It's official: the tie, or the necktie as it is more properly known, is a sprightly 113 years old at the end of this month, says the British Guild of Tie Makers. But how on earth do they know? After all, similar accessories have adorned the necks of the gentry since Charles II revealed a taste for the cravat in the 1660s.
What started as a fashion has become more or less indispensable in business - an essential component of the male uniform. The average British bloke owns 18 ties, buys or is given two new ones every year (thanks, auntie Vera) but wears just six of them regularly. 'Ties aren't really an option for most men. It's more a question of what kind of tie you wear,' says Peter Wallis (aka Peter York, the style commentator), managing director of research company SRU.
Corporate ties can bolster a company's image and 'engender a sense of community', says Graham Wilson of Corporate Psychology International.
Similarly, club ties and professional ties are badges of office and declarations of status.
They can also have a 'Masonic element', as their true significance is only apparent to those in the know, adds Wallis.
Your own choice of tie is not a trivial matter. It can say a lot about your personality. So, if you are climbing the greasy pole, beware. 'Buying a flashy new tie can make you feel a real card. It's like a cockscomb, even a phallic symbol,' says Wallis, but think carefully before giving too free a rein to your primal urges. Something startling in silk from Tie Rack may be acceptable for the salesman of the month but is unlikely to help you grab the top slot in the corporate finance division. 'Bankers prefer a classic Hermes tie in blue,' Wallis says.
Perhaps the way to stand out is simply not to wear one. Some of the slicker self-publicists around have adopted this approach, although Richard Branson says that's not why he does it. 'I started my business when I was 16, with long hair, and wearing a T-shirt. People should wear what they feel comfortable in,' he says, and offers another piece of sartorial advice that may have contributed to the Virgin success story: 'I never dress up to meet my bankers. They might think I was in trouble.' Ties can be an investment in more ways than one. 'Wearing a different tie can easily update a suit you've had for ages,' says Tim Taylor, buying director for Thomas Pink. 'It's also the one part of a man's wardrobe that can be slightly flamboyant.' While the right tie can give you identity, gravitas and style, the wrong one can instantly brand you a loser. The idea of cartoon characters marching up your chest might seem like a harmless bit of fun, but a recent survey of 300 businesswomen revealed that so-called novelty ties are roundly disliked and regarded as symbols of male insecurity.
Perhaps that is why 70% of ties are actually bought by women. Although the flip side of that statistic is that 30% must be bought by men, of course. 'I buy all my own,' says a defiant Austin Mitchell, MP for Great Grimsby and a renowned connoisseur of vivid neckwear. 'Ties brighten up life. I've got 300 or 400 and my wife hates them all. She keeps trying to throw them out, but I'll wear a favourite tie every day, until it becomes obliterated by soup stains.'.