What the Situation Room Reveals About Neckties

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Steve Jobs: no tie. Mark Zuckerberg: no tie. Barack Obama: only sometimes. In the now-famous photograph of the president and his advisors sitting in the White House Situation Room waiting for news about bin Laden, he's not wearing one. Neither is the vice president. Of the 12 men in the picture, half are neck-naked.

Is it time at last to consign neckties, along with spats and watch fobs, to the dustbin of history—or if not the dustbin, at least to history's lower bureau drawer?

Things look bad, admits Marshall Cohen, chief industry analyst for market research company NPD Group. Today's tie market, he says, is "a dwarf of what it was in its heyday," ten years ago. Since then, dollar sales have dropped 25 percent.

You can now go to the opera, to a funeral, even to a black tie dinner, and encounter wanton tielessness. "The casualization of America," Cohen calls it. "It started in the office, then moved to special occasions." Even at functions requiring a tuxedo, many men today are saying no to neckwear.

Yet ties, though down, aren't out. You might have thought the recession would have finished them off for good: That men who hadn't already dispensed with them because of casualization would have dropped them as an unnecessary expense. Sales numbers, however, say otherwise.

According to NPD's data, tie sales in the past year have rebounded almost 8 percent. Even young adults are buying neckties. "I'm selling twice as many ties as I was two years ago," reports Mark Sussman, tie buyer for upscale clothier Paul Stuart, which has stores in Manhattan and Chicago. "Ties definitely are making a comeback."

Younger buyers, says Cohen, are demonstrating what marketers call "distinct conformity." An example: Everybody in 11th grade agrees that to be cool you need to own an iMac. But having exactly what everyone else has isn't cool enough. You must decorate your iMac to make it distinct to you. In the world of clothing, says Cohen, a guy can achieve this same effect by wearing the right tie, especially If he and his fellows—inspired, say, by the hit HBO television series "Mad Men" — are dressing in 'Sixties Retro.' Largely because of "Mad Men," Sussman says, narrow ties are in with younger guys.

As for older men, Cohen says that when the recession hit, sales of men's suits tanked. Ties, though, kept on selling. The reason, he speculates, is that ties are a cheap way to make an old outfit look new. Older men, he thinks, are trying to distinguish themselves from younger office competitors by dressing more formally, so as to look more managerial.

Sussman of Paul Stuart says a tie "gives a man gravitas. When you want to be taken seriously, you wear a tie." Bright, boldly colored ties are selling best.

Carol Haislip, director of the International School of Protocol in Hunt Valley, Maryland, says employers are now demanding more formality of dress than they did a few years ago: "Companies are starting to turn away from casual Friday because people have abused it. They come in to work in Dockers and a polo shirt. That's not the image some companies want to project."

Outside corporate offices, who wears a tie? Men whose uniform requires one, literally or figuratively: In the White House situation Room photo, two of the six tie-wearers are military men.

Doctors, too, remain tie-friendly. A movement is afoot, however, to discourage doctors from wearing ties, because they are unhygienic: a dangling piece of fabric only serves to transmit germs from one patient to the next.

Bow ties? How're they doing? "Always a challenge," says Cohen diplomatically. Today even in formal situations, he says, "Bow ties have lost momentum. You'd think occasions requiring a tux would keep them alive, but they're being replaced by a straight tie or by no tie."