Ties out, tattoos in

Whether ties are out or tattoos are in, there is a performative aspect that in both cases can hide a murkier if not awful truth

Artillery Row

Journalists must make a living, clearly, and one of those merry-go-round stories repeated over recent years is the purported demise of the tie, often counterbalanced by articles arguing that the tie is actually hanging in there or even making a comeback. 

It’s clearly that time again, though the current tie-related articles are now united: it really is the end of the tie as fashion accessory, and it was finished off by a year of working from home, Zoom calls, or mooching about on furlough.

Who really cares, is an understandable response. But there is always more going on. The tie is the tip of the dressing-down iceberg — if ties go, suits and smart shirts could struggle — and the current liberalising shift in fashion mores goes beyond what is placed over our bodies to also include how we adorn our actual skin.

The tie is the tip of the dressing-down iceberg — if ties go, suits and smart shirts could struggle

A stroll down any high-street starkly illustrates that as ties — and everything they stand for — go out, tattoos — with everything they might represent — are surging in popularity. It’s an inflection point in which much can be discerned about society’s direction of travel, which is at the heart of White, the 2019 and first non-fiction book by the provocative and contrarian American novelist Bret Easton Ellis, which examines the ways our culture, politics and relationship have changed over the last four decades.

“Why I was having lunch at the Odeon with my friend, who was also twenty-three, and why we were both wearing suits when only half awake from our runaway weekends, is now — 30 years later — completely beyond me, something from not a distant era but a distant century,” writes Ellis, looking back at his life as a hot-shot new author in New York during the 1980s. “Yet it seemed then everyone wore suits; I rarely went anywhere without wearing one, and neither did most of the men I knew.” 

For Ellis, who is best known for his American Psycho novel that was initially cancelled in 1991 due to the extreme sexual violence of its nattily dressed serial killer, the fancy suits and adornments that went with them during the 1980s were emblematic of the bravado, greed, amorality and “gleaming nihilism” of Wall Street amid a “consumerist void in thrall to technology and corporate culture.” 

Many would agree that the stronger dress code of yesteryear — with all men wearing suits and ties at work or men wearing the hat that represented their class — constituted a sartorial snobbery that has given way to a dress freedom that facilitates a more open and less buttoned-down society with all the benefits that brings. But the shift could also contain less obvious perils. Aldous Huxley wrote about how pageantry has been used from time immemorial “as a political instrument” and the spectacle included the finer fashions that went with it, and this wasn’t necessarily a malign dynamic: 

“The crowns and tiaras, the assorted jewellery, the satins, silks and velvets, the gaudy uniforms and vestments, the crosses and medals, the sword hilts and the croziers, the plumes in the cocked hats and their clerical equivalents, those huge feather fans which make every papal function look like a tableau from Aida — all these are vision-inducing properties, designed to make all too human gentlemen and ladies look like heroes, demigoddesses and seraphs, and giving, in the process, a great deal of innocent pleasure to all concerned, actors and spectators alike,” Huxley says. 

As all that increasingly disappears, what are we left with, is it actually better, does any of it inspire? History has shown how equality-signalling types of low-level fashion aren’t always good news, ranging from the Mao suits of communist China to the slob-wear chic of Mark Zuckerberg’s endless black T-shirts. Ordinary people often, and understandably, welcome a uniform, especially on a figure of authority, be it a doctor or a leadership figure such as a politician, and feel uneasy when such a person of responsibility does not dress accordingly. The dedicated slovenliness of Dominic Cummings that presumably is meant to signal his asymmetric brilliance is one example where confidence is not inspired in the beholder (if his unelected and unvetted power wasn’t already enough to elicit caution). 

There is also irony in how the decline of the tie — which you can always take off — is coinciding with the rise of tattoos that you certainly can’t take off easily. And it’s not just tattoo adoption increasing, but the coverage area — with whole limbs inked up, especially among younger generations — making the tattooed squaddie that I knew look restrained by comparison. The result is a weird two-level juxtaposition manifesting in how people present themselves: the overt formality and underlying ease that you get with ties being substituted for the overt liberation and underlying rigidness of tattoos. I’m sure there must be a G.K. Chesterton quote that speaks to that, it’s the sort of counter intuitive stuff he revelled in.

The overt formality and underlying ease that you get with ties being substituted for the overt liberation and underlying rigidness of tattoos

Underpinning all this, whether ties or tattoos, is a performative aspect that in both cases can hide a murkier if not awful truth. Cruel and murderous dictators have long had a habit of wearing smart, snappy suits that broadcast decorum and upstandingness. Of late hipsters have been mocked for dressing edgily and adorning themselves with lots of tattoos while conforming to the zeitgeist with a strength of zeal that seems only matched by the rigidness of their inability to have an independent-minded thought. 

We clearly need fewer dictators, whether smartly dressed or not, and appear to be going in the right direction there (well, we were until Covid-19 came along, but that’s another story). But the performative aspect of hipsters has gone mainstream, and many of the newly inked don’t appear to be thinking any more independently either. Instead, many are jumping on society’s performative bandwagon that crescendos on social media where the performance shuts down freedom of expression or goes into attack dog mode if people express opinions outside that deemed acceptable. 

“What people seem to forget in this miasma of false narcissism, and in our new display culture, is that empowerment doesn’t come from liking this or another, but from being true to our messy contradictory selves — which sometimes does, in fact, mean being a hater,” Ellis says. “Those of us who reveal flaws and inconsistencies, or voice unpopular ideas suddenly become terrifying to the ones caught up in a world of corporate conformity and censorship that rejects the opinionated and contrarian, corralling everyone into harmony with somebody else’s notion of an ideal.”

In White, Ellis describes how at the end of the 1980s he saw American Psycho “as an appropriate response to a society obsessed with the surface of things and inclined to ignore anything that even hinted at the darkness lurking beneath.” His take on the current situation is that things haven’t gotten better. We are now even more obsessed with that surface level, leading lives on social media that are “more performance based then we could ever have imagined even a decade ago. Combined with a “burgeoning cult of likeability” and victimhood, this has turned us all into types of actors — and pretty second-rate ones at that — desperate to be liked and accepted in “our fully exhibitionistic society.”

In that context, no wonder it is easier to stick with tattoos rather than saying something honest — and thereby typically inconvenient — or addressing complex conundrums

“Rather than embracing the truly contradictory nature of human beings, with all of our biases and imperfections and flaws, we continue to transform ourselves into virtuous robots — or at least what our side thinks a virtuous robot should be,” Ellis says.

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