Sunday, June 29, 2008

Mormons and their neckties

I've always found the necktie to be a peculiar article of clothing, who decided a piece of fabric dangling from the neck was refined and sophisticated? Neckties were on the mind after listening to a piece on NPR about the demise of the necktie in the American office. It remains a staple in certain lines of work, high finance, government, and law, but it has faded from American culture as a whole. The most stable market for neckties?--the Mormons. (They didn't say that in the article but it's probably not far off the mark).

If you asked a person off the street to describe the dress of Mormons you would probably get “white shirt and tie” somewhere in the response due to the missionary visibility in the community. Is this a good or bad association to have? Potentially good if it leads people to view the individual as respectable, as valuing education, and cleanliness. Potentially bad if wearing a necktie is associated with businessmen, lawyers, and government officials---groups not known for having the greatest track record in honesty, caring for the poor, and other virtues that form the backbone of Christianity.  (In passing I'll point out that those three groups in particular are the great villains of the scriptures.)   Getting tied up with these negative connotations is already rather common, every missionary can recall a case in which someone thought they were from the CIA or FBI. 

I think as the general population stops wearing neckties these cases of 'mistaken image association' will only increase. The question is what sort of brand or image does the Church want to portray and is it accomplishing that with it's current norm of dress?


Alex Christensen said...

I am sad that the general popularity of the tie is declining as I think we are all far too casual here in the States. As a girl I have never had an experience where wearing a tie made me look like someone else, however I am often overdressed for some events as I am more comfortable being overdressed than underdressed. But I don't think anyone ever tied that to me being a Latter-day I guess I don't really know...I have no conclusion but appreciate the opportunity to ponder something- something that always happens when I read your blog! :)

David Stoker said...

Thanks Alex. Did your overdressed tendencies increase from your involvement with the BDC? I find that I have all these clothes from my ballroom days that are a bit overdressed for the workplace.

Alex Christensen said...

I would definitely say that my involvement, limited as it was, with the BDC intensified my tendencies. Growing up where stilettos and cufflinks were proper attire in the home of course made me think that was normal. Then to be sucked in to something in my college years- the very time I am supposed to be figuring out what is right for me and not just tradition- that justified and even supported these habits only made my ideals more concrete. It was nice to major in sociology for me as it never let me slip in to an encouraged me to keep an open mind and shift my paradigm regularly; I have thoroughly enjoyed being put in my place many times :)

O'Golly said...

I came upon this blog doing a study of the history of neckties, which, I believe, is very germane to this thread.

It turns out that the origin of the necktie has very little to do with "formality" in the sense most respondents here have used the term. In ancient China, Rome and the middle ages the necktie appears as a symbol of military rank, victory and/or bravery. Soldiers wore necktie type bandannas around their neck as a symbol of belonging to an elite and especially vicious unit of soldiers.

The first widely recognized appearance of such neckwear was, ironically, seen during a thirty-year 'religious" war in the early 17th century waged by King Charles V of Spain against reformists. Fashion trends propelled the necktie pretty much to its' status today.

I also find interesting the fact that it is women, not men, who seem to so prefer their men continue with this fashion trend, as over 80% of all ties are purchased by women for their men.

When one considers the strong ties to soldierly discipline, women's strong involvement in the continuance of the fashion, and the fact that we now refer to it as a "neck-tie" (images of the gallows easily jumps to mind here), it seems painfully obvious that the social-psychological significance of the necktie is that it is a strong symbol of binding (disciplining) a man's more beastly nature.

When seen in this light, it becomes easy to understand why Mormon hierarchy would prefer to maintain such a symbol of men binding the "natural man" - stifling, quite literally, the natural earthy tendencies the Apostle Pal warned us of. I suppose this symbol has served a positive function in the last roughly eighty years it has been so in vogue in he church.

Yet I remain more than a little bit troubled that the etiology of this manly symbol found it's first manifestation in setting apart vicious soldiery, whose sole purpose was to squash all religious opposition to the established church of the time ... an activity you'd thing Mormons would be just a little uneasy with given our history.

Truly pious men do not require nooses around their neck to remind them of their duty to God and their fellow men. It is, rather (to my thinking at least) anathema to the entire theme of the restored gospel.

Every description of heavenly beings we have has them dressed *loosely* in white robes with no neckties in site.

In addition, the neckties is entirely a Western European/American fashion statement, with no history in any other culture in the world. Forcing neckties on Asian, Indo-European, Mid-Eastern and African cultures, to name a few, seems a bit hauty and paternalistic to say the least.

It should be clear by now that I think it is high time Mormon culture re-think some of its' icons, especially those that are so obviously a reflection of worldly, not heavenly values. The "tradition of the father's" dies hard, however (as it sometimes should), and I expect no significant change the attitude of the brethren in my lifetime. I do hope we can get beyond such childish symbols as soon as we are able.

David Stoker said...

Wow, thanks O'Golly for all the research. It is interesting to consider modern behavior in terms of their ancient roots.

I do think that whatever its roots the behavior has its own connotations contemporarily that are quite removed from nooses and military banners. But I completely agreed with your last statements about worldly vs. heavenly icons.

In regards to haughty or paternalistic intentions by the church or church members in promoting the wearing of a tie, I don't think there are any such mal-intentions but simply people going about wearing a certain culturally-colored set of glasses. However, from an outside perspective I think it is quite easy to jump to a haughty/paternalistic conclusion and that is what I worry about. I tend to believe it is the role of the messenger to accommodate and present the message in a culturally appropriate manner. Therefore I believe it is the responsibility of the church and its members as the stewards to accommodate and not the other way around.

O'Golly said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
David Stoker said...

I hope you will not be offended O'Golly but I decided to delete your comment as the administrator due to some discussion about the temple ceremony which I personally consider not appropriate to discuss in a completely open forum such as this. I am not opposed to discussing elements of the temple ceremony, I simply believe there is time and place and I don't consider my blog to be that place.

I personally subscribe to the pattern set by Hugh Nibley in the appropriate manner in which to discuss certain elements of the temple ceremony outside of the temple. I think Bryce Hammond over at Temple Study is trying to capture that tone as well.

I will post the majority of your comment myself below. Please do feel comfortable to discuss and share but I'd ask that we don't stray too far from the topic at hand. Thanks.

David Stoker said...

From O'Golly

Thanks for your comments, David.

"I tend to believe it is the role
 of the messenger to accommodate and present the message in a culturally appropriate manner."

I agree completely. Well put.

“... behaviour has its’ own connotations contemporarily
 that are quite removed from
 nooses and military banners.”

In this I cannot agree. My purpose in researching the subject was that I had been wondering for some time just what it was that kept the tie in fashion, especially since the modern tie serves absolutely no pragmatic function whatsoever. I assumed the custom began with the neckerchief as worn by cowboys and the like, which certainly had a very pragmatic function in times past (and still does in some situations). My assumption proved incorrect. I was intrigued to find out it was not a pragmatic purpose whatsoever that initially began the fashion of wearing neckties, but one of unadulterated vanity.

Most clothing fashions not based in some functional purpose quickly loose their popular grip within any society - the economics of any fashion must eventually justify the cost. In other words “form follows function,” but if not, function at least prospers form from eventual and certain oblivion. Yet of all masculine fashion trends, Western society continues to subsidize an otherwise unreasonable and useless fashion in the necktie. There must be some strong symbolic, and likely subconscious, explanation.

Looking into the historical and etiological reasons for the tie’s usage is the only way to discover such a symbolic hold on our culture. My working hypothesis, then, remains as stated: That the necktie serves as a strong subliminal reminder for the male in our society to reign in his rough, individualistic and somewhat savage tendencies and conform to whatever social authority it is which demands the maintenance of such otherwise useless attire.

Neckties (obviously a symbol of a gallows noose) are a subtle reminder to males that any earthly society of men, like a heavenly Celestial society, is founded on certain laws of behaviour which the ‘beast’ in us often finds difficult to abide.

Small wonder, then, that women and ecclesiastical leaders find the necktie such a comforting fashion statement.

I just think that as a worldwide body of saints from many differing cultures, we need to consider moving beyond such trite bhavioural control mechanisms. It is a discussion worth having, and I’m glad you brought it up.

David Stoker said...

Good luck on your research. Perhaps one element you have not considered in the explanation of tie usage is the aesthetic aspect. There is a very real aesthetic effect of creating symmetry in the body and framing the face, both of which could have strong arguments from the biological side of things.

I still feel some of your absolutes, "only way" "no...whatsoever" are a bit extreme and make the overall argument less valid. There is a great article on wikipedia that I find provides a more balanced explanation.

What does all this mean for Mormons and neckties? I don't think it means calling for a complete abandonment of the necktie but like I state in the original post I think the current connotations of the necktie are changing and it should cause us to consider what public image we want to present. As an example of positive new branding the church has instituted is the "helping hands" vests members of the church wear when they are doing organized humanitarian relief activities. (This brings up a topic I'll have to post about later, the balance of good PR, letting your light so shine and doing your deeds to be seen of men. Stayed tuned....)