UGLY IS RELATIVE. What might be considered an ugly necktie to one person might have enough sentimental value to be beautiful to another.What seems to determine ugliness is a tie's size (almost always the older, wider style), colors blatantly fighting each other, and overly flowered or boldly patterned fabrics. Shiny also seems to get an ugly vote.

They've sometimes been dubbed "ties that blind."

Ugly tie contests certainly aren't new. And certainly unearthing ugly - or at least "dramatic" - ties isn't like seeking needles in a haystack. Just about every red-blooded American household has an ugly tie hanging in a closet or buried amid attic junk.

Ties have been the most prolific gift for men, usually bought with great affection if not great taste.

"What could this be?" exclaims the gift recipient, trying to show surprise at what comes out of that dead giveaway - the narrow tie box.

"Oh, it's a tie. Great. Just great." Groans must be stifled.

Into the closet they go, often never to come out, except perhaps at a flea market or rummage sale or yard sale. Chances are you'll see some remarkable neckties - and usually they'll still be there when the sale is over.

Unless, of course, you are someone like Jay Bernard of Oakland, Pa., who has been haunting thrift stores, flea markets and vintage clothing shops for the past five years in his search for ties. He now owns at least 200.

"I use my ties as kind of `mood meters,' and days that I feel serious, I wear a conservative tie. When I am in an exceptionally good mood, I wear a fun or wacky tie. If you have to wear a tie, why be a stuffed shirt?"

A Father's Day or two ago, the National Association of Men's Sportswear Buyers had its first Ugly Tie Contest through retail stores across the country. About 10,000 ties (a concentration in ugliness) poured into stores.

Well, when the Pittsburgh Press fashion desk asked for some ugly ties, that's just what we got. Almost to a person, however, the donors wanted their ugly ties returned. They'd become an attachment to the heart in some cases.