Is the necktie dead, or at least dying? The answer is yes, of course. Ties are being worn less and less in the workplace, but what’s really interesting to me is a specific change in the calculus of the male dress code. I’ll get to that in a minute, but first the numbers. Fortune’s resident careers expert, Anne Fisher, author of our Ask Annie newsletter, did some digging and found that annual tie sales in the U.S. peaked in 1995 at $1.8 billion, according to the NPD Group. By 2008 that number had tumbled to $677 million. Sales have perked back up to about $850 million a year as we’ve emerged from the Great Recession — no doubt some of that volume is from hopefuls picking up a tie at Brooks Brothers before a job interview. In any event, it’s hard to see the tie biz ever again hitting the levels of two decades ago. (It should be noted that the increasing number of women in the workplace does nothing for tie sales … Fortunately, those horrid 1980s women’s ties never caught on.)
The why of the tie decline is simple: Ties serve no function. In fact, honestly, they are worse than that: They make life more difficult. Some say ties were created centuries ago to keep one from spilling soup on one’s shirt. Today the only thing worse than spilling soup on your shirt is spilling soup on your tie. Then there’s the morning dilemma of matching a tie with a shirt and jacket. (Women reading this are rolling their eyes, knowing that men otherwise have it so easy dressing for work.) I’ve also noticed that ties like to wrap themselves around steering wheels and dip into coffee cups. Sure, wearing a tie adds flair, but all things being equal, who would choose to wear one?
It’s always been true that if you are in construction, you never wear a tie (to work), and if you argue cases before the Supreme Court, you probably will wear one for the rest of your career. But for the vast majority of us, the choice has become unclear. Geography matters. If you work in the increasingly casual confines of New York, Los Angeles, or the San Francisco Bay Area, you are probably going tieless more often. (Exhibit A: our cover subject, Ben Horowitz.)
The business you are in is even more telling. Lauren A. Rothman, who runs Styleauteur, a consulting firm based in Washington, D.C., that advises executives at Fortune 500 companies on dressing for success, and who wrote Style Bible: What to Wear to Work, explains: “In creative fields like media, advertising, or marketing, ties are dead. No one wears them except as a fashion accessory. Likewise at startups and tech companies, where you would really look overdressed — like maybe you had a job interview somewhere else — if you showed up wearing a tie.”
Spot on, Lauren. I had that very experience not long ago. I was interviewing a job candidate who came into my office with a bag in which he had a change of casual clothes he was going to slip back into afterward, so as not to tip off his current employer. Amazing.
As the numbers suggest, this trend has been going for years. Ties are apparently forbidden at Swedish retailer IKEA, while iconoclasts like Richard Branson have long eschewed them. And the trend is accelerating thanks to President Obama, who often does the same.
But to my mind we reached a tipping point recently — as I was referring to earlier. For most of my working life, the primary risk was that if you didn’t wear a tie, you might appear underdressed. In other words, you were almost always okay if you wore a tie. Now the bigger risk is that if you do wear a tie, you might appear overdressed. In other words a tie is no longer benign, it’s a negative. That is something new. And though I like to wear ties sometimes, I can live with it.
This story is from the March 17, 2014 issue of Fortune.