New York Times


At one time or another, most American males must reckon with the necktie. Some embrace it, some grudgingly acquiesce to it and plenty reject it. That the necktie seems to have no practical purpose is of course the very source of its potency. Over the past decade or two, a rising wave of tech billionaires have made even its absence a powerful signal. This is why a tie pattern that incorporates an image of the swine-flu virus is such a snug fit: while the necktie sounds like an unlikely canvas for dark humor or subversive sentiment, it is actually an ideal one.

Terminal Illness” is the name of one of the most recent designs from Bethany Shorb, a Detroit artist, and the fact that it has a title is a good indicator that it is not a traditional tie. What at first glance resembles an abstract pattern well within the vernacular of the necktie aesthetic is, rather, a repeated image of the swine-flu virus connected by shapes based on international-airport-terminal diagrams. A tie called “Snoutbreak!” features a simpler graphic that clearly suggests a pig’s nose; if you order this tie, you get a matching surgical mask free. These offerings from Shorb’s Cyberoptix Tie Lab were made available in early May, when the swine-flu freakout was at its height and the director general of the World Health Organization had recently warned that a pandemic had the potential to threaten “all of humanity.”

An appropriate topic for a design riff? “I think paranoia is really­ fascinating,” Shorb says, noting that she was struck by the intense disease-related warning graphics while going through customs on a trip home from Italy. She had already been thinking about making a design involving airport-terminal diagrams — “They’re really beautiful” — before the swine-flu scare gave her an epiphany: “What if I put a disease in there!” Soon she had uploaded the design to her Flickr account, where, she says, it was almost immediately linked in a Twitter comment (“O.K., now that’s a contemporary tie”), by Bruce Sterling, the science-fiction novelist, leading to a first wave of orders.

The truth is that Shorb is hardly the only person to find creative inspiration in the virus. Search make-your-own products sites like CafePress and, and you’ll find scores, if not hundreds, of jokey commodity responses to the spread of this strain of influenza, technically called A(H1N1). Most are forgettable or worse, but still. More impressive are the images collected of Mexicans wearing decorated masks, to guard against the virus “with style.” The point is that both sets of examples probably have something in common with Shorb’s creations. “The best way to take ownership of something scary is to kind of subvert it,” she says.

This is not far from the general mission of her Cyberoptix tie line. After finishing her M.F.A. at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in 2001, Shorb moved to nearby Detroit and balanced a part-time job against design work, art projects and music-making. She started silkscreening on neckties in 2006, releasing new designs whenever she had a new idea. The 60 or 70 she has come up with have included “Plaid Habit,” an intricate crisscross pattern that turns out to be made up of syringes, and “Fried Brains,” which arranges overstimulated axons and dendrites into a pleasing abstraction. These sell for $30 to $40 online and through some galleries and museum shops; she quit the part-time job in 2007.

According to Anne Hollander’s insightful book “Sex and Suits,” ties were firmly established as an element of the “modern masculine image” we know today by the early 19th century: along with coats and trousers, “the brilliantly colored necktie asserted itself, to add a needed phallic note to the basic ensemble.” Shorb is of course catering to forms of tie resentment — boredom with traditional patterns, the appeal of disturbing imagery disguised in a workplace-ready design, distaste for sartorial uniformity. But, as Hollander pointed out, subverting fashion often requires deeper participation than merely conforming would. Shorb’s customers tend to be artists, designers, creative professionals and others who are tuned in to the expressive possibilities of even the most conformist of garments. A design inspired by pandemic paranoia is one way for style rebels to reject the traditional necktie, with panache.


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