for the tie. Leaders who had never before been seen on camera with naked necks, have begun to make a virtue of "going without". The intended result: a more relaxed, less exclusive image.

Tony Blair has promoted this image of a tie-less prime minister, hands in pockets, dressed more like a mate than a boss - sending the message that he's one of us, rather than a member of some closed club. And Tory leader David Cameron has not been shy in shedding his neck apparel for casual appearances.

So, given that Bill Gates can run a multi-billion pound business without ever being sighted with his top button done up, do we really need ties any more?

Tied to the desk

What ties offer is a "point of difference", says John Miln, chairman of the Guild of British Tie Makers. They give people a chance to say something about their own personality.

Tie sales are slightly down compared to a decade ago, he concedes, reflecting the more casual way people dress. But they are far from disappearing.

"Your eyes are still drawn to a tie. It's still very much part of a man's wardrobe," he says.

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

I am currently enjoying the luxury of not wearing a tie to work after seven years of having to.... However, it has meant that I have had to resort to shirts as the way of expressing myself. Unlike women, men have very little opportunity to express their personality when at work in the way they dress. Ties do give us this opportunity. Finally a word of caution from Ian Fleming's "From Russia With Love", "[James] Bond mistrusted anyone who tied his tie with a windsor knot. It showed too much vanity. It was often the mark of a cad"
Peter Rowe, Marcham

I like ties! They're smart, neat, and make you look groomed.
Greg Knight, Poole

I rarely wear a tie myself, but keep a battery of smart but VERY LOUD ties to make one point when I am seen in them, I can be a very loud person. Using a tie to make a statement is fun, but use sparingly!
Andy Wilson, Bristol

I think the tie is the worst possible item of clothing ever invented. It serves no purpose and is an extremely uncomfortable clothing item. The majority of the time, any tie I wear, will have a knot half way down my chest so that I can breath properly. Get rid of them.
Peter Ellison, London

Dress isn't merely a matter of functionality: it allows one to express oneself, or to portray a certain image. Wouldn't you rather buy something from someone who's made an effort with dress, rather than someone who hasn't changed their clothes since 1978?
Chris, London

I've always thought ties were ridiculous items of clothing. I see no earthly reason why anyone should need or want to wear one. A more casual look is much better. I can't understand any man who actually chooses to wear a tie. I'd feel a lot more comfortable talking to a man who wasn't wearing a tie as he'd be more relaxed and human.
Helen Blackburn, Midlothian

I work in an office for a blue chip organisation and I don't feel professionally dressed if I'm not wearing a tie
Paul Williams, Milton Keynes

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