My kingdom for a tie

Again from Slate comes this commentary on Saddam’s evolving fashion practices:

The suit may make the man, but can it do anything for a fallen dictator? Not enough for Saddam Hussein, apparently. When Saddam first returned to the public eye for his trial in October, he sported a series of bespoke Turkish-wool suits that the fledgling Iraqi republic had purchased from his former tailor. But on Monday, he scrapped the suits in favor of a blue caftan (or dishdasha). It’s an unusual choice for a suave secularist like Saddam, but it could be a shrewd fashion move.

The socio-cultural aspect of Middle Eastern men’s fashion is what drew my interest. According to Slate, men’s neckties are a politically charged accessory in the Middle East. Who knew? I suppose it makes sense.

In Iran, the tie became a much more controversial symbol of Westernization. The CIA helped Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi* take power in the early ’50s, and in the years that followed, the shah’s necktie linked him with his U.S. backers and their corporate oil interests. For many Iranians living under the shah, it was also a sign of his subservience and decadence. (Iranians still sometimes refer to the shah’s rule as “the regime of the Crown and Necktie.”) After the shah’s ouster in 1979, the tie came under fire from Ayatollah Khomeini, who sought a return to Islamist-or at least anti-Western-attire. Ever since the revolution, Iranian officials have adhered to an unspoken dress code of dark suits, unkempt beards, and bare collars. (One of the ironies of Saddam’s tielessness was that it made him look more like Iran’s President Ahmadinejad than he would probably have cared to admit.) With their loaded history, neckties now make for a ready symbol of dissidence for pro-Western Iranian students, who nearly always wear them in protests.

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  1. Josh says:

    I love your fixation with ties and bow-ties Kathleen, this is right up my alley. tehe

    I’ve always been fascinated by the darn things! First I wanted to know
    what they heck they really were and how they came to be. I’ve mastered tying them, the windsor knot, half windsor knot, four in hand knot… They seem pointless don’t they? Go here and read this explanation. I find it quite interesting.

  2. Alison Cummins says:

    Hmm, that may be part of it, but I don’t think so. According to the article above, the necktie is a sleeker alternative to the ruff, and both started out as washable detachable items that kept your jacket collar clean. (Worrying about ring around the collar clearly has a long history.)

    As for its current significance, I would say simply that men wear them because they are uncomfortable and impractical for hard physical labour, to announce that they have white collar occupations (or are independently wealthy). Kind of like women wear nailpolish or pumps to make similar social announcements.

    I’ve heard that the purpose of lipstick is to replicate the vulva on the face, but I think that’s an unnecessary level of interpretation. I’m a big fan of Occam’s razor. So for lipstick, noting that women tend to have fuller lips than men and thus that emphasising full lips emphasises femininity is sufficient explanation. Neckties announce masculinity because they are part of a certain kind of traditional male costume. They don’t have to point to anything to fulfill this function, and they often don’t. (See bow ties and ascots.)

    What I think is really fascinating is counting all the ingenious ways we come up with to announce our sex as unambiguously as possible, which makes it obvious that this is a piece of VERY VERY IMPORTANT social information that is worth a great deal of effort to transmit. So why is the one way that would be the simplest and most unambiguous for 99% of us – displaying our genitalia – so forbidden?

  3. jinjer says:

    Alison, this is taking us totally OT, but most animals don’t include their genitalia in their sexual displays. Brightly plumed male birds, or red-assed (female?) monkeys are doing the same thing humans are with fashion…?

  4. Annette York says:

    It’s also relevant that orthodox Muslim men don’t wear silk, or gold incidentally, so many ties are unsuitable for them for that reason. I know of one young Muslim man who started either his own line of non-silk ties or started an online store featuring only non-silk ties and non-gold pins. Can’t remember which.

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