It's 2 p.m. The clouds are gray and low. No sun, and the air is heavy and humid. As I wait for the light to change, my vision becomes tunneled and things start to blur out of shape, my head a soft cotton balloon, and I think I could have heard a whispered version of "Fly Me to the Moon," bossa nova style.
Fever? Allergies? Plain insanity? No, it's just that I haven't loosened my tie and undone the top button of my shirt.
More than once, this momentary lack of oxygen has lead one to ponder this most intriguing element of men's—and in some cases, women's— fashion. Yes, intriguing, because while ties might be common, it boggles the mind how the heck, in the name of the gods of fashion, this cloth appendage knotted around the neck of man or a woman persists to this day as a crucial accessory of dress.
Its proponents laud it as the epitome of elegance and good taste. Its opponents eschew it as the dog leash of THE MAN, but in most cases don't eliminate it. Instead, they incorporate it into their styles—the hippy bandana, the thin punk tie, the goth cravat.
This tendency to tie a strip of cloth around our necks for fashion isn't new. Ever since ancient times—both Egyptian and Roman—a cloth worn around the neck was a sign of status and standing; a curious choice of fashion as well, even back then, because it gave enemies a handy instrument to dispatch you (the one pull and your eyes pop out type of death).
However, it wasn't until the late 1600s that the necktie as we know it became fashion, and, yes, the French had something to do with it. Since way back then, it seems, the Gauls have been able to take anything, from a dog to a piece of wire, and not only decide it is a form of fashion, but also to make us see that it is la mode.
As a superpower of the times under King Louis XIII, France was becoming a trendsetter. And when you are the king and have the luxury and leisure industry at your command, what the king likes, the French like, and what the French like, the rest of Europe likes.
Louis the XIII liked what the Croats wore.
You see, Croatian mercenaries served France in a little conflict called the Thirty Years' War. From 1618 to 1648, Europeans decided to set off on a slaughter spree for various reasons, maybe the Catholic vs. Protestant thing, or to determine which inbred king would run most of the countries. This was old-style carnage, not the remote video-game wars of today, but rather your basic one-on-one slash fest.
Leave it to the French to notice, amid the slaughter, an opportunity for fashion. Their Croatian comrades-in-arms wore red cloths around their necks in a manner that caught the fancy of Paris. The Croats call it masna, which could mean bow. However, the word Croat was adapted to other languages to mean necktie: corbata (Spanish), kravate (Turkish), cravatta (Italian), krawatte (German)…you get it.
However, it is worth mentioning that in some European countries, the tie has nicknames that can raise the hair on the back of your neck when you contemplate their possible sources: for example, in Dutch a tie is called stropdas (noose tie), and in French, it is also called corde au coup (hit rope, or rope of the hit).
While it makes sense to wear a closed collar and a tie in cool or cold climates, why does this element of fashion persist in places situated in warm climates, such as, let's say Lagos, Nigeria, or our own Caribbean micropolis? Heck, why would it make sense for people to wear ties in summer in places that are cold the rest of the year?
It seems it goes back to the original meaning of tying fabric to the neck—to display your status or demeanor, or even your intentions. In other words, it's like many senseless meanings we humans have given to objects, and that in turn transforms them from mere things into symbols, something beyond what they really are. This is a unique characteristic that sets us apart from other animals and makes us unique.
Moreover, maybe these symbols, in some cases, can be absurd as well as attractive and interesting.
Well, that's human too.