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
I have mentioned here before that the necktie is the only discretionary piece of a typical man’s daily outfit. Women may have a multitude of choices, but dressing a man is really quite simple: whatever the day and whatever the occasion, it is pants, shirt, shoes, and if it is cool outside, a sweater or jacket. Add a belt or suspenders, the almost obligatory underwear and some nearly as almost obligatory socks—and there you are. If you consider that style is what starts to happen the moment that taste transcends practicality, the necktie is the one item in the daily male outfit most amenable to becoming a statement of personal style. With the advent of business casual—that international license to look innocuous in the very environment in which you should most stand out—neckties of course have become optional for business and therefore have been routinely discarded by many men. With the long-hoped-for rise in male awareness about fashion, however, perhaps that will soon reverse. Think of the possibilities: you may once again walk into a business meeting or sit down with friends at a restaurant without staring at a rainforest of wiry hairs protruding through the V of an open-collared shirt and may actually, dare we hope, find yourself staring at something worth seeing. Remember, I said before that neckties have no protective function, not that they are functionless.
Credit: Alan Behr
Related Post: A Meditation On The Necktie I
For a very long time, men were accused of wearing uniforms to work; those were the days when great sartorial decisions came down to: will it be a blue suit or a gray suit today? That has changed with business casual, of course, leading to a revised question: will it be the khakis today or corduroys? That is why now, more than ever, the necktie is so important. Because the necktie is about the only thing a man wears that does not have a protective function, it is only discretionary item that a man can wear in the course of an ordinary day. Which is to say, the necktie is about the only thing that a guy can put on purely for styIe—to show a little bit of what he is about.
I have a brother who works in finance out of an office in the Palm Beach area, where wearing neckties is truly optional. On his last visit with me in New York, he had to borrow one in order to get through his Manhattan meeting schedule. He made off with a lovely yellow and blue striped piece from Peter Elliot (my neighborhood menswear boutique), and of course he promised to give it back. Now he says it is his favorite tie and he wears it often—or whatever passes for often in Palm Beach. For all I know, it is the only one in his closet that does not have Mickey Mouse on it. When am I getting my tie back? When it needs a cleaning, I suppose.
Credit: Alan Behr
Related Post: A Meditation on the Necktie II