When I was a young man and a regular churchgoer I used to have doubts and conflicts about wearing a tie around my neck when I attended any church function including a church party.
The leaders of the Church were two ladies who had inherited the Church from their father, the Reverend Hogan. Mr. Hogan was black and proud and he cultivated both these attributes by adhering to British conservative values and raising his children accordingly.
In respect for his memory, they dressed in the then conventional style and insisted that the younger people who came to their church did the same.
When it came to wearing the tie I was a rebel. I could never understand the reason why men in this climate would walk around in the hot sun with a broad string tied around their neck in jackets, made from some thick fabric with sleeves reaching their fingers; I just could not understand it.
I always remember when I wore my first neck tie. My mother had made me a suit in which to recite a poem at the Christmas program at the Pilgrim Holiness Church. It was a brown Jacket and brown short pants. I had long brown stockings to go with it and tie to wear around my shirt collar.
My mother could not tie the knot so one the neighbours offered to assist. With much flourish, he went through the motions, demonstrating to his lookers-on the steps required to knot a neck tie.
Even then, I wondered what the tie was for. It choked me and hung down my shirt like a dangle. My male teachers at the Boys’ School wore ties every day. As I recall they used to wear the same suit every day and sometimes the boys whispered among themselves that some of their shirts had no backs why they wore the jackets. Nobody tried to explain why they wore the ties.
They wore their ties all day in front of the class teaching, out in the schoolyard playing, on the road home from work.
Frankly I sometimes used to like to see the ties dangling from their necks. I especially admired the tie when the wind blew it over the shoulder of the wearer. I liked to see the tie flying in the wind and when I had to wear my tie to Sunday School and Church I used to throw it over my shoulder to preempt the wind.
Otherwise I hated the tie. When I became a teacher my biggest problem was the tie. I did not like the tie choking me and then, I realized that a tie did not fit well on my short thick neck.
When I taught at the St. Peters’ School, Edric Liburd our headmaster, wore the jacket and tie but he gave us the impression that he did not really enjoy doing so. He had a habit of taking off his jacket as soon as he arrived at school and loosening the knot of his tie so that he never looked choked.
We tried to follow Mr. Liburd’s example and hid our jackets behind the presses but he discouraged us by saying that he could only take responsibility for himself, if anyone higher up questioned this practice.
Liburd’s attempt to discard his jacket was the result of the Hammond Report. S.A. Hammond, Englishman, had visited the islands at the behest of the British Government, to make recommendations on the structure of and size of Civil Servants’ salaries.
To convince Mr. Hammond that the cost of living was high the Civil Servants argued that it was expensive to wear Jackets and ties.
Mr. Hammond criticized this expensive and irrelevant dress code and observed that Civil Servants did not really need to wear heavy suits to work in the hot climate of St. Kitts-Nevis and Anguilla.
From what I heard about Mr. Hammond, he was a very practical man and his apparent message to the Civil Servants was that getting a raise of pay to support an unnecessarily ostentatious life-style made no sense and, though he did not tell them how stupid it was for them to be tying up themselves in the blazing sun, he must have expected them to get the message.
A few like my headmaster Liburd were quick to grasp the message. The majority, like those in the offices above him, thought that Englishman Hammond was dam forward to suggest that Black Middle Class people should dress less glamorously than their white counterparts.
So the jacket and tie prevailed for a while longer and the tie outlived the jacket. Both the older and younger generations of men with office jobs clung to the tie around their necks as if it was their link to respectability. When they walked it flew over their shoulders, when they stood, this pretty piece of fabric dangled from the necks. When they sat, it dropped between their legs. I can never figure out how these men could be comfortable with a tie around their necks.
Some years ago, Forbes Burnham and the Guyanese confronted the European tradition of the Jacket and tie and came to the conclusion that it did not suit the Caribbean climate. They designed the shirt-jack which I think some people called the bush-jacket. Some people adopted it but in St. Kitts but there was resistance from the top.
One topmost personality outright rejected it, arguing that to discard the European coat and tie was to go naked (like a savage).
It would appear that the reluctance to part with the neck tie is supported by those men of genteel occupation. The bankers wear their ties, the politicians wear their ties Civil servants dangle this neck piece, policeman and soldiers of the top echelon wear it to distinguish themselves from the lower ranks. The neck tie has become in our society, the symbol of respectability. What is more it very quietly asserts itself as the emblem of aristocracy.
The neck tie is, if you ask me, something more important than the choice to choke in hot weather. It also reflects the choice between the way our masters used to dress and the more relevant modes of dress which are available to men in the tropics. The tie is an expression of how we feel about ourselves.
It reflects our sense of inferiority when we wear garments that are different from the white people who live in colder countries. It makes us feel comfortable and acceptable when we dress up ourselves for the approval of our visitors who would give whatever it takes to work in our temperatures with their necks open to the fresh air.
Above all the simple neck tie speaks volumes about how badly, in spite of all of our well documented achievements, we have failed to emancipate ourselves from mental slavery.
Although we seem to have made progress in some of the vital areas of our existence as a people, we are not really enjoying the full taste of that progress. We are tied down to our masters’ past. We still live with our masters’ nostalgia for the past and like mindless servants, we wait patiently for the master to return to his ascendant position of authority at the head table. In the meantime we dress like the brides adorned for the wedding.