My guess is a good percentage of the males reading this column will spend part of today struggling against a necktie.
Struggling to breathe, to keep it cinched up, to keep the small flap in the back from sticking out awkwardly, and to avoid using the thing as a handkerchief when you feel the urge to sneeze.
And yet you probably will wear one to church, which makes you part of an apparently dying breed. If some recent opinion polls are correct, this may be the only day of the week you stand in front of a mirror and attempt a Windsor, or a simple four-in-hand, or whatever it was your father taught you years ago.
This was brought home to me last week by a Wall Street Journal report about the demise of the Men's Dress Furnishings Association, which is the trade organization that represents tie manufacturers in America. It's closing the doors because men aren't wearing ties any more. The story quoted a Gallup Poll that found only 6 percent of men wear a tie to work every day.
Of course this raises an immediate concern, with Father's Day a mere week away. What on earth can you get Dad if he doesn't wear a tie?
But it also raises larger questions about society in general and our attitudes about ourselves and others.
A few years ago, a lot of you responded favorably to a column I wrote about slovenly dress. I tied it to a team of young women lacrosse players who had visited the White House with flip-flops on their feet. Most of you agreed with me when I said our dress conveys "attitudes toward institutions, offices of authority and, on a much more basic level, the feelings of other people."
It was probably easy to accept this when the focus was on young women. Now it's the adults' turn.
Fashions come and go like the wind, of course. I can't find any written rule that says a necktie is the only accessory a man can wear to signify respect or dignity. Nor would the things people wore a generation or two ago mean the same today as they did then.
A perfect example played out recently in a courtroom in Wisconsin where, as The Capital Times and Wisconsin State Journal reported, the rules require all male lawyers to wear ties. Last January, a prosecutor came to court wearing a red ascot. A judge nearly held him in contempt.
Ascots used to be the neckwear of elegant casualness. They aren't casual today. And apparently the judge didn't see anything elegant about them, either.
Men's business attire has evolved through the years and is bound to evolve even more. The issue really isn't about ties at all. It is that pieces of formal business clothing seem to be disappearing from the workplace without being replaced by other concepts or accessories. It isn't as if vests are being replaced with suspenders, or lapels are getting wider. A newly washed T-shirt isn't a substitute for anything formal, no matter how soiled the one you wear in your free time may be. It is a leap off a cliff.
A few years ago, psychologist Jeffrey Magee surveyed 500 large and small companies about dress. He found that, contrary to what many believe, relaxed dress standards hurt productivity and morale. They also lead to bad behavior, including a lack of manners and even ethical lapses. A Wirthlin Worldwide survey a few years ago found that more than 70 percent of company executives agreed the way a person dresses affects his or her state of mind and behavior.
As I was writing this, a colleague brought up the point that a lot of well-dressed people behave badly, just as a lot of casually dressed people behave well. That is certainly true. It's also true that many jobs, by their nature, demand casual dress. You wouldn't want the person fixing your roof in a suit and tie.
But as exotic dancers are fond of arguing at the Supreme Court, the way a person dresses, or doesn't dress, is a form of speech. It conveys attitudes about yourself, the task at hand and the people you serve, whether they be clients or co-workers. It conveys appropriateness in context.If that doesn't make you feel better about cinching that thing around your neck this morning, nothing will.