To tie or knot to tie? What binds us to civilization?

I come to bury the necktie, not to praise it.

The fashion gods, in their capriciousness, have laid the necktie to rest or ordained its demise. Nobody on television under middle age dares to wear a necktie; nobody in show business has supported one in decades, if you discount those black bow ties that show up for the Oscars. At the White House correspondents' annual dinner, Washington's ersatz Oscars, men wear evening suits and black ties - suits that fit better last year; on the distaff side, mutton is dressed as lamb.

Talking of suits, they too are on the sartorial chopping block.

The grunging of America, which started with the unwashed, has now reached the well-scrubbed. Male members of Congress are still wearing ties, but as often as not with blazers and sports jackets. The red power ties have given way to pastels, often baby blue, which seem to be apologizing for themselves.

There is no mystery here: With the exit of the necktie, could the suit have been far behind? A suit without a tie is meat without potatoes, a putting asunder of that which had been divinely united. No longer will suits identify the wearer by their cut - center vents, American; side vents, British; no vents, Italian.

The history of the necktie is nearly as old as male vanity. It is said - according to Wikipedia, which is not always right but good enough for argument - to have originated with Croatian troops who brought their neck wear to Paris. The French seized on it and launched the cravat, which through the centuries metamorphosed into the necktie.

Then, there are those who believe today's necktie owes more to Queen Victoria. That tale of provenance says that she did not want to see men's buttons and had them extend their neck wear to cover all the buttons. I like this story better, but believe it less.

Having grown up in England, my prized necktie is my old school one; not an old-school tie in the metaphorical sense or even one worn by alumni to identify each other, but the actual piece of cloth that adorned my neck all those years ago and is still in wearable condition. It is thin and purple with small crests of the Marlborough family embroidered about it. As Winston Churchill, a Marlborough, was alive at the time, we were told that he had given special dispensation for us to wear the crest on our ties and blazers.

We were impervious to the joys of affiliation with the Great Man. But ties were de rigueur and their absence from the untrammeled neck was a grave infraction, a threat to the survival of the British Empire - to say nothing of civilization, which clearly depended on the empire which, in some mysterious way, depended on a little strip of purple cloth.

The punishment for not wearing a tie when wearing any other item of school uniform at any hour was four cuts with the cane. So we wore our ties for our first kiss, our first reading of "Lady Chatterly's Lover" and our first sip of liquor.

Mark my words, men going around in public with their shirts open at the neck will bear the consequences. I hear the Chinese and Indians are wearing suits and neckties and gaining on us in math and science. What do we expect in jeans and polo shirts?

Llewellyn King is executive producer and host of "White House Chronicle" on PBS.


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