We’re downtown, surrounded by banks and office buildings, when my friend grimaces. She looks at the young professionals running across the street, and says, “It’s so tacky when guys wear ties without a jacket.”
Looking around, I was struck at how, yeah, there were a fair number of young men wearing a tie and no jacket. It was like one of those movie scenes, when well-dressed men need to get down to business, so they sling their jackets off and hunker down.
But when wearing a tie over a dress shirt sans jacket makes you look like you’re going to your first job interview, what are the exceptions to the rule?
When can you wear a tie without a jacket?
With a skinny tie
As we’ve covered before, a tie’s purpose is to break up and fill out the colours and textures of your look. A jacket and a shirt can sometimes look like a bland wash of muted shades, and that’s where a tie comes in.
Although the skinny tie began its popularity in the late 50s, it slowly became associated with hipsters, where the look was conceived as an ironic nod to the black-tie workaday world.
But irony has a way of becoming trendy, and trendy sometimes becomes fashionable. That’s what’s interesting about the fashion world: it sometimes eats itself, turning back inwards like a particularly well-dressed ouroboros. Just look at the way the fashion world absorbed punk into their system.
Luckily, skinny ties are versatile. If you plan carefully, as long as you have a shirt without a collar, you could do reasonably well for yourself.
But to wear a very skinny tie with a white dress shirt and no jacket, that means you’re making a statement, invoking the white-collar world of suits and ties but standing outside of it.
If you’re not in the business of making statements, pair the skinny tie with a sweater vest. This is the best of both worlds: suggesting the stylish world of suits and ties, and letting the tie do its original job: complimenting and completing an outfit. A cardigan does the same trick; go for the Rex Harrison look.
I’d avoid matching a regular-sized tie or larger with the sweater vest, unless you want to look like a university professor, but in that case you should forgo the vest entirely and move straight to tweed blazers.
With a t-shirt?
You might think that, done well, in the right context, a solid coloured t-shirt with the right tie could be post-modern and a little Dadaist, the perfect outfit for the alternative scene.
But I don’t recommend it. It’s extremely likely that you’ll look like a hipster doofus.
Which is unfair, really. Maybe society just needs to declare a moratorium on hipsterism in general. The great Dorothy Gambrell wrote that the word hipster “has become over-used to the point of meaninglessness – becoming a mildly pejorative way to divide us and them and claim authenticity for our corner. If we define “hipster” as them then “hipster” cannot be us – its use is always self-congratulatory. The spoken equivalent of patting yourself on the back.”
So if that’s true, then why is wearing a tie with a t-shirt such a hipster thing to do?
Part of what defines hipsters as a fashion movement has always been the appropriation of another culture’s fashion. Hence the plaid shirt and the Pabst Blue Ribbon: taking hold of a look that was once associated with the working class.
Same thing with the tie and a t-shirt: it’s taking hold of a symbol associated with the world of offices and haute couture.
Like it or not, that’s why the t-shirt and tie has a self-consciousness inherent in it that makes it look like you’re trying too hard. That’s the kiss of death for any fashion statement.
With a waistcoat
While a tie and a vest calls attention to the lack of a jacket, the look of a tie and a waistcoat is complete, classic and timeless, a suggestion of fashion sense and the lack of formality that comes hand-in-hand with jackets and blazers.
But, remember, context is everything: a waistcoat looks right in any setting where a suit and tie would look right.
Ties are delicate things. The best advice to give would be to just avoid wearing a tie to work without a jacket or a waistcoat or a vest. If a tie doesn’t compliment a complete ensemble, that reduces it to a purposeless dangling piece of cloth, doing nothing for you. And why would you wear that?