Sunday, June 26, 2005

The ties that bind

Count me as one of Heather Mallick's most fervent groupies. She writes with a flair and a style that I would kill to have, she has a take on the world that sends rightists into gibbering fits, she has a column that I paw desperately through the Saturday Globe and Mail to find first thing, inevitably spilling my coffee onto the bedclothes in the process, and she's magically and quirkily right on most of the time.

Did I say "most of the time?" Yes, alas. For, this weekend, I must part company with her. Not a divorce, but certainly a separation is called for. A walk in the snow, which would be nice right about now anyway--this muggy Ottawa heat reminds me of Samoa. Time by myself to cool off and consider.

Because she wants me to wear a tie.

I have sworn that I will keep this blog neat and tidy, but I will admit that the first thoughts that arose in me, after realizing that she was serious, expressed themselves in an uncultured manner. I spent years in executive union office without once having to wrap that noose around my neck, while succumbing to custom and habit by donning a jacket and black turtleneck (a Pierre Cardin, now at least twenty years old, and still hanging in there) for formal occasions. In fact, the last time I choked myself with some stupid, multicoloured yard of fabric is lost in the mists of time.

Now I'm told, in so many words, that I need one to score.

No. No way. No...way. Not if my life, and I don't mean just my sex life, depended on it. Never.

Is Mallick unaware of the origins of this custom of public half-strangulation? Anthropologist Marvin Harris says it's no more than a badge to indicate that the wearer is above physical labour. Maybe I won't wear one to get lucky, but I'll whip it out (due obeisance to Mallick's sub-text here) when it's time to do the dishes, or weed the garden.

Ties, of course, go with suits, and suits go with class. No, not "elegance in dress or behaviour." I'm talking hegemony here. A tie is nothing less than an accessory to a uniform, and that uniform, especially in its pin-stripey iteration, simply reeks of privilege, oppression, exploitation, the fun little world of banksters and privateers.

Ties are uncomfortable. I could never master that damned Windsor knot anyway. But herein, do we not find echoes of that looking-glass chatter that surrounds us today from the right-wing geckoes and crickets of popular culture? "Hey, men are oppressed too. We suffer, we feel, we aren't even allowed to cry." "Hey, whites don't have it so easy. Just try mowing my lawn and see for yourself. Here, let me fix you a drink." The relatively minor choking and itching that a tie creates allows its wearers to say, in effect, "We know what it is to suffer. We're just like you. Really, we are. We feel your pain."

John Berger, responding in a brilliant essay ("The Suit and the Photograph") to a famous photograph by August Sander, sums up what Mallick unfortunately misses: "Villagers... were persuaded to choose suits. By publicity. By pictures. By the new mass media.... The working classes... came to accept as their own certain standards of the class that ruled over them - in this case standards of chic and sartorial worthiness. At the same time their very acceptance of these standards, their very conforming to these norms which had nothing to do with either their own inheritance or their daily experience, condemned them, within the system of those standards, to being always, and recognisably to the classes above them, second-rate, clumsy, uncouth, defensive. That is indeed to succumb to a cultural hegemony".

Not me. Even if I'm condemned to monkhood by Mallick's foray into fashion-mavenhood. To be honest, I began avoiding ties because they chafed and choked, but now, dammit, I'm making a political statement. The struggle continues.

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