A sticky, stifling May afternoon some twenty years ago. Bent double in a crawl space, I attempt some spring cleaning. The dampness under my arms is one part sweat and three parts irritation. My back aches, and so I lie down to rest. Next to me, in the storage, nestled among long forgotten garden tools, empty suitcases, and a World Book encyclopedia set missing volume S, sits a box of ties.
Not just any ties, but my rugby ties. Some 200 of them, from all corners of the globe, a good number still in cellophane wrappers. Rummaging in the box guarantees a stroll down memory lane. Many of the ties, whether acquired as a player, coach or referee, trigger a story or an anecdote.
By way of example, I rediscover an old favourite, care of an unfashionable, unpronounceable, unfit West Wales touring side. Very much a social XV intent on fully enjoying a post season visit to Canada’s west coast, they feature a pudgy fullback named Luigi who late tackles everybody. Fittingly, the club crest, emblazoned on the tie, is a stein of ale. With the players, having earlier seen a highway billboard advertising “Drink Canada Dry”, proceeding to attempt exactly that.
Still, why this box, forlorn, condemned to decades of dust? I shall blame my sweet, patient, lovable better half whose aversion to rugby ties I cannot fathom. For did not a learned Englishman some centuries ago opine “no man is well dressed without cloth about the neck”?
Ties go way back to 1660, when a Croatian regiment, fresh off bashing the Turks in some battle or another, journeys to Paris to celebrate the victory. Wearing brightly colored silk hankies around their necks, the Croats are soon spotted by Louis XIV. The good king, something of a fashion plate himself, is sufficiently enamoured to do what any self-respecting good king would do. He forms La Regiment des Cravattes Royals. Cravattes become cravats, both derivatives from the word croats. And the game is on.
Faster than the plague, the new Parisian fashion spreads across the Continent and eventually to England. Then, despite a hostile Iroquois reception, to the New World. Some cravats are reportedly so thick they can stop a sword thrust. This is good thing. Indeed, a certain M. Le Blanc offers that “the grossest insult to a man is to seize him by his cravat – in this place blood only can wash out the stain upon the honor of either party”.
Over the years, the popularity of ties ebbs and flows. The ascot, the bow, the bolo, the string, even the clip-on enjoy their time in the sun. However, for a tie to be a classic, it should be 3.25” in width, and 57” in length. Silk may be popular, but the finest are 100% wool. In practical terms, ties cover buttons, shirt holes, various shirt stains. Furthermore, they provide verticality. This gives men confidence. Finally, ties lend a dab of colour and texture to otherwise deadly dull white dress shirts and dark blazers.
Still, I digress.
It is no surprise that the sport of Rugby and wearing/exchanging ties are closely linked. This has been the case ever since 1823, when a young William Webb Ellis showed some moxie, picked up the ball, and ran with it. What is surprising is that thousands of rugby clubs world-wide, not to mention countless military, civic and educational institutions, seemingly without collaboration then manage to design the exact same tie. This tie will feature a solid base colour, very often blue, with diagonal stripes, red or green or white or yellow, running through it.
Back to the crawl space. Happily, my foraging has also uncovered some quite tidy neckpieces. The 1999 Tongan World Cup tie, black and silver bands with the national "Sea Eagles" crest, is a pearler. The All Blacks of the same year produce an equally good effort. And for years, at World Rugby U19 tournaments, the Team Germany tie comes up trumps – lucky am I to reclaim the 1998 Toulouse version.
Still, for every noteworthy or original design, I sift through many shockers.
Well placed on the list of shame is a mid ‘90s Rugby Canada edition. It is, of course, navy in colour. No diagonal stripes, replaced instead by diagonal lines of tiny red maple leaves. Boring perhaps, but safe enough. Alas, though much to the delight of the National Hemp Association, whose “Legalize Pot” campaign needs all the free advertising it can get, the maple leaves closely resemble marijuana plants.
Likewise, some alickadoo must have smoked too much of the evil weed when commissioning the 1998-99 RFU tie. Puce with red roses, it is truly vile. Whether more disagreeable than the royal purple national tracksuit of the same era is still open to debate, a mess from which there is no winner!
Still, the ugly tie title, by some margin, goes to the 1985 London Metropolitan Police XV. The “Met”, supposed champions of law and order, breaks every rule in the book when commissioning a beauty for its junket to British Columbia. Silk? No. Wool? No again. Instead, a sturdy blend of polyester.
And yes, in navy blue, with garish, mustardy swooshes edged in silver. An unsightly 5.5” wide. With the Police badge the coup de grace, a jumble of crowns, helmets and not so rampant looking lions, the whole sorry mess stenciled ever so slightly off center!!
Perhaps the tie does serve a purpose. When fully cinched, the enormous knot resembles a hangman’s noose, and looks more than capable of doing the job!!!
Case closed, M’lud!!