Wide or skinny, plaid or plain, synthetic or silk, the tie is a Father's Day staple--nearly 4.5 million dads are getting one on June 15--and one of the few fashion accessories to have survived nearly 400 years of social change. Neck adornments have been worn since ancient times to signify title or wealth or even just to sop up sweat. But modern, mostly decorative neckwear dates from King Louis XIV of France, who first popularized the tie's predecessor, the cravat, after spotting the bow-tie-like embellishment on 17th century Croatian soldiers.
Two centuries later, the Industrial Revolution helped spread the style to the masses, as millions of workers migrated from farmlands to factories and the business class was born. In 1924 an American tailor named Jesse Langsdorf created--and patented--the tie's modern look, with its bias cut and three-piece construction. By the 1950s, it was said that a man wasn't fully dressed until he had put on his tie. But as the high age of the Organization Man faded, the tie came to symbolize individuality as much as conformity. Ralph Lauren launched the ill-advised 4-in.-wide (10 cm) trend in the 1970s, and the following decade saw the accessory appropriated by everyone from Ivy Leaguers (striped ties!) to punks (skinny ties!) to Wall Street moguls (power ties!).
Tie sales hit a peak of $1.3 billion in 1995 but steadily declined as the dotcom boom threatened to obliterate neckwear entirely and business casual took hold in the workplace. Just last week the Men's Dress Furnishings Association, which represents American tiemakers, announced it will close its doors. Still, some analysts see an upside in the current economic downturn: laid-off workers looking to stand out in job interviews could spark a tie-wearing boom.