Knotty issues

A man's choice of tie reveals how he wants you to see him.

It's a shame that ties aren't worn as often as they once were, because they give us enormous amounts of information about the wearer. The 20th-century psychologist J C Flügel thought ties were phallic. I think they are actually more important than that - they show a man's backbone. Everyone thinks you can tell a man by his shoes, but this is nonsense. You can tell a lot by a man's shoes, but nothing gives him away more readily than his tie. A man's shoes will tell you what he thinks of himself - we all, men and women alike, wear the sort of shoes we think we deserve, that tap into some part of our personality. Shoes are for us. But the tie shows us the image a man wants to portray to the world; it is for them, which is why it's rather more revealing.

The reason the tie is so powerful is that a lot of this is done unconsciously. Political leaders very often give themselves away with their tie. It is commonplace for them to wear a tie that's in the same colour as the party they belong to, but they are not averse to swapping colours if addressing a more hostile audience. Thus, Tony Blair will wear a red tie to address an audience sympathetic to Labour, but when he has to talk to an audience made up largely of corporate directors he wears a blue tie. It's a very subtle signal that he understands their Conservative need to get ahead.

As we prepared to go to war with Iraq, Blair started wearing purple ties with alar ming regularity, purple being a fusion of blue and red. Con scious ly or not, Blair was telling us that he was leading a country - not a party, but all of us - into war. Interestingly, Gordon Brown's ties got redder and redder the more tensions between him and Blair rose, but now that he's confirmed as our next prime minister, his ties are regularly royal or silver blue (aside from political meanings, blue is the colour of intellect, red of masculinity). Purple is a terribly arrogant colour. Historically, it was reserved for royalty or noblemen: you could be done for treason for wearing it. A purple tie hints at megalomania. George Bush wears purple ties a lot.

Almost all ties are tied using the four-in-hand knot, which is the most popular knot in the world, and also the most stylish. What's becoming more popular is the Windsor knot, which allows for a thicker knot, as it has an extra turn. It is wrongly credited to the Duke of Windsor, when in fact he used the four-in-hand. His ties were custom-made of thick fabric, so the knot looked bigger. The Windsor is very popular with men in the City who have never understood that less is more. And as for a man who never wears a tie? Passive-aggressive: a man who thinks he is above everyone else and will never commit to anyone, as he is already quite committed to himself.

Annalisa Barbieri was in fashion PR for five years before going to the Observer to be fashion assistant. She has worked for the Evening Standard and the Times and was one of the fashion editors on the Independent on Sunday for five years, where she wrote the Dear Annie column. She was fishing correspondent of the Independent from 1997-2004.