There is news from the Western fashion front this month that will make men breathe a little easier, especially as the days grow hotter. The tie, after having had its victims by the throat for several centuries, may finally be seeing its grip loosened.

It has had a good run. In fact, the tie represents one of the biggest success stories in sartorial history. It originated, according to historians of such matters, in Croatia, where a neck scarf knotted in a highly specific manner was part of the traditional male costume. When Croatian mercenaries showed up in Paris around the middle of the 17th century, the French — tired of starched lace collars — were charmed by their convenient yet picturesque neckwear. By the end of Louis XIV’s reign (1715), scarves worn “a la Croate” had become de rigueur, giving rise to the French word “cravate” and, before long, to its equivalents in many other European languages: “cravat” in English, “Krawatte” in German, “gravata” in Portuguese, and so on.

From Europe, the cravat (and later its slimmed-down successor, the “nekutai”) wound its way around the world on the ships of empire. By the 19th century, it was a fashion fixture on four continents (even on the fifth, Antarctica, the penguins do a fair imitation of stiff little men in suits), and its hegemony remains unchecked. On the cusp of the 21st century, it has been estimated, as many as 600 million men worldwide regularly wear a tie. It has become the ultimate Western male symbol of respectability, responsibility, power.

Yet its glory days may be numbered. More and more men, apparently, are slipping the noose. First came news from Wall Street and the City of London that the upstart dot-com culture was having a revolutionary effect on business-dress codes: The young Internet nerds and geeks who make the networks run wouldn’t dream of booting up in anything but jeans and T-shirts. The bastions of corporate respectability took notice, first instituting “dress-down Fridays” and eventually, in some cases, admitting defeat entirely. Open-necked shirts were suddenly found to be cool, in more ways than one. The death blow may have been delivered this month when England’s soccer squad flew to Belgium with its ties in its luggage, an unprecedented break with tradition. “The England team looked pathetic,” spluttered the spokesman for the Guild of British Tie Makers. But then, he would think that, wouldn’t he? Fans doubtless thought the team looked cool.

Casual cool has also won haute couture’s imprimatur on the catwalks. From Milan to Tokyo, ties have disappeared and collarless shirts are joining the lapel-free jacket as the look du jour. The next thing you know, even those fashion laggards, G8 politicians, will be seeking advice from their more relaxed Third World colleagues: North Korea’s Kim Jong Il in his natty brown zipup jacket, Cuban President Fidel Castro in his famous rumpled fatigues and Palestine’s Yasser Arafat in his, er, Palestinian outfit.

This has to be a good thing. Look at it from the perspective of the ladies, who are generally the ones derided as fashion victims. The way they see it, men have been more bound (and sometimes gagged) by the tie than women ever were by high heels or stockings. A woman can be well-dressed in pants or skirt, stilettos or flats, with or without sleeves, plus or minus a jacket. A man, on the other hand, has until now been restricted to suit and tie if he wanted to be taken seriously in most professional settings. If the door to wider choice in male apparel is opening a crack, who in their right minds would object?

Well, there are always objectors. In this case, the usual claims have already been made that sartorial anarchy is being loosed upon the world, to be followed, as day follows night, by moral deliquescence of unimaginable proportions. Forget all that. Worthier of consideration are the appeals to nostalgia. Is the day of the floppy Bohemian cravat or the jazzy bow tie really over? What about the sheer flexibility of the modern tie, which could always be just as dull or as loud as you wanted? Men have long used ties to make subtle statements — new every morning — about who they are and how they want to be perceived. Navy-blue with gold amoebas one day, Hawaiian-pink hibiscus the next: It all fell within the realm of the acceptable because it was, after all, just a tie, a narrow strip of fabric magically available for self-expression. That will be missed.

And there was one other thing. In thrall to the suit and tie, men at least knew each day basically what they were going to put on. The greater the choice, the harder the decision, as any girl knows.

So, what to do, in the brave new untied world? It’s up to you. All we can say is, it’s a knotty problem. Make the most of it.

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