The ties that bind

R.H.GARDNER

August 21, 1992|By R. H. Gardner

HAS anybody noticed the changes occurring in men's neckwear lately? In less than a month knots in the ties of Dan Rather, Peter Jennings and other TV notables have shrunk from the size of fat kumquats to that of skinny string beans. It's a good bet that in time those two invariable components of the slender knot -- the tab shirt and the collar pin -- will make their reappearance.

I never thought about knots until I went to college and met Gerald Patrick Steel -- who, though a dedicated Irishman, wore green only if it harmonized with other colors in his ensemble. Steel considered himself an authority on taste. Fred Astaire and Cary Grant were his idols.

He particularly admired Grant's proclivity for tie-it-yourself bows and Astaire's use of four-in-hands for belts. "They manifest an awareness of splendor in the dress," he used to say, "that nowadays is long gone."

One afternoon he took me aside and, after a disparaging glance at my clothes, said, "It's time I introduced you to the Windsor knot."

He then proceeded to whip the two parts of my tie back and forth, in and out, up and down until they resolved themselves into a neat triangle resting between the halves of my collar like a bird in its nest.

I was impressed -- so much that during the days that followed I spread Windsor knots all over the place. The knot had obviously been designed for a fabric capable of easy manipulation. I applied it to all materials from heavy wool to asbestos. Again Steel took me aside.

"I'm sorry I ever taught you to tie a Windsor," he complained. "You've destroyed it."

I forgave Steel these harsh words, for I knew he was undergoing great stain, arising from the size and shape of Cary Grant's collars. He had been searching the downtown stores for some like them, but all he had been able to come up with were either too long or too short. Distressing as this might have been to a collar-conscious character like Steel, it was nothing compared to the stresses that arose when the tab and button-down appeared.

The button-down was a medium-size collar with tiny holes at the tips which fitted on buttons sewed onto the shirt. The button-down was a favorite with ambitious young men on their way up. Its effectiveness may be judged by the reaction of managing editor Charles H. Dorsey Jr. to James M. Cannon, who breezed into The Sun's city room one afternoon to apply for a job. As Cannon, proud that he had been hired on the spot, breezed out, Dorsey was overheard to remark: "Now that's the kind of man I want working for me."

The tab collar consisted of two little ears protruding from the lips of a standard short collar, which connected with a collar button -- and the result was the neatest, dressiest collar-tie arrangement ever conceived. Of course, the pressure caused by cramming everything into such a tight space tended to bore a hole in the wearer's Adam's apple, but nobody seemed to care. The tab required a small knot, whereas the button-down, because of the additional space allowed by the collar, encouraged knots which kept getting bigger and bigger.

The rebellious '60s, with their emphasis on unkempt hair, bare feet and abandonment of all pretensions to elegance, established the open-neck collar without tie as an accepted style. James Garner, in the popular TV series "The Rockford Files," never affected neckwear of any kind. But the knots when they did reappear continued to get bigger -- at least until the turn-around referred to at the beginning of this article.

My cousin Moorman was a "sheik" in the jargon of the '20s, a "dude" to today's young people. He drove a sporty little roadster which had, among other things, a variety of horns. In the floorboard was a pedal that rang a cowbell. Next to the accelerator was a button that, when pressed, played "How Dry I Am." There was also a siren.

When he came home on holidays from Vanderbilt University, he would barrel down the side street bordering my Aunt Mayme's house in Mayfield, Ky., all horns blaring. The family would rush out to welcome him.

He would jump from the car, resplendent in a beige sports jacket buttoned across a tattersall vest which was itself buttoned over a yellow shirt with a gold pin joining the two parts of a tab collar enclosing a tie of crushed silk.

Yes, Steel, those were indeed the days.

R. H. Gardner, retired drama critic of The Sun, is author of "Those Years," recollections of his early years in Baltimore.

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