Claremont, CA – I don’t know how to tie a tie. But now I know that I am not alone.

Do this: On Google, type “how to” – or even just “how” – into the search window. Google will tell you that you probably want to learn “how to tie a tie.”

This suggestion comes from “Google Suggest,” an algorithmic feature which uses “a wide range of information to predict the queries users are most likely to want to see.” In other words, when all the Google data is mined and sorted – and “queries that could be offending to a large number of users” are taken out – it seems that the thing we are most likely to want to know how to do, but don’t, is how to tie a tie.

We could point to many causes behind this knotty problem. (In fact, my research assistant – who, it must be said, always wears a tie to the office – and I have come up with a long list of hypotheses.) Those include: the move in professional life toward a more “business casual” fashion standard, a decline in close male-male relationships (including intergenerational relationships) where tie-tying is part of the knowledge that gets taught and shared, and the increasing dominance of the Southwest in American public life and image. (Here, in the ungodly, make-your-neck-sweat heat, ties have never been quite as popular.)

But apart from contemplating causes, how might we regard this seeming lack of tie-tying knowledge? On the one hand, I am inclined to bemoan it. Tie-wearing, in the Western tradition, conveys a seriousness of purpose and tends to signal respect. One of my own teachers wears a tie every day, he says, in respect for those who came before him, in respect for those around him, and in respect for those who will come after him. There is something undeniably admirable there.

And let’s face it: Men look good in ties. So do many women.

But I’m loath to embrace a tradition just because it makes people look good. High heels make your legs look fabulous, but they also slow you down and can cause serious pain, if not outright damage. I can’t recommend a fashion based on looks alone – especially when I hear that ties, when it comes down to it, are pretty uncomfortable.

We might consider, too, that ties are part of a tradition of being indoors, of spending life away from manual labor and the land. To the extent that Front Porch Republic types seek a reclamation of the natural relationship between people and the land upon which we live, we might want to revisit the priorities that are conveyed by the clothes that we privilege.

In addition, ties have long been a way of expressing the class distinctions that can weaken a truly democratic ethos. By wearing a tie, you signal that you are not working in the sun, not working with my hands. And you are visibly separating yourself from those people who do – perhaps suggesting, even if implicitly, that your own labors are of a more important type.

Like most people, I associate ties with churchgoing, with funerals and weddings and all sorts of other occasions imbued with spiritual significance. When I took my class to Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church last month, I was interested in the aggressively casual dress of all in attendance. (In particular, a shiny purple cowboy shirt worn by one of the pastors drove me to distraction.) Surely, I said to my students, this represented some troubling decline in moral seriousness.

One of my evangelical students jumped to correct me. “We don’t believe that God cares about what you wear,” she told me. “God just cares about who you are and how you live your faith.” Touché.

What “Google Suggest” teaches us is that ties exist precariously in the current moment. Given what I regard as a proper ambivalence on this matter, perhaps this is for the best.

But before I – har har har – tie things up, you should know: this is how you tie a tie.

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  1. One of my evangelical students jumped to correct me. “We don’t believe that God cares about what you wear,” she told me. “God just cares about who you are and how you live your faith.” Touché.

    Balderdash. What you wear reflects your attitude and your faith. If your attitude to God is to go to Church wearing a t-shirt and jeans and a pair of flip-flops then your attitude is disrespectful. You would not go to a funeral or a wedding dressed like that so why would it be acceptable to go to Church like that. People dressed in their “Sunday best” to show respect, and ideally, to honour God. If Christians cannot be bothered to inconvenience themselves to dress formally to go to Church then how are they ever going to “take up his cross daily, and follow me.”

  2. MY farmer grandfather wore a tie with his overalls.

    And would you wear jeans a t and flip flops to a wedding or a job interview? Why do less for the central defining part of your life than you would for a job interview?

  3. Granted, the standard for churchgoing garb cannot simply be a suit and tie. After all, Sunday’s best for some folks may be a nice pair of jeans, etc. It also may be all that is affordable. However, the “Sunday best” is, I think, a must.

    In response to your evangelical student, I’d argue that God does care what you offer Him, to wit: “And in process of time it came to pass, that Cain brought of the fruit of the ground an offering unto the LORD. And Abel, he also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of the fat thereof. And the LORD had respect unto Abel and to his offering. But unto Cain and to his offering he had not respect. And Cain was very wroth, and his countenance fell.” Gen. 4:3-5.

    “Who you are and how you live your faith” is reflected in what you offer God. Taking faith seriously means offering the very best you can to God. “If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? And if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door.”

  4. Susan, read Philippe Beneton’s book Equality by Default (translated by Ralph Hancock, available through ISI Books), starting with the chapter entitled “The Professor and the Cravat”; he’ll give you an important and illuminating set of contexts — good and bad understandings of democracy, for starters — for approaching the important question, “To tie or not to tie?”
    In the for what it’s worth department: 1) I own two silk bow ties and wear them semi-regularly. 2) I don’t find ties (of either sort) uncomfortable. And finally, 3) the vast majority of women should not wear ties, the vast majority of men should.

  5. Prior to our current youth-culture dominated age, what a laborer wore in his work and what he wore in public were quite distinct. The poor always dressed appropriately for worship and all public functions. They would look on with horror at a man wearing a tee-shirt, shorts and flip-flops to worship the King of Kings. The truth of the matter is that we live in a culture of immaturity. Men and women want to re-capture their youth and dress like their entertainment-soaked teenagers. Instead of teaching the young men and women how an adult is to dress, speak, and behave, we have adults emulating the latest fad of their teenage children including their immature behavior, and idiosyncratic …”like, whatever”… modes of speech.

    ”In addition, ties have long been a way of expressing the class distinctions that can weaken a truly democratic ethos.”

    Why do class distinctions weaken a democratic ethos? It sounds to me as though you are mistaking the nature of a republic with collective egalitarianism. I do not want to see my father, my Mayor, my Senator, or my President dressing in public as he would if he were hauling manure. While I do want them to shun ostentation, I want them to dress in such a way that their appearance matches their maturity, wisdom, and yes…position. And on a purely practical note, a pair of khaki or navy, cuffed and pleated trousers, and white oxford shirt with tie is no more expensive than the average cost of a pair of jeans and Aeropostale sweatshirt.

    One of my evangelical students jumped to correct me. “We don’t believe that God cares about what you wear,” she told me. “God just cares about who you are and how you live your faith.”

    This betrays the utter Gnosticism of broad evangelical Christianity. Here we have Platonic dualism at its worst – as if who you are in your heart is separate from how you dress. How you dress precisely communicates who you are in your heart. Wearing jeans, sweatshirt and flip-flops to worship our Lord is the height of arrogance. Of course, modern Christianity has completely ignored the Old Testament, so how would they know such things.

  6. Tricky business, to be sure. As Paul Seaton notes, Philip Beneton takes this up in Equality by Default, wherein he laments the decline in dress among academics. I sit here in my Levi’s and find myself somewhat persuaded by his argument.

    There’s an interesting passage in Elie Wiesel’s Gates of the Forest about a man who is “the embodiment of longing for the Messiah.” He buys a new expensive suit but never wears it. “I’m saving it,” he says, “for the day when I shake his hand.”

    The liturgy, it seems to me, ought to be dignified by some attention to dress–and modesty.

    My own profession, however, does not seem to me to be very dignified. It gets from me–perhaps to my discredit–the jeans and work boots it barely deserves, notwithstanding my frequent urge to effect a change here and lecture in full regalia. That, methinks, would be a fitting gesture of sartorial irony.

  7. As somebody who chews through shoes and dungarees like wildfire due to prolonged contact with mud, thorn and rock, I can only say that I wish fashions would return to the 30’s-50’s cuts. Fedoras, serious shoulders, mondo ties and a brisk lye konk, these are a uniform of attitude.

    What will be really hilarious is watching where “casual” will go from the sartorial standard of today. I remember the lady in curlers and coat over a nightgown who caused much clucking @ St. James as a kid in the sixties but her transgression was positively chaste when compared against the halloween costumes and slumber party attire of the current generation. Woman in sweat pants and grown men in the current Spanky Uniform of baggy shorts, “I’m with Stupid” T shirt and flashy sneakers would seem to indicate not just a certain coarsening of the culture but a wanton juvenilization of the mind as well.

    The more authoritarian the government gets, the more people want to regress into pajamaland . I fully expect to see half naked people in matching Depends sucking on a pacifier of Ambien in the fullness of time. At that juncture, there will be an assessors office in every home. Barney will be the official spokesman of the IRS. The only professionalism left us will be in the accurate deployment of uranium enriched munitions. If I knew how to leave a smiling emoticon, it would go here.

  8. One of my favorite family photos is one of my grandfather, a Montana rancher, astride his favorite horse, wearing a white shirt, tie, gloves, and fedora. I’m told he regularly dressed like this.

    If the demise of the tie signifies something important, so too does the fact that men do not wear hats, save the baseball hat (too often worn backwards, or worse, sideways).

    Could the West be saved by a dress code?

  9. No, the West can only be saved by the maturing influence of the robust, Trinitarian Gospel, as opposed to the current watered-down version. Dress, speech, behavior, art, literature, etc will then follow. That is the pattern. Until then, lead where you can.

  10. Indeed. I recall an article I read a few years since about some college women’s sports team who had the honor(?) of meeting the President of the United States in some formal setting. The author was a bit shocked that most of the woman on the team thought it appropriate to wear flip-flops.

    Prof. McWilliams, I love the phrase “aggressively casual.” I think this captures perfectly the attitude at my local parish church, where, last time I attended Mass there, I sat behind a gentleman wearing a vaguely Hawaiian-print shirt involving skeletons and motorcycles.

    I know most people aren’t being intentionally offensive, but it certainly feels that way sometimes–after all, I think, surely no one could judge it appropriate to come to church in tight warm-up pants with “Juicy” emblazoned on the rear.

    Finally, I agree that there is a certain degree of relativism to questions such as these–I don’t find it offensive that formal Japanese dress is (or was, at least) different than my formal dress. But the standards are no less real for that, and members of a particular culture will, like it or not, embody one attitude or another by their dress (among other things)–be it respect, intentional disrespect, or apathy.

    Perhaps this post may occasion a related reflection from one of the many contributors who, I suspect, view these cultural standards with less ambivalence than Prof. McWilliams.

  11. For the record, I do share Susan’s ambivalence. Notwithstanding all the arguments in its favor, the tie has also become a snobbish, foppish, and sometimes ridiculously Anglophilic affectation, especially among many self-styled “conservatives.” I know what it theoretically signifies, but as a matter of social reality what it really signifies, in certain situations, is smugness, self-congratulation, or a lust for power and status. Notwithstanding its clear propriety in many social situations, I have too much ingrained, midwestern affection for social democracy to lament the decline of aggressively formal dress so often linked to shallow snobbery.

    On the other hand, one can dress informally without looking like an utter slob or mouth-breather. The latter infest especially our airports. Sweats are never appropriate outside a gym. Did George Costanza teach us nothing?

  12. When I became a civil servant (at DOD), I was told to start wearing ties on a daily basis, and suits if we were attending a conference or had to brief a general/flag officer or SES. That’s held for over 5 years here, and I’m glad. At first I didn’t like it (especially since our military co-workers wear fatigues), but it’s grown on me, and it does lend a degree of seriousness and sobriety to the work place.

    At my church (which is a Latin Mass FSSP chapel), dress codes are in effect such that nearly all men wear at least ties with their shirts, and many suits. The women are usually in dresses with chapel veils. It’s civilized and appropriately respectful, and we avoided spectacles like at my previous parish, where you would see kids turn up with Marilyn Manson t-shirts for example, and altar girls in short shorts with plunging necklines.

  13. At least in my part of the country, previous generations
    of men always wore a suit (or something like a suit), but they
    only wore a tie for serious occasions.

    Here’s my great-great-grandfather, a carpenter and preacher,
    along with the church he built in 1880.

    (The church was photographed in 1956.)

    Note how he chose to present himself for the photographer:
    suit jacket and cotton work gloves.

  14. In response to your evangelical student, I have always said: “If you can’t dress up for God, who can you dress up for?”

  15. I’d like to make a point regarding ties being “uncomfortable”. Despite common misconception, the tie adds no pressure to the neck. If you do feel any pressure (in the words of a certain old-timer I know), “it’s because you’ve got a fat neck and your shirt’s too small”.

  16. If the demise of the tie signifies something important, so too does the fact that men do not wear hats, save the baseball hat (too often worn backwards, or worse, sideways).

    In response to Mark–and possibly some others–I can only offer this: I have worn a tie (and usually an accompanying sport coat) pretty much every day that I have taught at every university I have worked at since I left graduate school. I have a very explicit intention in doing so, which I have happily explained to students and faculty on several occasions: I do not believe that the sort of learning which our colleges and universities aspire to can effectively take place in environments without a sense of demarcation, a sense of from which direction the teaching is coming from. I am a teacher, you are student; I wear a tie, so that on a very obvious level, there will be no disputing of that fact.

    On days in which I am not teaching, I sit in my office wearing jeans and very frequently a baseball hat (though never backwards). The tie is for the classroom; the other interactions I have with my students (advising, extracurricular activities, etc.) do not require, I think, the same sort of spatial signifiers. I may be wrong there, but that’s how I call it.

    One of my most treasured gifts from a student came while I taught in Arkansas; as the Christmas holidays approached, I found hanging on my office doorknob a small package, containing a new necktie and a note: “Thank you for always dressing like a teacher.” I still have the note. The tie, unfortunately, was a piece of orange dreck.

  17. There could be another element of the tie we’re missing. I always felt they were the one element of the uniform that was a sign of distinction and colorfully unique quality within an otherwise dour ensemble. They are, after all, the heir to the Battle Standard or Herald , the symbol of individual effort in service to the greater cause. Esprit de Corps it was called and those who had it would fight to the death to protect it. Personally, I liked the 40’s hand-painted affairs the most and used to wear them until thorn snags, hydraulic oil and soil insulted them too much.

    Esprit de Corps is not something much considered by the legions of hipsters or clods today who decry conventionalism but wear their own vaguely identical dirtbag uniform nonetheless. If a tie is uncomfortable on a hot July day, one of those ridiculous knit hats sopping up sweat and inhibiting cranial radiation must be more so. Esprit de Corps produced a kind of person that would seem gone now and as a little illustration of what that person might be like, I offer the following disgracefully tie-free, open shirt collar recollection:

    General Montbrun commanded the 2nd Reserve Cavalry of the French Imperial Forces on their campaign against the Fabian Russian strategy wisely employed against Napoleon. During the most pitched encounter before Moscow, at the Battle of Borodino on Sept. 7, 1812, General Montbrun brought his cavalry up from the rear to increase the prosecution of an assault on The Great Redoubt. There then commenced a furious cannonade and a cannonball raked across General Montbrun’s abdomen. Before he pitched off his horse stone dead, he was overheard to say….. with unalloyed enthusiasm as he surveyed his wound : “Good Shot!”

  18. My own opinion is simply that the suit and tie, which had it;s ancestry in the British Isles, never was really well adapted to the american climate. Wearing a suite and tie in 90+ heat, and 100% percent humidity was something your average English gentleman in the cool maritime climate of the British Isles never had to contend with. We inherited it, but if we had to create our own style of professional clothing, it would be quite different. We’ve struggled along with it since. It looks classy, but not enough to want to wear it often.Unless in an air conditioned office. We don’ want sloppy, but if you look at clothing in the hot parts of the world, the natives either have little on, or loose flowing outfits,[like Bedouin wear} . Not close fitting, wool layered outfits wih neck constriction devices. Just my opinion about things.

  19. As far as I can see, all fashions are, like languages, simply modes of communication entirely dependent on cultural context. In the past, successful people happened to wear suits ties; thus, today we communicate our own status as successful people by dressing accordingly. If past elites had worn denims and t-shirts, then those would have been “proper dress” today.

    Which brings up an interesting point, which might partially explain the sudden lack of knowledge in how to tie a tie. As little as a decade or two ago, the world’s financial elite were the old class of businessman – financiers, industrial giants, etc. Today, much of our financial elite is tech-based: Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, the owners of any one of hundreds of successful websites (Google, eBay, etc). These people bypassed the standard process (ie promotion by pleasing one’s superiors) and so weren’t confined to previous standards of dress. Today’s college graduates are beginning to see a new standard for elites; as a result, our cultural definitions (especially among younger people) for success are changing.

  20. As far as I can see, all fashions are, like languages, simply modes of communication entirely dependent on cultural context. In the past, successful people happened to wear suits ties; thus, today we communicate our own status as successful people by dressing accordingly. If past elites had worn denims and t-shirts, then those would have been “proper dress” today.

    I disagree with this culturally relativistic approach. Why precisely did successful people happen to wear suits and ties? Why did not-so-successful people also wear suits and ties? There is a reason that this was the case and it is not a subjective one.

    And what appropriate timing from Mr. Will

    “Denim Demon”

  21. I’ll grant you that there is an aesthetic and non-relativistic angle to all of this (I doubt tennis shoes will ever be considered “classy”), but I’d have to say fashion, and any other language, is inherently relative. Not-so-successful people wear ties because they’re trying to communicate that they belong in a successful world, and this communication often works–which is why it’s a good idea to wear a tie and dress sharply when going to a job interview, especially those from a more traditional mindset (like banks, for instance).

    As to wear the practice started: Croatian mercenaries in the Thirty Years War some four centuries ago (ties come from the French cravat, which comes from the word Croat). Parisians liked the look and started wearing it, and, as so often happens in the world of fashion, much of the rest of the western world followed suit.

    Of course, at that time the ideal was a rather large, frilly, lacy affair for men and women alike. The ideal has changed since then, as it is still changing today.

  22. I would submit that if a man dressed in a suit and tie and a man dressed in his sweatpants and sweatshirt walked into an African village which had never seen the likes of a European, they would know who was the king and who was the peasant.

  23. And I will add that if “social democracy” is what has brought us to the point where I am forced to see a female health care professional with her well endowed,uncovered, naval pierced stomach hanging over her hip-hugging jeans, then I am against it. Give me Monarchy.

  24. I would submit that if either walked into an African village, they would think him a fool for wearing too much in the heat. But like I said, there is certainly an aesthetic element which I doubt something like sweatpants and a sweatshirt would ever fulfill. Then again, a few hundred years ago the height of male fashion was tight pants and plenty of lace. Given the choice, I think I’d go with sweatpants–but only because tight pants and lace on men these days communicates something very different from what they did in their heyday. Just like the way your health care professional dresses communicates something different to those of her age group than it does to yours.

    I suspect it’s the fate of every generation to bemoan the fashions of the next.

  25. My central point is not one of fashion but maturity as I stated early on. Maturity and modesty precluded lace and tight pants on the majority of men, even whilst it may have been fashionable. It was recongnized as effeminate and ostentations then as it is now. Yes, the health care professional as described is indeed communicating something to her young and foolish peers, and unfortunately they are listening to her and not the older, wiser and modest women, difficult as they may be to find.

    I suspect it’s the fate of every generation to bemoan the fashions of the next. I submit that this has not always been the case. Never, prior to the mid-20th century was there any such thing as a commercialized “youth culture”. I do not advocate a suit and/and or tie per se, but rather dressing like modest and mature adults appropriate to our vocations and training our children to do the same. Let us take our cues from the elder at the gate rather than the Rap artist.

    Here is the attire of the poor, rural laborer of yore.

  26. I agree with you there–if you’re trying to be part of middle-upper class working America, you should try to dress the part, and that means dressing (as you said) maturely and modestly.

    My only real point is that the means of communicating those values changes somewhat from generation to generation, and from culture to culture. Wear nice business clothes in a business and you get hired; wear them in gang territory and you get mugged; wear them in the Sahara and you get taken for a madman. I absolutely agree with you that we should dress wisely; I only disagree in that I think the defining aspect of that is our cultural context, which is rapidly changing from the more traditional ways.

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