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Ugly Ties Help Us Laugh at the Past

TIMES STAFF WRITER

I have been looking all day, starting in Glendale and making my halting way east from thrift store to resale shop to thrift store, from North Hollywood to Van Nuys to Reseda.

My fingers have picked through countless lengths of wool, cotton, silk, polyester and fabrics I can’t identify, accumulating the faint and unknowable smells of strangers’ past lives.

And, finally, I have found it.

At Aaardvark’s Odd Ark, a used clothing shop on Sherman

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Way, I stand wagging my head in admiration and dyspepsia, holding the thing at arms’ length:

The ugliest necktie in the San Fernando Valley. Perhaps the entire Los Angeles Basin.

What makes this one the ugliest is not easy to explain.

Neckties can be ugly by color, design or texture. The truly ugliest are ugly by all of these, and also by the same indefinable, transcendent something that makes other things truly beautiful.

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This is a judgment call. On the $2 rack at Aaardvark’s are at least half a dozen other heart attack-serious contenders for the title.

There is, for example, the abstract floral job in hot pink, aquamarine, mint green and lilac. “It would go better with a shower curtain than a shirt,” concedes Aaardvark’s sales clerk Rodolfo Marroquin.

There is the root-beer brown number beset by orange, gray and canary yellow designs that resemble vibrating Tylenol capsules.

There is the royal-blue tie swimming with large olive-green, burgundy-flecked, curve-tailed gourds that look like microbes caught on a glass microscope slide.

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Before describing the Grail of my quest, let me digress.

For the record, I do not like neckties, and wear them as infrequently as possible, consistent with maintaining membership in American middle-class male-dom.

I’m convinced, for one thing, they restrict the flow of blood through the carotid arteries to the brain, causing men to think poorly and make mistakes. I often wonder if the Vietnam War might have been averted had our policymakers worn polo shirts. Open collars, open minds is my belief.

For another thing, neckties are really not very male. They are the only nonfunctional element of modern men’s attire. They are ornaments, pathetic appeals to be noticed, unbidden statements. The sort of thing more typically associated with that other gender.

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In a sense, this is what makes ugly neckties so interesting. How could such things of pure statement, unfettered by considerations of substance and practicality, miss the mark so widely? Why, down the years, have so many bad neckties happened to so many good men?

My earliest memory of a truly frightful necktie centers on one my late father owned when I was small.

It seemed about as wide as my face, and was the color of the inside of people’s mouths. It was decorated with large black-and-white eyeballs done in what I now think of as Art Deco style. I believe he liked to wear it with a gray sharkskin suit. This was in the early 1950s. I’ve never quite recovered.

It was that tie, as much as anything else, that launched me on my sartorial trail of tears through the Valley, a place known for its exuberant tastes, in search of the most poignant expression of all that is wrong with the necktie.

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The rack at the Disabled Veterans of America thrift store in Glendale yielded three likely candidates, including a green tie reminiscent of the effluent fromseverely inflamed mucus membranes. It was boldly criss-crossed by designs of belts, complete with buckles, in bright red and navy blue.

In North Hollywood, St. Anne’s Thrift Shop and Someone Else’s resale shop demonstrated a fairly keen editing sense when it came to weeding out truly horrific ties. Another store, Out of the Closet, also found ways to omit the truly appalling from its inventory.

The Christian Outreach Thrift Shop in Van Nuys showed through its tie collection an unsurprising commitment to wholesome values--a marked contrast to the Disciples of Christians resale shop in Reseda.

In the Reseda shop, I listened to religious soft-rock while culling from its selection some of the ungodliest neckties in Christendom. One featured diagonal stripes of white and three shades of blue, meeting at the tie’s midpoint what can be described only as dark blue nerve ganglia running up the length of the opposite edge.

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Also in Reseda, the City of Hope and Goodwill thrift stores kept terror to a minimum, but the Council Thrift Shop offered a necktie of truly surpassing horror. It was a hand-painted, pseudo-Impressionist thing of red, blue, orange, brown and white, with a row of thick, stiff-feeling circles painted down the center in what looked like liquid shoe polish.

The more ugly neckties I saw, the harder it became to recognize real distinction. More alarming, ties that initially struck me as ugly began to seem perfectly appropriate to fashionable attire I remember from the past.

I began to think that hooting over ugly ties is really a form of embarrassment over who we once were.

Most men, if they’ve lived long enough, inevitably have been guilty of bad ties. (The statute of limitations expires very quickly, thank God.)

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It follows that the highly desirable neckties of the present, all those silk jobs with small geometric designs, will one day look to us like the leavings of small, regurgitant animals.

In any case, Aaardvark’s in Canoga Park, which caters to a young partying crowd and other real-life costumers, eventually proved the Luxor of awful neckties. It had what I consider to be the absolute ugliest.

The tie is a consumptive pale pink with large, blood-red crests set in diagonal rows. The crests depict some sort of double-headed bird, and are topped by a king’s crown. They are alternately right-side-up and upside-down.

But that is not all. The rows of topsy-turvy crests are separated by diagonal black bars about a half-inch thick. These are decorated with stately filigree the color of hot dog mustard. It is understated and exquisitely toxic.

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The tie’s colors and designs are not the worst things about it, though. The worst thing is, I can picture many a perfectly reasonable chap back in the 1970s thinking it was really swell, really classy, really a best foot forward.

Not me, of course.


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