Let's admit it: Before last year, there was safety in fashion for men.
The morning routine was: Stumble to closet, choose tie. Choose deep red power tie, or pale yellow power tie.
Neckwear represented a certain security, a definite pattern.
But for the past year, men who formerly could be trusted to match the red tie with the gray suit have faced choices: florals, swirls, geometrics, horses, pigs, baseball memorabilia, decks of cards, squares, upside-down fish, Picasso interpretations, luggage, tennis rackets, cow heads, even imprints of the Moulin Rouge.
"The power tie has become not so cloned," says Stan Gleiman, neckwear buyer for J. S. Edwards. "Now, people look for a bit of self-expression."
Indeed, says Charles McGlothlin, men's furnishing buyer for Nordstrom. "It seems men wanted something in their life. They wanted some color, they wanted some texture."
Wow, did they ever get it.
In the past year, neckties became louder, brighter, wider. Rather than being decorated with little circles against a deep red background, they became wide explosions of floral prints in purple, yellow, green. Some seemed covered in paramecium prints and amoeba look-alikes. Others made Picasso seem staid.
Some call these ties "conversational," and gave credit for the trend to New York women's wear designer Nicole Miller, who, in the late '80s, began designing whimsical neckties that sell for about $60 and come in handsome, textured silks with funky themes such as baseball, board games -- even the contents of the bathroom cabinet.
Others, however, call the ties less flattering names -- like godawful, and ugly -- and blamed the whole thing on the economy.
Neckties, it seems, follow a pattern: When times get tough, ties get loud.
Despite the lagging economy, says Stephen Ross, national manager for product development in menswear for Sears, "It has been an outstanding year for neckwear. Neckties are one of the first businesses to pick up in a recession -- neckties cheer you up."
In fact, a necktie can do more than merely brighten your day, says Mr. McGlothlin. "People know that they can get completely different outfits by buying several ties without buying whole new suits."
But relax. For all the men who would rather die than wear a piece of silk covered in little animals or chess boards, or a super bright floral print, here's a bit of good news: After a riotous year, the ties are turning.
Some of them, anyway.
The fact is, that while the wildly whimsical neckties in bright colors are still cool, and while florals are still selling like hot cakes, a subtle shift is occurring among those at the tie front, says Mr. Gleiman.
What has happened, says Arnold Borenstein, owner of A. J. Borenstein's Eclectic at the Gallery, is that "The first group to wear the bright, wide ties were the clothes horses -- the real fashion types.
"Then the creatives -- architects, maybe a few physicians, the ad people, not lawyers -- started wearing them. Then the newspapers and movies picked it up. But as soon as the average guy started wearing them, the clothes horses began turning back to a little more subtle colors and patterns: small, little Americana patterns, and designs."
Bit by bit, the mainstream neckties are following in their footsteps. Thus what lies ahead are lots of greens, beiges, golds and black. Look for ties that come in smaller, tighter patterns than the "explosion" patterns or the super-wide florals of last year, says Tony Barbato, vice president of merchandising for menswear at Hamburgers.
And many of the hottest ties will have what's called "surface interest" or what looks like an embroidered, textured effect throughout the pattern.
So, if the wild, wonderful florals and confusing geometrics never quite fit your self-image, says Mr. Borenstein, not to worry. "In the '80s, the tie was about power -- it said 'I'm expensive, I can afford this tie and you should see my house.' "
But the true ties of the '90s will allow for some self-expression and "are subtle, clever and witty -- and they whisper it."
Tie tips for the timorous
Is the pig necktie a bit much for the boardroom? Is the Cubist print too loud? Is the green stripe too staid? Is plain red passe?
We've gathered a few tips below to help you solve such dilemmas:
*Relax. Understand that ties can be fun.
*Concerned about what's appropriate? Do what the boss does. If he's still wearing a basic red foulard, save the jazzy purple florals for parties.
*If you're short and stocky, beware of super-wide prints, says Arnold Borenstein of A. J. Borenstein's Eclectic.
*Big men: Be wary of little, teeny prints.
*Look in the mirror: What colors flatter you? Dark skin may not be enhanced by "poison apple green," Mr. Borenstein says. Fair skin may not be flattered by super brights.
*Remember, you're not looking for an exact match: Patterns can be worn with patterns.
*Buy what you like: These days, almost anything goes.
*Still at a loss? Ask the salesman. "If we match the tie and suit wrong, it's a bust for us, too," says Stan Gleiman of J. S. Edwards.