Credit: www.pixabay.com. CC0 Public Domain.
Disclaimer: I’m a man who wears a tie to work every day. I work in a primary school, and a couple of years ago ties were made compulsory for both male and female pupils. Tie-wearing for boys and girls at school is pretty common in England so their introduction came as no great surprise, but it did produce a dilemma in my mind: I hadn’t worn a tie to work for years, but now that all the children had to wear one should I lead by example and follow suit? There was no school policy on staff wearing ties, but the pressure began to build and eventually I buckled.
I’ve worn a tie to work ever since, yet this really bugs me, and not just because I find ties a little uncomfortable or unfashionable to wear: for me it’s also an issue of politics.
My interest in the political significance of tie-wearing was pricked in June 2017 when John Bercow, the Speaker of the UK House of Commons, clarified that MPs would not be required to wear ties to debates in Parliament (he meant for men, not for women). Bercow’s decision was discussed on BBC Radio Five Live’s news show Good Week / Bad Week on July 2nd 2017. One of the guests was the Russian journalist and former Kremlin adviser Alexander Nekrassov, who suggested that relaxing the rule on ties would be a “disaster.” He argued that a tie “reveals everything about a man,” and that ties “make men look smart…and smart has to come back.”
Nekrassov defended the tie because it’s a symbol of the traditional masculinity he’s keen to preserve (or “bring back” as he put it on the programme), an image that still shapes our subconscious sense of what a man should be. What’s worrying is how broadly accepted this position seems to be. All four of the other panel members agreed with Nekrassov that a man looks smarter in a tie. Jane Garvey, one of the show’s co-hosts (who also presents Woman’s Hour on BBC Radio Four) put it like this: “I tend to agree with the general view that men look smarter with ties.”
It’s this idea of male ‘smartness’ that needs to be deconstructed and overturned.
When we think about the smartness associated with a man in a suit and tie, we’re thinking about a form of masculinity that is rooted in late Victorian, bourgeois culture. During the Radio Five Live discussion, Garvey half-heartedly offered up the theory that the tie is a “silken arrow” that points towards a man’s “most treasured region” (she didn’t say whether this was his wallet or his penis). That’s a little too Freudian for me. Instead, I suspect that—as a critical accompaniment to the Victorian suit—ties are better understood as part of a wider form of ‘respectable’ expression that’s defined by male self-repression.
After all, what does a tie do? It tightens, restricts and covers. It tightens around a man’s neck, restricts his movement just a little, and critically, it covers up the buttons of his shirt that provide the opening to bare flesh. The late Victorian man in his suit and tie is defined by his discipline. He must display his ability to control his raw bodily urges, raising himself above a state of nature with the power of his rational thought and the strength of his hardnosed convictions. The tie helps to communicate this level of control and discipline to the world, literally tying up the top button—the first to be undone in revealing the body—and covering the rest with that “silken arrow.”
The modern suit jacket, the surviving descendent of an array of Victorian coats and jackets, completes the look. It adds another thick ‘professional’ layer over the body of sensuality and emotion. To this day, many professional men will wear their jackets and ties at virtually all times when they enter into ‘serious business,’ even when they work in horribly hot and sticky environments. They must bear the discomfort, keep the body well covered up, and ‘be a man.’
As Garvey’s fellow co-host Peter Allen suggested during the Radio Five Live discussion, there’s a perception that a man without a tie looks ‘untidy,’ but what does that mean? It means a little too free—for a man. If so, a senior professional man with an open-necked shirt and two whole buttons undone might well create complete consternation among his staff. To many people, an un-tied shirt is worrying enough as an indicator of openness to the sensual body, so how about a CEO or Prime Minister in shorts, revealing his bare legs to the world? Even the notion of teenage boys in short trousers makes us think twice. The truth is, we haven’t let go of the Victorian idea that a ‘serious’ male should not be sensually open.
Given that we still readily accept a man in a suit and tie as the gold standard for ‘smartness’ in multiple senses, is it any wonder that we still live in societies that are defined by the emotionally stunted nature of traditional masculinity? These are societies where ‘smart’ men in suits and ties go about their business, putting profits above our welfare, self-interest above empathy, and ‘tough decisions’ above human dignity—men who have been taught that raw power is more valuable than emotional sensitivity.
In Western societies, ruthless strength in the face of ‘emotional wavering’ is still one of the most prized traits in industry and politics. We should not be surprised, then, to find a man like Donald Trump stepping up from the world of business to claim political power. While he may be clueless, he looks kind of smart in his suits and red ties.
When Trump met Putin at the G20 summit in Hamburg, he found his kindred spirit on the global stage. As the journalist Richard Wolffe puts it, the two men are “cut from the same cloth.” Wolffe used that phrase metaphorically, but he might just as well have meant it literally, because when they sat down together to bond over their status as fellow strongmen, they reflected the image of each other in their immaculate suits and ties.
While we may think of men like Trump and Putin as aggressive and hot headed as they bludgeon their way to the top, they strive to give off the impression of being cool and collected during the ‘big’ occasions and the ‘tough’ decision making that follows. Whenever it‘s time for serious business, they will be ready in all their professional layers, looking neat, tidy and tightened up. They will make sure that the sensual body is well restricted when it ‘really matters.’
The irony, of course, is that strongmen who are so keen to express control over their emotions are the same people who are so out of control in their insatiable lust for power. As they drain human sentiment out of their decision making they are left with the most basic compulsion for more. Indeed, modern strongmen drop the token Victorian ideal of the rational overcoming the natural in order to reveal traditional masculinity in its bare form. What matters most to them is not the strong mind but the strong gut—men like Trump like to trust in their ‘gut instinct.’ And here’s the final irony: the ‘smart’ suit and tie of the strongman ultimately hints at the primitive gut of self-interest.
If we want to progress beyond a world defined by this culture, then perhaps it’s time to reflect more critically on supposedly ‘trivial’ symbols of Western masculinity like suits and ties. Deep down, they carry a powerful mix of traditionalist associations that underpins the conservative ideologies from which we’re struggling to break free.