Elegy for the tie clip.

The language of style.
May 29 2007 7:15 AM

Here Lies the Tie Clip

An elegy for a great accessory.

Illustration by Alex Eben Meyer. Click image to expand.

Not long ago, I had a dinner to attend and could not find my only tie clip. I do not always wear a tie clip, but I feel they are appropriate for certain occasions, especially situations in which it may be necessary to stand up frequently, lean across a table full of food (to say nothing of votive candles), and shake hands. A tie clip is useful for keeping your tie out of your bouillabaisse.

When I set out to find a replacement, however, I made a disturbing discovery: The tie clip has become an endangered species. The ratio of ties to tie clasps for sale in upmarket Manhattan men's stores was many zillions to a handful. The august Andover Shop in Cambridge, Mass., is not currently carrying tie clips. Neither is Brooks Brothers. When I checked, Bergdorf Goodman in Manhattan had only one in stock. Barney's had none. Tiffany & Co. had a few, but Vacca, Brioni, Prada, Zegna, Louis Vuitton, and Paul Smith were sadly devoid of them, as were Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom. Amazon had a few for sale, but they were inelegant at best. I also tried calling the shops around the country that made Esquire's recent list of "gold standard" men's stores, only to find that these establishments had the same selection as those in New York: not much.

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For a moment, I thought Beyoncé might help. In her single "Upgrade U," she sings about outfitting a lucky gentleman with "silk-lined blazers," an "Hermes briefcase," and "Cartier tie clips." Wow! But Cartier doesn't sell tie clips, either, and has not for two decades, according to one of their knowledgeable-seeming sales clerks. In fact, the tie clip is now so obsolete that Beyoncé devotees transcribing "Upgrade U" online frequently render the line as "Cartier top clips." How did this accessory, once a menswear staple, fall so precipitously from favor? 

A tie clip, also known as a tie bar, tie slide, or tie clasp, clips horizontally across a man's tie and holds it to his shirt, stabilizing it while also assuring that the skinny part will not emerge from behind the wide part. Tie-wearing has been popular since the late 17th century (when the scarflike "cravat" was in vogue), but it was not until about 1850 that the four-in-hand tie, or typical long tie of today, became prevalent. By 1870, men were using tie pins or tie sticks to affix the tie directly to the shirt. But these required puncture-action and thus damaged anything made of silk, as many ties were by 1920 or so. Tie clips rose to prominence in the 1920s, when pioneering tailor Jesse Langsdorf developed a procedure for cutting ties that discouraged wrinkles and, more important, allowed the tie to fall straight down and more or less stay there, as ties are expected to do today. The simultaneous advent of silk ties and predictable tie behavior helped the gentler tie clip outpace its pokey cousin.

In the years that followed, the tie clip became an important feature of American corporate, civic, and political culture. It was a mini-billboard, a kind of public identity badge. (Today baseball caps, T-shirts, corporate-logo windbreakers, tote bags, and even the fashion-backward ID-badge-attached-to-lanyard have appropriated this function.) Herbert Hoover seems to have been the first president to have his signature put on a tie clip. Most presidents have done so—to thank supporters with something fancier than a campaign button—right up through Clinton and George W. Bush. (W. offered supporters a choice of tie clip or cuff links.) Lyndon Johnson's 1964 campaign tie clip, which read "LBJ for the USA," was appropriately gaudy: an outsized map of America. It alerts anyone who sees it that the wearer either is, or supports, a back-slapping Texan with sweeping foreign and domestic policy agendas.

Commemorative tie clips were produced for the 1933 Chicago World's Fair and the 1964 New York World's Fair. Disney put out a Goofy tie clip circa 1940. The Long Island town of Manhasset had tie clips produced to commemorate their championship men's high-school lacrosse team in 1946. Civic-minded groups such as the Rotary club, Shriners, Freemasons, Boy Scouts, and Knights of Columbus all had tie clips made at some point. Many schools and corporations followed suit. While midcentury tie clasps were often hideous, a handful are aesthetically interesting. I particularly like those produced in Mexico in the 1940s and 1950s by Antonio Pineda, whose designs are in dialogue with other modern visual arts.

Already, though, the end was in sight. As the 20th century wore on, fashions became increasingly casual. Men discontinued the practice of wearing suits to baseball games and stopped wearing fedoras almost entirely. Perhaps the tie clip, too, became a sort of symbol of the "organization man," a badge of corporate servility and piety. As white-collar workers became less tied to one company and more like free agents, the tie clip was left in the junk drawer. And then, of course, there is the interesting correlation between the peak and decline of both the Cold War and the tie-clip boom. Could the tie clip have served some sort of unconscious psychological purpose in a war-ready nation—a little flash of light that recalled the gleam of a sword, or a military bar or stripe?

The tie clip is as functional as it ever was. If you are in the habit of standing up to shake hands, it helps to have one. (Such ornaments also draw attention to a nice tie, as T.S. Eliot noted in the "Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.") And in those increasingly rare pockets of the world where jeans will never be considered a "dressy" option for men (such as some churches and private clubs), the tie clip may indeed hold out. But today it is mostly seen as old-fashioned, out-of-style, or aggressively dandyish. Vincent D'Onofrio wears one on Law and Order: Criminal Intent, but it reads as a sign of his character's daft iconoclasm, highlighting the mad-genius affectation he uses to solve crimes.

Still, there may be hope. The tie clip recently made a prominent appearance in a slightly cooler venue: athwart the ties worn by Snoop Dogg and Nate Dogg in their new video for "Boss' Life." When the pocket square made a triumphant return a few years ago, it got a boost from the efforts of similarly intrepid wearers. If the tie clip turns up on a few more torsos, perhaps it can, like the ivory-billed woodpecker, mount a tentative comeback.

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