Tie Me Up. Tie Me Down

As one of the few expressions of creativity and personality allowed to men, a tie has a lot of responsibility. "It can convey a feeling, a situation, and above all the elegance of the wearer, since his choice of a tie is an expression of his inner self," says Jean-Claude Colban, director of Charvet, the distinguished tie shop in Paris, in the preface to The Book of Ties by Francois Chaille.

Dating back to around 1650, when the French, led by Louis XIV, followed the example of the Croatian mercenaries who donned neck apparel, the tie has flourished in various and elaborate incarnations. But in 1924, out of a need for more practical, comfortable, and durable neckwear, Jesse Langsdorf developed the manufacturing system for the modern tie. And it has barely evolved since.

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What has changed during the last 80 years, however, is why men wear them. No longer viewed today as a requirement or a sign of conformity and social regimentation outside of the business and political arenas, ties are now often seen as just what they are: simple ornamentation.

"Essentially purposeless and increasingly worn at one's own discretion, ties are now above all statements of the wearer's personality," says Chaille. And it is precisely because of their superfluity that these strips of silk or linen are so laden with meaning.

So, what are you trying to say with that rectangular piece of silk? If you're wearing novelty ties that look like computer screen savers, perhaps you're telling people that you really are a fun guy once your business suit comes off at night. If your choice is a conservatively striped "power tie," then maybe you want your professional, no-nonsense, respectable persona to shine through. If you opt for one of the song-themed ties from the new Grateful Dead Collection, maybe you're nostalgic for the days when Jerry Garcia was alive, life was good, and you had all your hair. But perhaps a bow tie is more your speed, because you are a free-spirited nonconformist with an intellectual or creative bent. Or maybe not. That's the beauty of the tie. A man may be all of the different things his tie implies, or none of them. If he chooses right, his tie will say what he wants it to.

But even though your tie may be speaking for you, it is typically women who are the ventriloquists. With 60 percent of ties being purchased by women, many men are the Charlie McCarthys of the fit-to-be-tied fashion statement.

Of course, there are those who will swear that a long, wide tie with silk that feels like "living skin" is really just representative of the male genitalia. "The tie is the most obvious kind of a phallic symbol," says George D. Goldman, Ph.D., a psychologist and psychoanalyst who practices in New York City. "It hangs down in front of a man like a phallic symbol -- but that's just a cliche.

"Like Sigmund Freud once said, 'Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.' And some ties are just ties." But just in case, women are glad that those lanky, skinny ties are out of style.

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