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Open-collar boomers ask nostalgically: Where have all the neckties gone?

The Boston Globe 11/17/2022 Robert Weisman
Former car dealership manager Dan Leahy has hundreds of ties, some of which he has hanging on his bedroom closet door. © John Tlumacki/Globe Staff Former car dealership manager Dan Leahy has hundreds of ties, some of which he has hanging on his bedroom closet door.

Old habits die hard. So before logging on to his computer for a recent job interview with a Canton med-tech company, Ron O’Brien did what he’d always done. He knotted up his tie.

He quickly realized he was the only person wearing one. “Brooks Brothers would have been very proud of me,” he later quipped.

Fortunately, no one held it against him. O’Brien, 62, was hired as vice president of corporate communications at Organogenesis. And when he reported to the office for the first time last month, he joined his new colleagues in sporting what’s become a more common outfit for male professionals today: a jacket and button-down shirt with open collar.

The once-ubiquitous necktie has been slowly vanishing from the halls of commerce, at least since the dot-com boom. But the COVID pandemic, which left many cubicle warriors working at home in their shorts, may have marked the tie’s final downfall. As folks returned to the office, collars were open. Men’s ties have officially become a relic of a bygone era when office workers toted briefcases, swapped business cards, and flipped through Rolodexes.

But more than a few older employees and retirees admit to nostalgia for a time when they were younger, and the tie signified a more structured and slower-paced business world.

“I honestly thought I would educate my sons about the elegance of a bright floral tie,” said retired auto dealer Dan Leahy, 77, who still keeps more than 800 neckties from his work years hanging in the closet, over a bedroom door, and in a spare room in his Cohasset home. But his hopes of passing his stockpile down to the next generation have been dashed.

“They have no interest,” he lamented. “They work from home.”

Like many baby boomers, Leahy, who retired in 2016, spent decades with a tie knotted around his neck. It was mandatory when he was a student at Catholic Memorial High School in West Roxbury and later at Boston College. And it was indispensable during his career in the auto and hospitality sectors.

“It set a tone of decorum,” he said. “You’re not going to goof off in a classroom if you’re wearing a tie. And it accented a man’s appearance. Now they walk into work like they’re going to the beach.”

Even in the rarefied precincts of high finance, where a striped tie was once as obligatory as an MBA, executives are dressing down.

You might assume Eric Aboaf, 58, as chief financial officer of State Street Corp., the nation’s second-oldest continuously operating bank, would be the last guy in Boston to abandon the necktie — but he’s done just that. “COVID knocked ties out of the wardrobe,” he said. “Half of us forgot how to tie a tie. If you pulled them out of the closet, they were dusty.”

Aboaf and his State Street colleagues make a few exceptions, such as their meetings with investors and more formal foreign visitors. But today’s leaders value change agents, and tie-wearing feels dated. On most days, the bank’s dress code is now business casual. “I went from Brooks Brothers to Hugo Boss, and now I’m at Lululemon,” Aboaf said.

There were times in the 20th century when ties fell out of fashion, only to come roaring back soon after. Some believe there’ll be another comeback.

“It’s not part of the uniform anymore,” said Jay Calderin, 57, founder of Boston Fashion Week and a visiting lecturer at Massachusetts College of Art and Design. “But if fashion history is any indication, the tie will become a status symbol, a flourish that people will wear on special occasions to express themselves, or show they’re important, or fashionable.”

There are gatherings, from weddings and funerals to charity benefits, where neckties remain de rigueur. And there are pockets of society where men, particularly older men, continue to wear them regularly. One proud holdout is the Black church, where many congregants reject the drift toward casual attire and still reliably sport ties at Sunday services.

“It’s part of the cultural traditions of our community,” said the Rev. Willie Bodrick II, senior pastor at Twelfth Baptist Church in Roxbury. “It’s also part of a history of a people who’ve gone through so much and faced oppression. The tie, for many, means dignity and being affirmed.”

Bodrick, 34, describes himself unapologetically as “a suit and tie kind of guy,” and he’s far from the only one. “Even blue-collar workers will come to church in a suit and tie,” he said. “The Black church is one of the few intergenerational and family places, and there’s a certain church attire. It’s not a mandate, but it’s steeped in history and tradition.”

Even many who leave their ties at home are still reluctant to part with them. While he has donated old suits to the Salvation Army, State Street’s Aboaf said he has kept most of his ties as collectibles. “I can still remember which ones I wore during the financial crisis or the Euro crisis,” he said. “Everyone needs a collection of something.”

Others find alternative uses for their old ties — to carry ski boots, assist in stretching, or even inspire grade school students.

Jim Kuehl, 49, a third-grade teacher in Medfield, offers up his former ties, along with many donated by parents, as a novel reward to incentivize students in a weekly spelling test. Those who correctly spell most or all of the 15 words he gives them get to theatrically slice a sliver from one of his ties.

Successful students draw a sharp fabric scissors dubbed “Excalibur,” with gold-speckled handles, from a spray-foam rock before shredding his ties. The exercise is so popular that no one wants to miss out.

“It becomes a motivator,” Kuehl said. “I go through 30 ties a year.”

Retired technical writer Joyce Westner, 76, of Winchester, thinks ties are handsome. She used to give them to her husband as gifts, though he’s long despised them, in the hope he’d relent. Now she has given up and redeployed his forsaken neckwear as yoga straps. Her favorite has a sea turtle pattern.

Her husband, August Westner, 82, a retired mechanical engineer who never had to wear a tie to work, dons one once a year when singing in the church choir at a Christmas concert.

“They have no function,” he said. “They don’t give you a warm feeling. They’re useless.”

All of which has left Barry Segel, 51, vice president at Mr. Sid in Newton Centre, scrambling to adapt. The men’s clothing store, long a bastion of formality, now sells more casual outfits to entrepreneurs and venture capitalists who are comfortable wearing their blazers with jeans and dress sneakers.

“Back in the ‘80s, guys would come in and buy three ties at a time to create a pop for their suits,” Segel said. “You used to walk into Mr. Sid and see a big V-shaped tie bar with about 1,500 ties. Now we have a smaller table with ties in the back. We still sell them to lawyers or a guy getting married.

“But,” he said with regret, “that business has definitely diminished.”

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