Sam Leith engages with the current hot topic gripping the nation: is it all over for the tie?
He points out that even middle-aged, middle-class gatherings are now sublimely unconcerned at the sight of a tieless man in a relatively formal context (such as when Leith forgot to wear a tie when interviewing Seamus Heaney at a recent literary festival). Ten years ago the reaction would have been far different (I recall the BBC receiving complaints during the 1991 Gulf War, after a correspondent out in the baking heat of the Kuwaiti desert dared to appear on TV without a jacket and tie.)
The role the tie plays is symbolic rather than practical. It is a sign – and its meaning is, as Saussure put it, “arbitrary”. It advertised – at first – membership of the community of respectable men in the public sphere.
More recently, as it has become less general, it has advertised a certain formality of occasion.
My point is that if people no longer notice – if the sign “tie” is now in free variation with “no tie” – its symbolic value, and hence its actual value, has disappeared. Collared shirt vs T-shirt still has a certain force. Tie vs no tie, vanishingly so.
All good clean fun. Though I suspect Leith may be trying to maximise the spluttering outrage among Telegraph readers: “Not only does this man Leith not want to wear a tie, but then he starts quoting fancypants foreign ‘intellectuals’ (dread word!) in support of his degenerate leftist nonsense.”
FWIW, your correspondent is currently sitting – in the offices of a professional firm in a town that is a byword for conservatism – tieless, but with one in my pocket, just in case a client turns up…