Boys hate to put them on. Men love to unknot them after a day of wear. Postal workers, firefighters, police and those in many other uniformed occupations don't wear them anymore. But women still insist on buying them for men, especially at this time of year.

Neckties: textured, solid, striped, botanical, jacquard, geometric, 52 to 58 inches long, alternately withering or widening from 3112 to 5 inches, costing anywhere from three for $10 to $100 or more.

Why has this apparently useless piece of silk, or wool, or rayon, or polyester or even rubber (yes, there are Rubber-Necker Ties, "a recycled fashion statement for the eco-executive") survived the swings of fashion for more than three centuries? Why is it still fit to be tied?

Fashion observers say the necktie survives because it is the one formal accessory in the male wardrobe that expresses personality, mood or inner character. The tie is that splash of color, that distinctive pattern, that statement of individuality that a man can make in the world of uniform pinstripes and plaids.

On another level, the necktie can be seen as message-driven. "It's specific to the time, place and person," says Claudia Kidwell, curator of the Smithsonian Institution's costume division. For example, there's the proverbial power tie -- bold pinstripe, old school tie, club tie -- that shows a man's presumed position in society.

"Show me a man's ties, and I'll tell you who he is or who he is trying to be," writes John T. Molloy in his book Dress for Success. Molloy conducted experiments showing that men wearing expensive ties make stronger impressions in job interviews, are given better tables at restaurants and even make more money panhandling.

SILK AND SYMBOLISM

The tie has been seen as a form of male chest display, recalling the chest-pounding and puffing of our prehistoric ancestors. Or it can be viewed as the noose around the neck of the conformist white-collar worker, or the symbolic leash held by women who purchased more than 50 percent of the 105 million ties sold in the United States last year. Although most American men do not wear ties daily, U.S. neckware sales totaled $1.6 billion last year, with 70 percent made by American companies.

For 20 years, dressy turtleneck sweaters and buttoned shirts without collars have presented a continuing threat to neckwear. Nonetheless, in most of the developed world, neckties remain the necessary attribute of the white-collar occupations of business and commerce and the requirement for occasions of formality -- their principal function for more than three centuries.

From their origins in the mid-17th century, the strips of cloth that became known as cravats have multiplied in amazing variety. To modern eyes, the early ties look like bibs or scarves, strings or bows.

But beginning in the 1870s, the modern "four-in-hand" emerged, and it still dominates more than a century later. The modern variant of the bow tie accounts for less than 5 percent of sales.

"Ties are very related to their times, reflective of trends in society," says Mark-Evan Blackman, chairman of the menswear department at New York's Fashion Institute of Technology.

In the 2nd century A.D., Roman legionnaires probably didn't think of themselves as reflecting a trend when they tied bands of cloth around their necks. Most likely, they were just looking for protection from the weather.

Some historians have called the legionnaires' adornments the first neckwear. But others cite the excavation near the Chinese city of Xi'an of 3rd century B.C. terra-cotta statues of warriors who wore neck scarves in the belief that they were protecting the source of their strength, their Adam's apples.

Most experts, however, date the initial appearance of the modern precursor of the tie to 1636. Croatian mercenaries, hired in Paris by King Louis XIV, wore cloth bands around their necks to ward off natural elements, which in their line of work included sword slashes.

CRAVATES GALORE

Parisians quickly translated the Croats' scarf into a new clothing accessory, and, voila!, the cravate was born. The French term cravate is derived from Croates, French for Croatian. Not to be outdone, the English adapted the cravat, dropping the final "e", and the American colonies soon stepped in line.

Once launched, the cravat and its styles and knots proliferated. Early cravats looked like lace bibs with bows backing them up, some reaching two yards in length.

Among emerging varieties in the late 17th century was the Steinkirk, a corkscrew-like wrap, originating from the Battle of Steinkirk where startled French officers hastily twisted their ties as they fled their tents to turn back the British onslaught.

During the early 18th century and into the 19th century, cravats had major competition: the stock. While a cravat generally was a long piece of cloth that wound around the neck and tied in front, the stock resembled collars worn today for whiplash or other neck injuries.

Made of muslin, sometimes with cardboard stiffeners inside, stocks were fastened in back by a hook or knot. In front, they had what looked like a pretied bowtie or sometimes a wide cravat covering the stock and swathing the neck like a poultice. Stocks forced men to stand upright in a stiff posture.

American revolutionaries George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and the Adamses (John and John Quincy) can be seen in contemporary portraits by Gilbert Stuart and Charles Willson Peale, wearing swath-like cravats, although the American versions were less radical than those of their counterparts in France.

In the mid-1800s, the "solitaire" appeared -- attached to the wig in the back, wrapped around the neck and brought to a bow in the front over a cravat.

Some other bizarre dress and tie styles emerged in the mid-18th century. In England, the so-called "Macaronis" were dandies affecting an Italian style, coloring their cheeks with rouge and wearing diamond-studded pumps and cravats with huge bows. The fashion may be alluded to in the lyrics to "Yankee Doodle Dandy."

Over in France, the incroyables -- literally, "incredibles" -- wore such large cravats that their chins were hidden.

At the turn of the 19th century, collars were heightened with pointed edges around the chin and cheeks, while cravats wrapped tightly around the neck ended in bows of varying lengths. English novelist Charles Dickens described one of his characters, Mr. Dombey, as "slightly turning his head in his cravat as if it were a socket."

George "Beau" Brummel, British fashion guru of the early 1800s, was a cravat innovator who starched his neckwear, developed intricate, innovative knots and could take as long as an hour to tie a proper knot. You had to get the knot right the first time or the starched tie would have to be discarded. Beau Brummel was said to pile the floor with ties not perfectly knotted.

Neckwear took on an inflated importance, as even novelist Honore de Balzac wrote in 1818 that a cravat was protection against "colds, stiff necks, inflammations, toothache," which also "enables us to know more about the person who is wearing it."

By contrast, poet Lord Byron, who usually didn't wear cravats, inadvertently inspired a less formal, disdainful style -- a loose knot four inches wide starting at the neck and ending in two long points.

To one German fashion observer, this casual style, which became known as "Cravate a la Byron," demonstrated the poet's genius for freeing his imagination and his blood vessels at the same time: "Who can say to what degree a more or less stiffly starched and tightly bound neckcloth can restrain the springs of fantasy or throttle thought?"

During the 17th and 18th centuries, neckwear usually was black for daytime wear and white for formal occasions. By the mid-19th century, white was considered traditional and black revolutionary. Then black won out again until the end of the century when colors began to proliferate.

Pale blues, lavenders and grays came into use as did varieties of fabrics: silks, satins and other textures.

Specialty cravats abounded in the mid-19th century, including the "Cravate a l'Americaine," which used a whalebone to give it a stiffened look, and the "Cravate a la Gastronome," which could be loosened in case of indigestion, apoplexy or fainting.

BOW TO FASHION

As the century progressed, cravats shrank into smaller bows. Worn initially with upturned collars and then with turned-down styles, they are familiar in portraits of President Abraham Lincoln and other Civil War figures.

When Dickens toured the United States in 1867, he created a fashion sensation at his lectures when he wore a turned-down collar with a loose, unknotted cravat held by a seal ring. Dickens' style was an ancestor of the "four-in-hand," progenitor of the modern tie.

Appearing in the 1860s, the four-in-hand was named after coachmen who singlehandedly drove teams of four horses and slip-knotted their cravats to prevent them from blowing in the wind. Ready-made cravats and hooked-on bow ties, with varied fabrics and patterns, were popular for a time. But eventually, all gave way to the four-in-hand.

The growth of a large clerical work force toward the end of the century played a decisive part in dominance of the four-in-hand. Those counterparts of today's office workers needed a tie simple to knot, comfortable and long-lasting.

With the coming of the new business office culture, women, too, began wearing ties, as often depicted in the "Gibson Girl" look made hugely popular by artist Charles Dana Gibson in the early 1900s. In fact, women who did not want to be tied down by traditional views of femininity, had worn ties and even men's clothing for years.

Perhaps the most notorious was Amandine Dupin, the 19th-century French novelist who took the pen name George Sand. In the early 20th century, feminists, suffragettes and other "liberated" women wore ties, a fashion that has reappeared sporadically since.

By mid-century, America was setting international neckwear fashion, which has varied drastically over the last 50 years [see box].

After a run of more than three centuries, will neckties as we know them last through the 21st century? Some fashion experts have doubts.

Blackman of the Fashion Institute sees the broad range of acceptable tie styles today as characteristic of an age in which dress codes no longer are clearly defined. In the past, ties were virtually the only accessory available for men to make a personal statement in their appearance.

Today, young men have countless outlets for individual expression -- varieties of haircuts, different facial hairstyles, earrings, tattoos and dress, ranging from three-button suits in traditional businesses to jeans and T-shirts in the high-tech world. So ties are less necessary for a male to assert himself.

Although ties may not survive the new century, they may have "an incarnation into something else," Blackman says.

Meanwhile, whether males like it or not, a tie is still likely to be under the tree for the last Christmas of the 1900s.

TIES TO AND FRO

After World War II, the olive drab of the military years gave way in the late 1940s and 1950s to the euphoria of peacetime prosperity reflected in an explosion of tie colors, ranging from Hawaiian prints to garish hand-painted scenes of bathing beauties on desert islands.

By the late 1950s and early 1960s, however, mainstream culture favored quiet conformity. The conservative gray flannel suit predominated, with its narrow shoulders, thin lapel and skinny dark ties like those worn by President John F. Kennedy. Or by the Beatles when they first came to the United States just 10 weeks after Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963.

In the late 1960s, again reflecting a cultural shift, ties widened and brightened into flower patterns, exotic motifs, peace symbols and messages of love -- the commercialization of the youth culture. Many men in that turbulent time of student protests and urban riots permanently discarded ties, rejecting them as symbols of uptightness and conformity.

Sales slumped for a time in the 1970s with the advent of more casual dress styles, notably including the "leisure suit," a snug-fitting jacket and pants combination worn with an open-neck shirt.

Narrower neckties made a comeback in the 1980s with traditional patterns and Windsor knots, inspired in part by the conservative political era and style of President Ronald Reagan. The 1990s saw a widening resurgence to 4.5 inches with new variations -- cartoon ties, ties with advertising, ties with messages, ties with complicated computer-age designs.

As the century creeps to a close, store counters are stocked with a mix of styles for Christmas buying, which accounts for 20 percent of annual tie sales. This year, darker, deeper colors predominate, and solid-color ties and subdued patterns to match and blend with dark shirts are designed to produce the "minimalist" look.

The current trend toward somber colors represents to Gerald Andersen, executive director of the Neckwear Association of America, the industry trade group, "a reaction to the exuberance of the Nineties and the search for a different look."

John Mathews, a former NBC News producer and editor/reporter for the Washington Star newspaper, lives in Cabin John.

CAPTION: Evolving Tie Styles

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CAPTION: Ties through the ages, from far left: Marquis de la Tour (c. 1750), George Washington (1795), King Edward VII of England (in 1876 while Prince of Wales), Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde (1891), the Beatles (c. 1960s).

CAPTION: Ties from the turn of the century to present day, at the Smithsonian's collection.