Sartorial healing

May 31, 2004

THIS TIME of year, with the heat and humidity coming on, we don't need much encouragement to view men's ties as an uncomfortable vestige. Our sympathies to anyone forced -- by custom or code -- to cinch himself up.

Now comes a medical waiver: That lovely, often costly swath of cloth around your neck apparently is a wonderful repository of germs -- particularly if you're a doctor.

Of course, we've long known that food and drink -- by some sort of universal law -- are drawn to neckwear, especially more expensive neckwear.

But according to a study presented last week to the American Society for Microbiology, almost half the ties worn by doctors at a New York City hospital tested positive for pathogens, including some that commonly cause infections. That's in stark contrast to hospital security guards' ties, of which only 10 percent tested as germ-laden.

The study's author -- a medical student from Israel, where doctors usually don't wear ties -- reportedly got the idea while watching American doctors perform patient exams, during which their "neckties would swing in front of the patient's face, or patients would cough on them." Ugh.

Tie enthusiasts, such as Jerry Andersen, are quick to note that the same sorts of germs are likely to be equally prevalent on doctors' shirts. Mr. Andersen is the executive director of the Men's Dress Furnishings Association (formerly the Neckwear Association of America) in New York, the voice of the $1 billion-a-year U.S. tie industry. He dismisses the new study as "people seeking a little publicity by bashing ties" -- given that Father's Day, one of the biggest days for ties, is just around the corner.

"Ties," Mr. Andersen says, "have been around for 500 years, and I don't see them going away." He may be off by 100 years or more, but his larger point is true: These days, dressier clothes -- ties included -- are making a comeback at work.

Still, here in Baltimore for the next few sweltering months, no one could be blamed for shucking his tie. And that might give doctors leave to send theirs out for a good dry cleaning.

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