A young lawyer walked by while working late, waving the striped tie he had just removed, announcing that, after 9:00 p.m., business casual was mandatory. European-born, my colleague’s tie had blue, white and green stripes angled downward from left to right (as seen by the wearer), in the classic British (and predominantly European) tradition. In Britain, the convention developed that, just as each clan in Scotland has its own tartan, each regiment, club and school would likely have its own, distinctive, diagonally striped tie.
On not quite as classic but by now traditional American ties, however, diagonal stripes run in the opposite direction, from right to left. There are various stories about why that is so. As with anything you can find on the Internet, you can discover much that is of interest, some of which might even prove to be true. You may learn, for instance, that the reason the ties slant in different directions is that European infantrymen shouldered their weapons differently from Americans and that their rifles ejected spent casings in an opposite direction. Those explanations are not only fogged by inaccuracy but bear little evidence of good fashion sense.
More credible is the claim by Brooks Brothers that it invented the American right to left downward slide on what it calls a Repp tie (freely admitting that an early spelling error caused it to get wrong the name of the French Rep ribbed silk fabric it used to make the ties). The idea was to bring American “roguish charm” to British tradition–an act that, as is often the case when Americans reference British traditions–acts as both homage and gentle satire. The British officers and gentlemen men who earned the right to wear regimental colors around their necks sometimes being quite sensitive about having earned the exclusive right to that privilege, Brooks Brothers reversed the direction of the stripe in an effort to soothe warrior sensitivities.
American schools have their Repp variations. My American university’s thick-striped tie, in navy blue and burgundy, is guaranteed to dull down almost any suit that goes with it.
The striped tie having now been commonplace for over a century, uncountable combinations of alternating stripe widths and colors have been used. A designer looking to protect his or her intellectual property rights in the patterns of ties may theoretically create a novel combination of colors and widths running in either direction–just enough to warrant a claim for copyright protection. Given the multiplicity of existing designs, that protection, if granted, would likely be a “thin copyright,” but in theory it could happen. The larger question is: why bother? Individual styles rarely last more than one season, after all. Would you really sue to protect the design, hoping the defendant does not dig into neckwear history to find something similar warn by officers of a British regiment since before it fought in the Battle of the Somme?
Each of those regimental, school and club ties identifies a source of origin–raising the possibility that a particular pattern of stripes can be protected as a trademark. As a practical matter, unless a stripe acquires such distinctiveness that the market accepts that it designates a specific source and so is not merely decorative, it is probably not protectable as a trademark. It is possible, again in theory, that a particular pattern of stripes could gain “secondary meaning.” That is, they now serve, through usage, advertising and the passage of time, as branding and devices not merely as pleasing patterns. If that should happen, is it indeed enough of a difference to prevent a claim of infringement to run the same pattern in the opposite direction, just as Brooks Brothers and other American makers did in order to distinguish their patterns from those British ties from which they freely borrowed both conventions and patterns? Much could depend on survey evidence of consumer habits and consumer awareness of the differences. That is another way of saying: if you did not know about all that before reading this post, the difference in the direction of the stripes probably is of no consequence to you; your response to the survey would therefore likely aid the plaintiff in a claim that simply changing the direction of the stripes did not make the defendant’s pattern less likely to cause infringing confusion.
That would support the generally held view that, when it comes to neckties, diagonal stripes, in whatever direction they run, are, in nearly all situations, open territory for designers. Within the quite narrow sartorial conventions of male business attire, however, there is not really all that much new that can likely be done with diagonal stripes in neckties. So, let us all celebrate an ongoing tradition and try not to worry too much about all this. A good striped tie will not necessarily be the one that a lawyer attempts to protect as intellectual property. It will, however, always be one that will work for him just about anywhere.
We would like to thank Stephen Sidkin of Fox Williams LLP, London, UK, for providing the inspiration and background for this post.
Credit: Alan Behr
We have commented here before that the necktie is the surviving element of the male wardrobe that is purely decorative. If it is true that form follows function, there is no prescribed form for an accessory that, by definition, is completely without function. For that reason, you can make it a classic neck to waist cravat, go for a Pharrell bowtie, or go for a turquoise-clasped bolo — at least if you are from the West.
Cloth ties can come in any width, as long as you can close them and they do not rub into your face or flap into your arms. When I was young, my father was friends with George Goldman, a legendary New York necktie manufacturing impressario, back when most ties sold in the USA were made there. I remember when my father came home from a meeting with George, bearing a fistful of thin neckties –only to note, not long after, that they had slipped out of fashion. The Mad Men age was over, taking with it the thin tie and long-accepted business terms such as “career girl” and “make it a double.”
Ties next grew wide, to the point of obesity, during the following decade. And then, thanks to the temperate good taste of designers such as Giorgio Armani and Ralph Lauren, ties went to the gym and trimmed down. And then, wouldn’t you know it: the thin tie, now known by its workout-sanctioned name of the skinny tie, returned, along with thin lapels.
Because it has become tough to say what is “correct” in business wear of late, those of us who pay attention to these things keep two tie collections, one in the moderate ninety-centimeter width of the classic Kiton seven-fold and the other in the anorexic sixty centimeter width of the just-discontinued Brooks Brothers Black Fleece line designed by Thom Browne. And to think: all that fuss over something that most men working in offices and classrooms do not even make part of their daily wardrobes anymore.
This rolling in and out of necktie widths throughout the decades illustrates another key element of fashion law: it is of no matter if you were the first to bring back the skinny tie or even if you found a way to make them from thermal-insulated cloth for inclement winter days. You will not get intellectual property protection for the shape and other physical characteristics of any tie in any form that we know at this time that the market will accept. However, it is still possible to obtain protection on the pattern of the tie fabric, if it is truly unique. Considering the way that trends go and come and that, in the 1970s, chunky ties appeared with elaborate printed scenes to fill out their broad canvases, if your vision is of a complete Tahitian village or perhaps of a new interpretation of the Judgment of Paris, your day may soon be here. And if your designs are truly unique, you can register your copyrights. Those neckties will not have any more use than the ones you see today, but their designs will be exclusively yours.
Credit: Alan Behr