In his book Class: A Guide Through The American Status System, cultural critic Paul Fussell presents a concise analysis of ties and their class significance in America. I am posting the text of that passage in its entirety along with representative images of each type of tie he discusses.
The principle that clothing moves lower in status the more legible it becomes applies to neckties with a vengeance. The ties worn by the top classes eschew the more obvious forms of verbal and even too crudely symbolic statement, relying on stripes, amoeba-like foulard blobs, or even small dots to make the point that the wearer possesses too much class to care to specify right out in front what it’s based on. (This illustrates the privacy principle, or the principle of mind-your-own -little-disgusting-middle-class-business, a customary element of the aristocratic stance.)
Small white dots against a dark background, perhaps the most conservative tie possible, are favored by the uppers and upper-middles and, defensively, by those nervous about being thought low, coarse, drunken or cynical, like journalists and TV news readers and sportscasters, and by those whose fiduciary honor must be thought beyond question, like the trust officers working for the better metropolitan banks.
Moving down [in class ] from stripes, blobs, or dots, we come to necktie patterns with a more overt and precise semiotic function. Some, designed to announce that the upper-middle-class wearer is a sport, will display diagonal patters of little flying pheasants, or small yachts, signal flags and sextants. (“I hunt and own a yacht. Me rich and sporty!”)
Just below these are the “milieu” patterns, designed to celebrate the profession of the wearer and to congratulate him on having so fine a profession. These are worn by insecure members of the upper-middle class (like surgeons) or by members of the middle class aspiring to upper-middle class status (like accountants). Thus a tie covered with tiny caduceuses proclaims “Hot damn! I am a physician!” (Significantly, there is no milieu tie pattern for dentists). Little scales signify “I am a lawyer.” Musical notes: “I have something to do with music.” Dollar signs or money bags: a stockbroker, banker, perhaps a wildly successful plastic surgeon, or a lottery winner.
I’ve even seen one tie with a pattern of little jeeps, whose meaning I’ve found baffling, for surely if you were a driver in any of our wars you’d not be likely to announce it. Other self-congratulatory patterns like little whales or dolphins or seals suggest that you love nature and spend a lot of time protecting it and are thus a fine person.
Any of these milieu ties can be alternated with the “silk rep” model striped with the presumed colors of British (never, never German, French, Italian, Potuguese or White Russian) regiments, clubs or universities.
As we move further down the class hierarchy, actual words begin to appear on ties, and these are meant to be commented on by viewers. One such artifact is the Grandfather’s Tie in dark blue with grandchildren’s names hand-painted on it, diagonally, in white. Imagine the conversations that ensue when you wear it! Another reads “I’d rather be sailing,” “skiing,” etc., and these can also be effective underminers of privacy – “conversation starters,” and thus useful adjuncts to comfy middle-class status, in the tradition of expecting neighbors to drop in without warning.
Some ties down in this stratum affect great cleverness, reading “Thank God It’s Friday” or “Oh Hell, It’s Monday”; and a way to get a chuckle out of your audience and at the same time raise your class a bit is to have these sentiments abbreviated on your tie with yachting signal flags. At the bottom of the middle class, just before it turns to high prole, we encounter ties depicting large flowers in brilliant colors, or simply bright “artistic” splotches. The message is frequently “I’m a merry dog.” These wearers are the ones [John T.] Molloy is addressing when, discussing neckties, he warns “Avoid purple under all circumstances.”
Further down still, where questions of yacht ownership or merry doghood are too preposterous to be claimed even on a necktie we come upon the high- or mid-prole “bola” tie, a woven or leather thong with a slide (often of turquoise or silver), affected largely by retired persons residing in Sun Belt places like New Mexico.
Like any other sort of tie, this one makes a statement, saying, “Despite appearances, I’m really as good as you are, and my necktie, though perhaps unconventional, is really better than your traditional tie because it suggests the primitive and therefore unpretentious, pure and virtuous.” Says the bola, “The person wearing me is a child of nature, even though actually eighty years old.” Like many things bought by proles, these bola ties can be very expensive, especially when the slide is made of precious metal or displays “artwork.”
The point again is that the money, although important, is not always the most important criterion of class. Below the bola wearers, at the very bottom, stand low proles, the destitute, and the bottom-out-of-sight, who never wear a tie, or wear one – and one is all they own – so rarely that the day is memorable for that reason. Down here, the tie is an emblem of affectation and even effeminacy, and you can earn a reputation for being a la-di-da by appearing in one, as if you thought yourself better than other people. One prole wife says of her spouse, “I’m going to bury my husband in a T-shirt if the undertaker will allow it.”