THE school I went to rejoiced in the grand name “The Royal Belfast Academical Institution”, but needless to say nobody ever called it that.

It was universally known as “Inst”, short for institution. I spent seven years in an institution.

It wasn’t a boarding school. We were all out-patients. And it wasn’t nearly as grand or posh as it sounded. In fact it was quite the opposite.

It had been founded in 1810 by one William Drennan, the man who coincidentally coined the term “the Emerald Isle” to describe Ireland. His aim was to offer a good, affordable education to boys of above-average intelligence regardless of their social class or religion. The doors were open to Catholic and Protestant, rich and poor. In that sense it was ahead of its time.

Yet in many ways it seemed to us very old-fashioned, very set in its ways. So we were all quite surprised by a letter we each received one day in June.

It announced that during the rest of term ties didn’t need to be worn. Blazers should remain but could be carried, and taken off in class. And black leather shoes were no longer compulsory. If you wanted you could switch to sandals.

It was the option on ties that we found most surprising. The stricter teachers were forever telling pupils who had loosened theirs to “do your tie up”, but now the authorities said we could take them off if we wanted to.

All this entered my mind not just because it’s June again, but because ties are being abandoned everywhere. Perhaps that’s another way in which Inst was ahead of its time.

Primary school uniforms rarely require them. Sweatshirts and polo shirts seem to have taken over. I must have learnt to tie a tie around the same time I learnt to tie my shoelaces, but it no longer seems part of primary education.

What surprised me more was when a young friend in his mid-20s said he didn’t know how to tie one either. I don’t know whether he went without one at job interviews or weddings or funerals, or whether he wore a clip-on tie, or whether his mother tied it for him.

Yet we’ll regularly see TV interviewers and interviewees – even male politicians – without a tie. It would have been unthinkable a few years ago.

I’ve never minded wearing one. They’re slightly warmer in winter. Not only do they immediately transform “smart casual” to “smart”, but they can add a dash of colour to male formal attire – which is so often a boring black, navy blue or grey suit.

And there’s an art to choosing them. Whether I put on a white, blue, burgundy or yellow shirt on a weekday morning is often determined not just by which ones are washed and ironed, but by the tie I want to wear.

Ties are rarely problematic – as long as you’ve learnt how to tie one – though perhaps in the days of manual typewriters there was a danger they could get caught in one. Or the tip could be hanging in your bowl of soup without your noticing. Is that why dinner jackets always go with a bow tie?

If ties are on the way out I’ll miss them but I shouldn’t be surprised. Dress conventions, like all forms of fashion, from haircuts to facial hair, have always changed and always will.

The drift is towards less formal attire. They used to say: “If you want get ahead, get a hat.” Yet hats have pretty much vanished except in the extremes of summer and winter.

Bowler hats are no longer obligatory for bankers, stockbrokers, civil servants or Orangemen.

U2’s guitarist “The Edge” tends to wear a hat, to disguise the fact that he’s bald. Most Country and Western singers seem to. So does the Man from Del Monte from the TV ads – who I suppose is another kind of orange man.

But can this trend towards informality continue forever? We were allowed to dispense with our school ties in June but we still wore a shirt with a collar. The alternative to black leather shoes was leather sandals.

Will we reach a stage where T-shirts and flip-flops are acceptable? Then maybe we’ll have a generation who don’t know how to tie shoelaces either.

I can’t see our school going that far. Then again, we never expected them to make ties optional in summer. And once upon a time the Inst cap must have looked like it was there to stay.