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By Michael Jackson


The Montréal Review, March 2013


David Statue with Neckties Freaking News Photoshop Contests


Class, today's topic is: The world is divided into two kinds of people: those who wear neckties and those who comment on those who wear neckties. Discuss.

(Once I thought that the world divided into (1) those who divided the world into two kinds of people and (2) those who thought it was more complicated than that. I have since changed my mind. Keep reading to find out why.)

Pursuing the vita scholastica these years toiling in classrooms to persuade students to do the assignments, placating the lords of research grants, and dealing with that alien species which edits academic journals, I wear a necktie to the office most days. Well every weekday and some weekend days at the office, too.

Me and David.

In so doing, I have heard many a comment on neckties, of which I have made mental notes and lately voice memo notes. Here is a sample of the remarks I have heard PhD-possessing colleagues say:

- I am glad that I don't have to wear a neck tie

- The best thing about this job is not having to wear a tie

- I couldn't stand to wear a tie

I have heard each of these comments and variants of them many, many times. They come from green lecturers new to the job and wizened professors.

Having worked in Europe, North America, Asia, and Australasia, I can safely say I have heard these cries of "Freedom from the tyranny of the necktie" around the world. So forget about those lame-brained cultural explanations. Yes, I know some schoolboys wear a uniform with a tie, and leaving that behind may be liberating for a time, but surely it would be a case of arrested development to dress for a lifetime in reaction to a school uniform. Hmmm.

Some scholars even try to be witty when they say:

-You're wearing a tie! (There is a world of inflections here, none of which are good.)

-Why do you have a tie on?

-Going to see...the bank [doctor, lawyer, parole board]?

As my attire is noted and explanations for this academically aberrant behavior are gratuitously offered, I stand quietly allowing these wits their fun. I expect other more barbed comments have also been made out of my hearing. No doubt these unheard comments were just as witty as those quoted above. Then there are the silent looks and double-takes all very clearly shows of surprise, disdain, or disapproval.

None of these individuals ever felt the need to comment, notice, or explain my tie at a funeral or a wedding, and on occasions I have seen them in ties, at dinners with donors and research council officers. I conclude they know of ties. But to these scholars it is an arcane object to be used only on ceremonial occasions, like the regalia we wear at graduations. To get on the right wavelength think Masonic ritual.

Once only have I witnessed an explicit discussion of neckties. A man was being interviewed for the job of director of a university institute. The candidate wore neckties throughout his several days on campus. When he met the staff of the institute, one of them asked him if he expected others to dress as he did, specifically mentioning the necktie. The candidate said no. Adding further that he wore ties because he interacted with oracular priests of the University chancellery and they all wore ties, and ergo he did so to conform to their expectations. Well, I thought to myself, I never plead conformity with higher beings to explain my necktie. (He was much too circumspect to refer to the creatures in the chancellery as 'oracular priests.' That was a liberty on my part to liven up the story.)

I hasten to add that I have never ever suggested that anyone else dress as I do. A word of sartorial imperialism has never passed my lips. No, rather it is the proudly tieless who are the imperialists. They just have to comment on my attire.

There are many reasons to wear a necktie. Here are some of them.

- It's business and I am on duty, meaning at times I have to be nice to idiots, including those who make fatuous comments about neckties.

- The colour and style of the necktie expresses my creative inner self.

- They are souvenirs from trips.

- They are gifts from an adoring public (see, I do have an imagination).

- I know how to tie it, and in several ways, and just to prove it, now and again it is a bow-tie!

Shopping for the souvenir necktie while travelling has taken me to such exotic places as the Mustafa Centre in Singapore, that most un-Singaporean of places. The pictures do not do it justice. It is...hard to describe.

See for yourself here

Those are all good reasons, but there is still more.

I did not take up the vita scholastic to avoid wearing a necktie, yet on occasion those who proclaim loudly an aversion to the necktie seem to imply that they came to scholarship for that reason. Think about that for a while.

Is the goal of wearing a tee-shirt for forty years enough motivation to get through a PhD (that is the hardest thing I ever did) and face the ever increasing list of demands on professors with ever decreasing supplies to meet them? But I never see tee-shirts at promotion interviews. It is comforting to know that hypocrisy is on tap in the academy.

My declaration is this: As long as it is unconventional, radical, and daring, that long shall I wear neckties! Since most do not, I do, and it sets me apart. Though I do draw the line somewhere near here:

"Polluting industrialists, compromising prime ministers, and watery university presidents, these class enemies wear neckties. Case closed!" So some scholars appear to think. For these self-styled champions of causes in the academy to wear a necktie puts me on the dark side. Did Darth Vader really have a striped necktie on under all that gear? Did he gasp for breadth because the collar was too tight? Darth, they make shirts a half-size bigger in the collar! Go shopping. (The solution to so many bourgeois problems.)

But to return to earth, for generations of working-men the ambition for their male children was to work in a shirt and tie. That meant headwork not back work. That meant secure work. Heads generally last longer than backs and are less likely to be injured on the job, apart from football and hockey players.

Those academicians for whom a tee-shirt represents freedom, these people were already free, at least free from the prospect of a life of manual labor with its attendant insecurities, last hired, on the job injuries, first fired, no health insurance, and little or no job security or mobility, be it occupational, geographic, or social. Like most of those who are free, they do not even know they are free, so free are they. That is how freedom works. The free never notice their own freedom.

For those who must know, I practice the schoolboy Windsor and Half-Windsor knots, although there are other approaches. Two Cambridge University physicists, Thomas Fink and Yong Mao, propose knot theory in The 85 Ways to Tie a Tie.

It is an amusing book and it can take hours following their directions to end with the same result as a Windsor knot. Recommended to those with so much time that they record their every inanity on Facebook.

Remember that feminine note I promised above? Here it comes. A necktie that some woman likes is usually attributed to my wife. It is noted, it is praised, and before I can say how, against the odds and with considerable daring I sought it out in the distant reaches of the Mustafa Centre, the female interlocutor says some variant of "your wife got it for you." Just like that, a statement, not a question. No rising inflection there. I have learned to keep silent and just let this audio run. That satisfies the speaker and for my part, I take it as further evidence of ... [not enough evidence to reach a conclusion yet, it seems]. Please understand that I did not invite the comment by drawing attention to the tie. The comment is as spontaneous as it is predictable. (I hasten to add that my wife has given me several very nice neckties that I wear, but these are not always the ones that cue this audio broadcast.)

As to bow-ties, I concur with Mr. John Steed, a gentleman should tie his own bow-ties, and I do. Not very well, it is true to say. I workshop my bow-tying from time to time by watching You Tube videos. There are lots of them, and some of those purporting to make it simple are quite impossible to follow, but there are others that do help. (The editor enjoins me either to say who John Steed is or to omit the reference but I resist. Reader, to find out who John Steed is try Wikipedia. Please show some initiative.)

Maybe it needs to be said: my beef is not with those who wear tee-shirts, it is with those who decry the tie around my neck. For those who mind their own business I extend a like indifference. It is the inveterate commenters with whom I hereby take issue, especially the many recidivists among them.

I close by recommending further reading, as scholars must, Nicholas Antongiavanni, The Suit: A Machiavellian approach to men's style.

Everything there is to know about a suit and accessories, including neckties, to go with it written with aplomb and zip. Although, I hasten to add it has little to do with Niccoló Machiavelli whose only comment on his clothing came in an often-quoted letter to Francesco Vettori when Machiavelli wrote of changing from the work-a-day clothes he wore on the family farm in the Tuscan hills into a clean gown with a long red scarf. It appears in one of the most widely reproduced pictures allegedly of Machiavelli. I say "allegedly" because the picture was labeled 'Machiavelli' only in the Nineteenth Century. Lord Macaulay had rehabilitated Machiavelli in an essay that caused later English tourists in Italy to create a demand for Machiavelliana. Florentines were quick to supply the demand with whatever was at hand (Ridolfi 1963). The red scarf, the lucco, meant Florentine citizenship (Clough 1983), and perhaps wearing it, or implicitly claiming to wear it, in exile was Machiavelli's declaration that he remained a Florentine come what may. For me the necktie is rather more prosaic statement that it is work again today.

Me and Dilbert.

Georg Hegel was right, there is synthesis in the human condition!


Michael Jackson is a professor emeritus of political theory at the University of Sydney (Australia) where over the years he has served as an associate dean in the business school, director of the University Institute for Teaching and Learning, and Head of the Department of Government and International Relations. Whew! He also plied his wares at Utah State University, Korea University, and Laurentian University over the years. He wears neckties to classes, committee meetings, performance reviews, conferences, seminars, and interviews wherever he goes.



Antongiavanni, Nicholas. 2006. The Suit: A Machiavellian approach to men's stye. New York City : HarperCollins

Clough, Cecil. 1983. "Machiavelli's 'Epistolario' and again what did Machiavelli wear in the country,' Bulletin of the Society for Renaissance Studies, Vol. 1, pp. 7-18.

Fink, Thomas and Mao, Yong. 2000. The Eighty-five Ways to Tie a Tie. London: Fourth Estate.

Macaulay, Thomas Babington (Lord). 1827. "Machiavelli" In Critical and Historical Essays. London: Longmans.

Ridolfi, Roberto. 1963. The Life of Niccolò Machiavelli. Translated by C. Grayson. London: Routledge.


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