San Francisco Chronicle

The knotty issue of wearing a tie

- KEVIN FISHER-PAULSON COMMENTARY Kevin Fisher-Paulson is a freelance writer.

The French will tell you they invented the necktie, when they stole the idea from the Croats. King Louis XIII had hired Croatian mercenarie­s for the Hundred Years War, and they wore scarves. Louis XIV tried one on and before you know it, every noble in the Parisian court was sporting the adornment, mispronoun­ced as “cravat” instead of Croat.

But the trend is older. The Roman legionnair­es tied bands of cloth around their necks. When they excavated the Chinese city of Xian, dating to the third century B.C., they found that many of the terracotta warriors wore scarves, apparently to protect the source of their strength, the Adam’s apple.

You know how ties caught on in America? A bunch of English loyalists went to Italy, and came back to the states wearing silk around their throats and feathers on their hats. They called themselves the “Macaroni” and, you guessed it, they were not Yankee Doodle dandies.

Last month, I taught at the California Writers Club of Mount Diablo, and per my custom, I wore a vintage tie: cream-colored calla lilies resting on a field of burgundy. Don’t be impressed. I found it at a Goodwill, and I’ve gotten my money’s worth out of it.

After the seminar, I signed a few books, and a woman walked up to me with a package. In such matters, I’ve been lucky. Someone once gifted Ariana Grande a 40-pound pumpkin, and the Jonas Brothers once got a shark. But me, I get cookies. Sometimes crayons. Dictionari­es. Always stuff I like.

In this case, it was a necktie. Set against a black background, it was the Little Man, the cartoon figure accompanyi­ng Chronicle critics’ reviews who sometimes sleeps, sometimes cheers.

People have been predicting the death of the necktie for about 50 years, or most of my adult life. In the 1960s, the Beatles showed us Nehru jackets, and right after that, the Turtles gave us turtleneck­s. The ’70s brought John Travolta and disco shirts open to the navel.

And more recently, the pandemic. For the past three years, I may have seen six neckties altogether. Maybe on an occasional dictator (Putin, Xi), but that’s about it. I wondered what the thinking was of the average business male. On Zoom they couldn’t see your pants, but your sweatshirt with the spaghetti stain was clearly visible.

Maybe I like ties because they’re old-fashioned, even if they might be too butch. My husband, Brian, however, can pull off peacock brooches, so I gotta keep up.

I don’t get to wear a real tie at work. When we deputy sheriffs do wear them, we wear polyester clip-ons, just in case we’re at a formal event and someone tries to choke us.

(Fun fact: As research fellows at Cambridge University, Thomas Fink and Yong Mao calculated that there are 85 possible ways to knot a tie.)

For a recent Berkeley Public Library fundraiser featuring writers (including me), I didn’t know about the dress code until I finally read the instructio­ns a week before. The e-mail stated: “cocktail dress.” So, I texted my Fairy Godsister, who explained, “For men that means a suit. White shirt. Preferably Hermes tie.”

I still have the suit I bought when we adopted Zane 20 years ago, although it may have been let out a time or three. And one white shirt, but it was clean. But other than my calla lilies cravat, I was pretty low on neckwear, and none of it was from France.

The weekend before the benefit, we had dinner with Deidre and Sasb at Alta Vino, a restaurant so San Francisco it’s on the cable car line. As Mike, the maitre d’, poured the wine, I explained that the two Pulitzer Prize winners and the guy who wrote “Spare” had undoubtedl­y already picked out their Berkeley fundraiser outfits. I was as yet deshabille.

“Oh, darling, it’s the 21st century,” Deidre explained, grabbing her phone and clicking three times. “Your tie will be delivered on Tuesday.”

And so it was. Purple. And thanks to the generosity of a lovely lady, I had the best neckwear in the library, and that included the Nobel laureate and the guy who showed up in an ascot. Neckties may be the last male power symbol, but women know how to pick ’em.

Now, let me try to tie things up here. I’ll be leading another workshop on Saturday, March 25, at 10 a.m. for the Napa Valley Writers (a branch of the California Writers Club). It will take place in Community Room No. 1731 at Napa Valley College, at 2277 Napa-Vallejo Highway. This time I’ll talk about editing.

Feel free to drop by. I may not be well-dressed, but my Adam’s apple will be well protected. And my tie, thanks to the lovely ladies in my life, will be fabulous.

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