Novelty ties have had their day. Is this a chance for men to wrest control of their neckwear from the women in their lives? asks James Sherwood
With A devastating blow to travelling salesmen everywhere, Suzy Menkes, fashion editor of the International Herald Tribune, tolled the death knell for the novelty tie. Like a latter-day Madame Defarges at the foot of the guillotine, Menkes shrieks for the great British male to axe the florals, cull the Dalmatian puppies and banish his favourite Wallace & Gromit Christmas comedy tie.

"The problem," says Anthony Edwards of the Guild of British Tie Makers, "is that 80 per cent of ties are bought by women. A tie is such a personal statement and most men are not projecting their taste." We can attribute the popularity of the floral tie to canny manufacturers attracting feminine taste. Or could it be a wife's revenge, imagining her husband in a meeting wearing a Pinky and Perky tie?

Few men wear ties outside work. For a politician, choice of tie is crucial. The Guild reports that Michael Portillo was the Commons' top tie wearer last year, with his choice of British-manufactured, conservative ties. "Tony Blair is wearing the typical Tory tie these days," says Edwards. His choice of white polka dot on navy for the State Opening of Parliament was, allegedly, a favourite of John Major. "Whenever Major had a crisis, he wore the polka-dot tie," Edwards claims.

With an estimated 170 million sold each year, worth pounds 23 million, ties are big business for the British fashion industry. It is astounding that out of those 170 million, about ten have a modicum of taste.

The Mecca for tie fetishists in London is Liberty. You may think their peacock prints or swirling Art Nouveau patterns would be bestsellers. Not so. The Fornasetti tie - graphic, black and white, vaguely surreal designs - practically walks out of the store on delivery. And the buyers are all men. A Liberty spokeswoman explains: "The pedestrian, or should I say traditional, tie buyers will only buy four a year, tops. Fornasetti has a cult following and the Soho media boys buy them as collector's items." Hermes, another target of Menkes' bile, are dismissive of fashion dictats. "The city traders hold competitions as to who can buy the latest print and wear it on the Trading Floor first," says a spokesperson. "We have an established cult following with regular, even compulsive, buyers."

So, where does Menkes draw the line in her quest to make-over this 111- year-old accessory? Savile Row's self-styled bespoke couturier, Ozwald Boateng, is the king of colour. You could spot one of his ties at 500 paces. But now, even Tie Rack are copying the not-so-new brights and the travelling salesman has learned how to clash the shirt and tie. Boateng hit back with a "Washed Down" collection, pulling the tone of the tie from dark to bright.

Extreme pattern and colour may have had their day, but that doesn't mean we all have to buy polka dots on navy. Gucci and Prada are peddling the matching tie and shirt, where the tie is almost invisible to the eye. You may think there is little point in spending pounds 60 on Prada when no one can see it. Do the words "Emperor", "New" and "Clothes" mean anything to you?