The Null Device

The paradox of the necktie

Anarchist anthropologist David Graeber (of Debt: The First 5,000 Years and On Bullshit Jobs fame) writes in the Baffler about the evolution of business attire, and in particular, the paradox of the necktie:
No doubt, part of the objection to the tie is to the pure arbitrariness of the thing. A tie serves no function. It doesn’t hold your trousers up or keep you warm. But at the same time, it’s uncomfortable, so much so that putting it on does somehow feel like a gesture of submission, a reluctant pledge of allegiance to everything the suit is supposed to represent.
[t]he business suit derives not from aristocratic formal wear, but from hunting clothes—this is why fox-hunters, for instance, still wear something very much like one. Both uniforms are a kind of active wear, adopted by a class of people who wanted to define themselves through their actions. Actually, I suspect that the ultimate derivation of the business suit is from a suit of armor. The suit, after all, encases your body, covering as much of it as possible; what minimal openings to the world such clothes do afford—at your neck and sleeves—are bound tightly together by ties and cuff links. The contours of the body are thus obscured, in striking contrast with women’s formal wear, which, even in covering the body, constantly hints at revealing it, and particularly at revealing its most sexualized aspects. Skirts, even when they cover the lower half of the body completely, tend to form an open-ended cone whose apex is between the legs, and except in the most prudish times, there has been some gesture toward revealing the cleavage. It’s almost as if the staid uniformity of men’s attire is meant to efface individuality just as its design is meant to make the body itself invisible; women’s formal wear, on the other hand, makes the wearer both an individual and an object to be seen. Indeed, the conventions of higher-class fashion ensure that any woman wearing such an outfit is obliged to devote a good deal of time and energy to monitoring herself to make sure too much is not revealed and, more generally, to constantly thinking about what she looks like.
I suggest a simple formula: To express power through display is to say to those over whom one exercises it, “Behold, see how I have been treated. I have been treated this way because of who I am. Now you, too, must treat me this way.” Kings cover themselves with gold as a way of saying that you must cover them with gold as well. To refuse any such display, in contrast, is to say, “You simply have no idea what I am capable of.”
As for the necktie, Graeber's theory as to its provenance is a somewhat Freudian one; essentially, the tie is a sort of symbolic, decorporealised codpiece:
Couldn’t we say that a tie is really a symbolic displacement of the penis, only an intellectualized penis, dangling not from one’s crotch but from one’s head, chosen from among an almost infinite variety of other ties by an act of mental will? Hey, this would explain a lot—why men who wear bow ties are universally taken to be nerds, for example. True, a bow tie could be taken for a pair of testicles. But even so, bow ties are small, and they point in entirely the wrong direction. Mafiosi wear ties that are too fat and colorful; dissipated sophisticates wear thin ties; cowboys wear string ties that produce the effect you might expect from wearing a bow tie and a regular tie at the same time—ordinarily, this would be too unsubtle, but cowboys are mythic he-men who can get away with it. (James Bond can also get away with a bow tie, but then he’s basically just a giant penis anyway.)

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