Status Symbols and the Tie

When I was younger, I never thought I would be a tie person. I was not particularly fond of fashion, did not understand the appeal of brands, and was torn about the tuxedo I had to wear when on the MDAC telethons. Even if it made me look a bit like James Bond, the tuxedo wasn’t particularly comfortable. But now that I’ve gotten wiser older, I have started to embrace the tie. I like the way they look and find the process of tying them soothing and mindful. Mostly, though, I wear ties now because of what they symbolize.

The tie, and various other neck accoutrements, have long been deployed to symbolize who a person is or what they’re about. Regardless of intention, the tie has always demanded a subtle respect because it refers to an overt or covert power. For some, the tie is symbolic of their station in society–they have an important job which requires them to look ‘professional’ and apparently a strip of material tied around the neck does just that. For others, the tie is an opportunity for resistance, with silly, goofy or ugly ties used to subvert the imagined seriousness of corporate culture.

Honestly, though, I don’t wear a tie for any of those reasons.

Elaborate tie rack in closet with colourful silk ties
Closet goals

I now wear ties because people treat me differently when I wear one. Shortly before finishing my PhD, I discovered the wondrous power of the tie. I started wearing them when I was teaching as a way of distinguishing myself from my students. My boyish good looks often cause people to assume I’m about a decade younger than I actually am and I needed to find some way to not look like a man child attempting to lead a classroom. Because of everything the tie symbolizes, namely power and respect, I predicted it was the easiest way to separate myself from my students as I was certain to be the only one in the classroom wearing a tie. Say what you will about the fashion choices of Western students, but you will likely never find a FIMS student wearing a tie to class. That’s really more of an Ivey thing and FIMS students will generally go to spectacular lengths to prove they’re anything but an Ivey student.

While the tie had little impact inside the classroom, outside I began to discover its true power.

I first noticed the power of the tie when making an order at Starbucks with a friend before class. When I got to the front of the line I was dreading the inevitable awkward situation in which the barista would ask my friend what I want, as service industry workers seem to often assume I’m a simpleton who could not possibly form an opinion and require the assistance of my wrangler to help navigate economic interactions. But that didn’t happen. The barista asked me what I wanted and took my order. Me. Not my friend. And it did not stop there. In the elevator, people would talk to me. At shops, I would be asked if there was anything specific I was looking to buy. At restaurants, the bill was brought to me and not whoever I was with. While this may not sound like a good thing, because my disabled card free ride was over, it’s nice to be considered capable of providing for oneself. Until this point, many of my social and service interactions with strangers had been wrapped up in an awkward dance of assumptions and corrections about who I was–specifically that despite using a wheelchair I still had cognitive function. People just assumed that because I was in a wheelchair I had a intellectual or communication impairment and was essentially incapable of everything. But the tie somehow seems to neutralize this assumption. Suddenly, I was an individual in the world with wants and needs and not merely an ancillary character in someone else’s narrative. When wearing a tie, I had the power to make strangers treat me like a regular person.

While the tie has worked to personify me, is it really a sustainable solution?

Should we just start making all disabled people wear ties? Are ties the key to freeing us from our attitudinal bondage? Do I have to use rhetorical questions in every article I write? The answer to all of these questions (except maybe the last one…) is, of course, “no.” Ultimately, the tie for me is a beginning point for discussion and not the epilogue. We need to consider how bizarre it is that we live in a social environment in which a knotted piece of material can be the difference between “person” and “invalid.” Rather than relying on symbols like ties, let’s reimagine the symbols of disability themselves. We must shift from seeing canes, walkers, and wheelchairs as proof of what the disabled “cannot” (speak for themselves, be social, lead a classroom) and form interactions with the individual themselves and the ways in which they fill up this world.

We must see people beyond just the tie around their neck.

By Jeffrey Preston

Born with a rare neuromuscular myopathy, Jeff has spent his life dedicated to advocating for himself and others with disabilities. With a PhD in Media Studies from Western University, Jeff's research focuses on the representation of disability in popular and digital culture. Jeff is currently an Assistant Professor of Disability Studies at King's University College @ Western University in London, ON.