Jim Ott's Blog

This blog is a collection of columns I've written for Bay Area News Group newspapers serving the East San Francisco Bay region.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

The necktie debate

This column appeared in the Tri-Valley Herald in August 2006.

I was looking through a box of old photos the other day and came across a 1962 snapshot of me when I was 7 wearing a white shirt and dark narrow tie. I remarked to my wife that my attire hasn’t changed much over the years, through my ties are a bit wider.

This got me thinking—like my recent column on beards—about the status of neckties in the East Bay’s business world. While publications such as the Wall Street Journal have trumpeted the return of suits and ties to the office, I decided to do some local research on the topic.

“More and more I’m seeing business people in a sport coat and open collared shirt. That seems to be the dress code,” said Livermore CPA Weldon Moreland, who typically wears a tie to the office.

“As a CPA, I’m expected to be conservative,” he said, “so I typically dress in a white shirt, a tie, and dark suit.”

Over in Pleasanton, CPA Jim Pease, who rarely wears a tie, has a somewhat different view: “The East Bay’s proximity to Silicon Valley has had an impact on the status of wearing ties to work.”

Pease suggests that business icons such as Steve Jobs—with their more casual style of dress—have had a lasting impact on how business people dress today. “Unless required by employers,” said Pease, “ties now seem to be worn only on special occasions.”

Steve Sherman, an attorney and shareholder with Hoge, Fenton, Jones & Appel, only wears a tie if he has a court appearance or is meeting with a new client.

“Unlike the firms I’ve observed in the Tri Valley,” Sherman said, “the attorneys who work at law firms in San Francisco or Oakland almost always wear ties. I think those firms are more traditional and the dress code reflects that philosophy.”

Of course, neckties have been encircling men’s necks for centuries, and were made popular by the French monarch Louis XIV in the late 1600s. The fashion trend found its way to England, and in 1880, members of the rowing club at Exeter College invented the first school tie when they detached the long bands from their boater hats and tied them around their necks.

Over in America in the 1920s, a tailor named Jesse Langsdorf realized that cutting a tie from material at 45 degrees allowed the tie to fall straight from the knot, rather than off-center as was common with ties of the time. This cutting technique, which is today the standard in manufacturing, also made possible the appearance of the diagonal stripes still produced by many necktie companies.

With the counterculture movements of the sixties and early seventies, open collars became acceptable and found their way into the workplace. CPA Moreland, a longtime Livermore resident, remembers seeing a downtown men’s store go out of business in the early 1970s shortly after Lawrence Livermore National Lab started allowing its scientists and technicians to dress more casually.

Nonetheless, the necktie’s popularity roared back with the 1975 publication of John Malloy’s best selling “Dress for Success,” which established rules that still influence our perspectives, including the view that men who wear neckties appear more trustworthy and financially secure than those who shun the tie.

Attorney Sherman agrees: “Wearing a tie conveys a message that the person is more formal or serious. When I wear a suit and tie to court, for example, I'm all business. It's game on.”

Sherman also advises younger professionals to wear ties to business meetings as a form of respect. “While the younger professional may lack experience,” he said, “it can help convey that they are knowledgeable and well-prepared.”

Tom Mantor, President of Bank of Walnut Creek, agrees that wearing a tie signals respect for your client. Though most of his business customers do not wear ties, his bank requires the more formal attire, including on Fridays.

“We may be somewhat old-fashioned in that we require ties at all times,” Mantor said, “but we feel it’s important to look professional when we meet with our clients and when presenting ourselves to the business community.”

Still, many firms in the East Bay have adopted business casual dress codes, and some companies allow jeans to be worn to work on Fridays.

And so the fashion debate continues.

While leaving the tie at home has become more acceptable in today’s East Bay business world, Mantor poses a question that makes a good point about the necktie’s importance and power in the business world: “If you went to a job interview, would you wear a tie? I think so.”

And while Sherman believes that neckties will remain a fashion accessory for future generations, he asks a small favor of family and friends: “Please, no more Father's Day ties, tie clips, tie chains, or any other tie accessories.”


she said...

a valid reason to have dinner downtown AGAIN! thank you jim!

but on a serious note - wish dress codes could be individualized because in my experience, one man can put on a suit and tie, and the way he feels about himself in that suit/tie really does result in better communication w/clients, greater productivity, etc. but another man could put on a tie and suit, and feel so constricted and uncomfortable that his performance declines... but let him take off his tie and put on a comfortable pair of jeans.. and watch out!

i think this falls into that area where "AND" would better serve companies and people than "either/or"

it depends so much on how the person carries himself

sometimes casual can signal that the person is above, in decision-making and power, than those "forced" to wear a suit and tie. -sometimes not.

and i imagine another thing that matters quite a bit, is whether the objective is order and efficiency, or innovation/creativity - but again there... AND ... would be better.

Jim Ott said...

As usual, your comments are quite astute. I agree that sometimes no tie can be more powerful than wearing a tie. And the look of clothing has a lot to do with where a man is coming from. I consider a lot of factors when choosing whether to wear a tie: whom I'm going to be with and their expectations, whether I'm the senior person or not in the meeting, the event itself, etc.

Thanks for your response, and, as always, for your loyal readership...