A male journalist of a popular British newspaper recently took the opportunity of venting his discontent about the dress code of his workplace to a broadsheet fashion advice column: 'There is a policy in my workplace that I feel is reverse discrimination. Although all staff are asked to dress smartly, only men are asked to wear a collar.'
With the demise of the tie in men’s formal dress and its gradual erosion in business dress, it is left to the collar - usually with the top button undone - to stand in for sartorial propriety. Examining the precise quality of the modern collar reveals a soft construction without stays and a lack of interfacing. If rigidity is no longer a necessary indicator of formality, then it is arguable that the insistence on a collar is actually to refrain from exposing the male neck.
The history of a material covering for the neck is formed from the need to protect the throat from cold, but it evolved into dressing the neck as a pedestal for the head and a frame for the face. The first conscious men’s fashion against this, the Cravate a la Byron, was instigated by the Romantic poet in the early nineteenth century who believed constriction at the neck impoverished the imagination. To socialist dress reformers, the stiff collar deprived the neck of air and light and inhibited the thyroid gland, so an open neck collar -when not worn on holiday- became as much a symbol of ‘crank’ nonconformity as open-toed sandals with socks. The Men’s Dress Reform Party campaigned in the 1930s for a less restrictive garment, advocating the male adoption of a blouse rather than a shirt which led to calls of effeminacy. In turn, the open neck shirt worn with a kerchief became a gay signifier.
The insistence of the collar in men’s business dress has therefore less to do with its conveyance of acumen or modesty, and more to do with it fashioning a persistent and consistent form of masculinity. The modern collar may be loose and the neck free, but their sartorial meaning remains tightly fastened.