Fit to Be Tied

Terry Caesar analyzes the role of neckwear for the male academic.

April 29, 2005

There are many ways to understand a career in college teaching. It can be represented in terms of books published or courses taught,  honors received or awards accepted. A career can be characterized simply by exceptional students or vivid colleagues. But of course there are less obvious, more devious ways of comprehending a career. One way for a man: the question of whether to wear a tie?
I hated ties from the start of my career. Was I ripped too roughly from my grad school womb? Was I forced to grow up too quickly in a department where 30 years ago I was by far the youngest full-time member? Or were there deeper, more personal reasons that undoubtedly Freud explains? In any case, although all my initial male colleagues(with the exception of a lone woman) seemed secure in their ties. I wrestled with mine each day, loosening the knot almost as soon as I tied it, and pulling the damn thing off after my last class.

During my second year a sympathetic officemate gave me a clip-on bow tie. It seemed a sort of delightful anti-tie. But not so fast. Soon I was tugging at it, just I did my straight ties, and one morning it I accidentally snapped the damn thing off while lecturing. The students howled. I blushed. It was as if my pants had suddenly fallen to my ankles. For years afterward I cited this moment as the most embarrassing of my career, and I refused to wear a clip-on of any sort again. From then on, it was straight ties all the way. My favorite became a dull brown knit job, which I liked because it seemed somehow beneath convention.

And then suddenly one day my ties not only came undone but stayed undone. I ceased to wear them on a daily basis. There is at least one interesting reason to account for this: feminism. By the 80s it was not so much that women were engaged in possessing as well as questioning the phallus. (I never saw an academic woman wearing a tie.) It was more that the feminist critique had opened up all manner of appearances for investigation, including presentations of the body. By body, read: female body. The male body was deemed not very interesting, and its formal academic garb -- symbolized by the tweed jacket (mine was corduroy) -- positively boring.
In these circumstances, wearing a tie had come to seem, well, limp. At one point I read that a leading feminist, Jane Gallop, had taken to appearing at conferences with a skirt that consisted entirely of ties. Did she say that each tie symbolized a man with who she had slept? Or did people in the audience say this? Alas, I never beheld Gallop so garbed, although I was in the audience at a conference once where she wore a  black, low-cut, one-piece dress -- a version of the sort of flamboyant thing that women could wear, over against frumpy men, who were as if living still in fear of clothes as masquerade.

What had happened to the tie is that it had been seen through, and men could summon nothing else (women had scarves) with which to replace it.

This remains true, I believe, to the present. Even if the tie has retained its enduring importance as an item that completes formal appearance for an adult male ("jacket and tie" being as venerable a cultural combination as ham and eggs), it has lost its significance as an unproblematic marker in the dynamics of daily academic life. Deans perhaps still need to wear ties. Further up the chain, it is a requirement, not an option.

But to professors it is -- and so many often appear in ties at their own risk. I discovered this some years ago when I decided one day, what the hell, to wear a tie to work. So many people stopped me in the hall before my first class to ask "what was the matter?" that I had to remove the tie.

Typical male behavior. We take refuge in clothes. Now, unless attending a conference, it is often difficult for us to take refuge in a tie. That particular morning I would customarily have been wearing light-colored jeans and a casual blue shirt. I still do. However, nothing anymore seems either to prevent or to authorize me from wearing just about anything -- including, I suppose, a three-piece suit, if I liked. In fact, by no small irony, a three-piece suit would now count as provocative apparel, although I am not sure exactly to whom.

This semester I have a student whose most conspicuous item of apparel is a skateboard, slung over his shoulder like a quiver. The man who teaches in the classroom next to me wears cowboy boots along with a suit jacket. No tie, though. Would students take note if he did? Should I? What if he wore a scarf? But, like me, he probably does not want students to take much sartorial note of him, and they would prefer faculty pay no particular attention to them.

These days on campus, it seems, just about anything goes in clothing. Among men, the diffusion, if not dissolution, of the special significance of the tie testifies to the fact. Not so many years later now, I do not think today I would receive the same surprised reaction if I appeared one morning all tied up. A tie is merely another item of apparel -- and depending upon what it is worn with, not necessarily even formal, or, er, rigid.

Another way to state the matter: the tie has lost its hegemonic character, which was as much as anything what I was uncomfortable about at the beginning of my career. To wear or not to wear a tie? The choice is no longer a big deal. Indeed, with some irony, it may now be a bigger deal for a female professor just beginning her career to consider whether or not to wear a scarf. But of course a scarf is not a tie. We all still laugh when Harpo snips off half a man's tie in the Marx Brothers movie Duck Soup. We probably always will.

I presently have 17 ties in my possession. (I just counted.) All but two (one being the old knit job) I bought while teaching in Japan, where among academics a tie remains a tie, and, needless to say, a man is still a man. In contrast, American male academics (including fellows and postdocs) are fortunate, I believe, to be no longer so fit to be tied. In addition, though, they must be forgiven for no longer being entirely clear whether they ought to consider themselves finally emancipated or else somehow newly knotted.


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