The cultural noose called the necktie
The dotcom boys worked in shorts and T-shirts and became billionaires overnight, shattering the myth that equated the tie with success
My nephew was hopping around in excitement on the morning he was to join a major multinational corporation (MNC) as an intern. Dressed in designer clothes, and shoes polished to shine, he set off on his tryst with the corporate world, only to return hours later a little crestfallen and visibly irritated. The reason? The MNC’s human resources (HR) manager had ticked him off for not wearing a necktie, a mandatory requirement for every employee there Monday to Thursday. My nephew was confounded at the MNC’s sartorial insistence in the scorching summer and sultry monsoon months of India. He also believed the HR manager’s diktat infringed his right to dress the way he wanted, as long as he respected the sensitivity of others by not turning up in shorts or faded jeans and flip-flops. To the office he nevertheless went the second day with the noose around his neck. He had been lassoed, made to fall in line, behave contrary to his inclination, and subscribe to the corporate culture woefully out of sync with his country’s.
Bangladeshi Prime Minister Hasina Wajed underscored the absurdity of sporting the necktie in the subcontinent through a directive issued in 2009. It exempted government officials from coming to office in suits and ties, claiming such clothing prompted them to run air-conditioners at low temperatures and aggravating the power crunch. Columnist Maswood Alam Khan hoped the directive would inspire the Bangladeshi elite to rediscover their traditional dress. From this perspective of local versus global, Kenya seems conflicted about its colonial and African legacies, for its elected representatives can attend parliament only in suits and ties. In 2003, three members were evicted from parliament for attending its session in African dress.
For long, clothes have been utilised for political-cultural assertion. Think of Gandhi in his dhoti (loincloth) and bare torso; think why the Pakistani state prefers the photograph of Jinnah in sherwani over those showing him in stylish suits; think why Benazir Bhutto chose to have the dupatta (veil) over her head? Following the Islamic revolution of 1979, Iranian government officials were prohibited from wearing suits and ties. These were considered a cultural imposition of the ‘decadent’ West, and the tie, in a rather paranoid leap of imagination, was perceived as a symbol of the cross. This is why President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is always dressed in an open-necked shirt.
Unlike the Iranians, more sagacious leaders prefer to trigger politico-fashion trends through their own choice of clothing. South African leader Nelson Mandela gradually abandoned the suit and tie to wear bright African shirts, which turned him into a veritable fashion icon. Perhaps the most dramatic protest against the necktie came from Dutch Prince Claus. In 1998, at an African fashion show, Prince Claus took off his tie, and gave a clarion call for “workers of all nations to unite and cast away the new shackles they have voluntarily cast upon themselves”. The shackles he was referring to was the tie, which he eloquently described as that “snake around my neck”.
But nothing will dissuade the corporate czars of the subcontinent from imposing the necktie on their hapless employees. Not even the warning from the British Medical Association, which advised doctors in 2006 not to wear the tie as it was among major conveyors of superbugs such as MRSA, which is resistant to a broad range of antibiotics. Ties, after all, are worn repeatedly before being sent for laundry. The subcontinent’s honchos also blithely ignore the declining sale of ties in the US, down 18 percent in 2009, which was more than double the 7.3 percent drop in 2008, though the figures for 2010-2011 suggest a tentative rallying because of fashion houses marketing designer ties. Experts, though, feel the tie can never recover as many necks as it had in the 1970s, when 200-250 million pieces were sold a year. One reason the tie has lost out in the US is because the dotcom boys worked in shorts and T-shirts and became billionaires overnight, shattering the myth that equated the tie with success.
More telling than sale figures is the poll Gallup conducted among American workers, of whom only nine percent reported wearing a suit and tie daily, against the 43 percent who preferred casual business dress. Not surprisingly, those who preferred the suit and tie belonged to higher income groups. And therein hangs the tale. More than the suit, it is the irrelevant tie that remains the symbol of class, power, control and exclusivity. Listen to what Sir William Dugdale had to say about his illustrious nephew, British Prime Minister David Cameron, who, like Tony Blair, doesn’t always wear a tie: “You can’t just turn up to things in an open-necked shirt.” He then added, “The thing is…if you ask the working classes who they want to lead them, they prefer to be led by the duke.” The duke, we all know, can’t be seen without a tie.
To the subcontinent, the British brought their dubious civilising mission, and their foppish attitude, of which the tie is the most pathological manifestation. Passed down the generations through the local royalty, bureaucrats, professionals, army, and missionary schools, the tie has become deeply entrenched in the inherently unequal society of South Asia. Its greatest advocates are now corporate executives, who command power and wealth as no other social group does. They justify the tie because of the need to inculcate in their employees discipline, efficiency, and better representation for their behemoths competing in the cutthroat global market.
Talk to Dileep Ranjekar, chief executive officer of Azim Premji Foundation, and you will know that the reasons cited for choking you with the tie are specious. Ranjekar should know, for he was among those who transformed Wipro into a global business boasting leadership position in sectors such as Information Technology. In a corporate career spanning 26 years, he has worn the suit and tie on four or five occasions, not counting the foreign trips taken in biting wintry months. Otherwise dressed in the traditional churidar-kurta, Ranjekar says at every conceivable opportunity he dissuaded the “top management from making a formal dress a mandatory requirement for employees”. He says the tie is the “hangover of international norms”, which doesn’t take into account local climate and cultural traditions. Ranjekar sent an email saying, “The tie does not change your abilities, attitude and way of presentations. What customers, including those international, want is how well you present your concept, and how open and perceptive you are in understanding them, whether you can meet their expectations on quality and delivery.” He opposes the tie and suit because of their prohibitive cost (Rs 5,000 at least), which alienates men in such attire from a society in which 80 percent of people have an income of less than $ 2 a day. For all his achievements, exclusive clubs have denied entry to Ranjekar for his sartorial defiance.
Yet the CEO had not compromised on his right to dress the way he wants. Perhaps it should become an inspiration for us to cast aside the cultural noose around our neck. Truly, the necktie, like the appendix, has no function other than causing immeasurable pain to its wearers in the subcontinent.
The author is a Delhi-based journalist