Turning Point


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Are necktie manufacturers the buggy whip makers of the new century? I ask this because of the decline of cravat-wearing people of all strata in business.

Of course, the tie is not done, but it certainly seems to be seen in far fewer places and situations. There is still a demand for buggy whips, but it is significantly less than it once was.

For much of my career, wearing a tie was a given. It wasn’t always that way, but over time, it became a part of me. Happily for me and millions of others, that time has passed. 

Way back when I first entered the workforce, doing time and methods studies in a machine tool foundry, my level of work put me squarely in the ranks of blue collar. In our shop foremen, supervisors and managers wore ties and the rest of us did not.

Perhaps it was a way of distinguishing us from them. Don’t get me wrong, most of these people earned their ties by hard work and leading. I remember thinking that someday, if I did well, I, too, could qualify to join the ranks of white collar worker and don the tie of office.

Eventually, I did make it to a tie wearing level in the shop. It was a proud day for me as I knotted up my full Windsor for the first time and strode into to work. Yes, I had help tying it that day and for quite a while, it was hung as was on a hook.

It was interesting, though, that the guys (there were no ladies in the shop) seemed to approach me differently. It was almost as though my new neckwear had become a barrier to the conviviality we enjoyed together only the day before. Happily, over time, we got used to the change and settled back into our respective jobs.

After a few years, an opening in the company’s communication department prompted me to interview for the job. I got it and stepped up to the next level of business attire, a suit to go with my tie. In my mind, I had arrived. From jeans, a T-shirt and steel toed boots to a suit and tie.  I was living large.

Well, that was then. Today, as I write this column, I seem to have come full circle. I’m at my desk, clad in a polo shirt, golf shorts and sandals. This is my daily attire unless we have guests, which is when I step it up to khakis, a nice shirt and shoes—usually sans socks—I won’t cave in completely.

Business casual and casual in general now rule our commercial world, and in my opinion it is a change for the best. For me, my dress code shift occurred more than a decade ago. I still remember the circumstances.

I was visiting a shop for a story in the magazine, and as was my custom at the time, I wore a jacket and tie for the interview. The shop owner greeted me in the lobby, and we went into the conference room.

He, too, was dressed in a tie and jacket and being a working boss, seemed uncomfortable in the outfit. I asked, “Did you wear that for me?” He replied, “Yes.” I said, “I wore this for you.” We chuckled, took off our ties and had a delightful visit. Since then, it is a rare day when I cinch up a tie.

I give some of the credit for this shift in attitude to the geeks (I mean that in the kindest way) who have created, developed and marketed the communication revolution our interconnected work now depends on. Think about the more relaxed environment that Silicon Valley has passed on to the country. Geeks don’t dress up, but they have changed the world.

Even in our machine shops, the results of this work are changing how we make things and who we hire to make them. In my travels, I see a range of people in shops with tats, piercings and Harley regalia. While such a look is not one I choose, these people can do the job well.

It is that appreciation of performance over appearance that has taken me a while to accept, but I do and for good reason. We are finally discovering that it’s what you know that counts, rather than what you wear. Think about that for your next hire and lose the tie.