Everyone at the office knew that the men’s room on the top floor of corporate headquarters was off limits to all but executive staff. Having been recently promoted, I had no reason to expect anything out of the ordinary as I crossed the threshold that day.
While washing my hands, I noticed that the knot of my necktie was misshapen. So I began retying it. J. T. Molloy’s “Dress for Success” doctrine was at its apogee in the business world then, and as a newly minted junior executive I was acutely aware of the need to present a proper appearance. That’s when I noticed the older man at the next sink watching me.
“What are you up to, Vince?” he asked.
In my worker-bee existence I’d known the man as Mr. Wood, but now I called him Jack. Either way, he was senior vice president and treasurer of the company.
“Well, Jack, I’m fixing my tie to look better with this button-down collar oxford shirt,” I said.
What I didn’t confess was that I despised button-down oxfords, along with tweed jackets, tartan plaids and paisley anythings, as expressions of the prep-school anglophilia that permeated the culture of Corporate America. But I was suppressing my working-class ethnic background, trying hard to fit in just as Molloy prescribed.
“Son, if you want a sharp-looking Windsor knot, you need to start it lower,” he said.
Jack then took up the ends of my necktie and began tying it. He crossed the wide end over the narrow, wrapped it around once to my left, once to my right, brought it over the top, and then pulled it through the middle, explaining the procedure every step of the way.
In the genealogy of neckwear, the Windsor knot has a well-established pedigree. It’s the bulky, triangular knot favored by the English nobility and it’s been adopted by old guards the world over. As one of the company’s most senior executives, Jack was a right and proper Windsor-knot man. He epitomized the fusty punctiliousness of most corporate hierarchies, which rule with a kid-gloved fist of banality held at the end of an arm swathed in gray flannel, the established order that in its imperviousness to change drove me to distraction.
At that moment, my boss Bill, the senior vice president and director of corporate marketing formerly known to me as Mr. Yaw, walked in.
“What the hell is going on here?” he demanded to know. “You don’t use a Windsor knot with a button-down collar, you use a four-in-hand!”
Narrow and cylindrical in shape, the four-in-hand was generally considered déclassé among the business elite. But it had recently been gaining acceptance among those who saw themselves as progressive.
The grandson of one of Henry Ford’s original business partners who had then gone on to become a celebrated political reformer, Bill was a fastidious dresser and an anglophile through and through. His position in the chain of command was not based on his ability or his accomplishments but on his aristocratic bloodline, a function quite simply of who he was. Within just a few weeks of reporting to him, I came to understand why the French Revolution took place.
With a sense of divine right, Bill spun me to face the mirror. He put his arms around me from behind and began tying my necktie in his preferred method. He crossed the wide end over the narrow, wrapped it around twice and pulled it through the middle, nearly choking me as he tightened the completed knot around my neck. At that moment, I thought to myself perhaps this is why so many corporate decisions seemed downright stupid the tourniquet effect of the company dress code had cut off the blood supply to the brains of the entire executive level.
In any case, there I was with not one but two senior managers of a Fortune 500 corporation giving me tie-tying lessons in the men’s room, at their salaries plus bonuses plus stock options, not to mention perquisites. I pondered whether a requirement of the meritocracy into which I had been accepted included proficiency at small-motor skills. I also recognized that I’d been privy, as it were, to information typically withheld from women.
Over the next few days, whenever I passed Jack in the hall he winked at me and said things like, “Nice tie, Vince!” During those same few days, my boss wore shirts with spread, point and tab collars to display the versatility, thus superiority, of the four-in-hand. It was the only time I saw Bill wear anything but button-down oxfords to the office in all the years I knew him. I must admit that I found the continued attention of two big wigs flattering, yet at the same time it seemed a little absurd.
In hindsight, I see that on that day my gullet was contested terrain, the site of a skirmish in a turf war. Jack was getting old and would soon retire to pursue fantasies of English peerage running roughshod over conquered Scottish moors and being amused with an indigenous pastime known to the natives as “goff.” He was hoping, I think, in those final moments to bequeath me his legacy, however modest. A much younger man, Bill was girding up for offensives to come. The tie tying was a ritual of fealty for one of his vassals.
Over time and with confidence, I declared my independence from the Anglo-Saxon yoke under which I chafed. I began to assert my ethnic identity by exclusively wearing Italian-made clothing. My favorite “power meeting” outfit was a Valentino Uomo three-button lustrous black silk-and-wool suit, which I wore wiseguy-style with a charcoal gray cotton shirt and silver tone-on-tone silk necktie. By then I, the corporate equivalent of what at Groton or Exeter would be termed a scholarship boy, was poised to succeed Bill as senior vice president and director of corporate marketing, which I did when he was forced out of the company during a merger.
While I was no longer a slave to WASP fashion I was still wrapped up in the system it represented. Operating budgets needed to be slashed and revenues increased, stingy “merit raises” meted out and employee “synergies” created. Supplier pricing concessions had to be extracted and profit margins on “valued” customers ever expanded. These things and more I was called upon to do and I did them, if unwillingly, and all to satisfy the insatiable desire for capital accumulation of the powers that be.
In the end, I learned all too well the lessons my mentors set out to teach me. Relationships of power and money are truly the ties that bind. The rest is mere foppery.