The History and Evolution of Men’s Ties


History and Evolution

Of all the articles in the Western man’s wardrobe, two are most capable of conferring immediate “status”: the jacket and the tie. But even more so than a jacket, which may also serve the practical purpose of providing warmth, a tie is for the most part a purely decorative, superfluous item, its primary present-day purpose being to distinguish the gentleman from the man, the executive from the laborer, the powerful from the vulnerable. (Yes, a boy scout or military man who wears a neckerchief or bandana is taught to use his tie as a first-aid implement, but such practical uses of the tie are much more the exception than the rule). If today’s suit is the equivalent of the medieval armor, then the tie is the counterpart to the sword. And when society wants to go about the business of cultivating modern-day knights, one of its first acts is to require the wearing of ties. Even little boys in the primary grades all over the world don ties. The tie puts everyone on notice that a man to be reckoned with is in the midst.

But whether bow or bolo, cravat or ascot, most men wear ties without giving much thought to the accessory’s long and storied history. The pictorial record indicates that the ancient Egyptians did not wear ties. But the ancient Chinese, some three thousand years later, apparently did—as evidenced by the life-sized terracotta soldiers unearthed in the 3rd century B.C.E. mausoleum of China’s first emperor, Ch’in Shih Huang. Remarkably, each of the almost eight thousand soldiers—no two alike—is depicted wearing a scarf-like necktie neatly tucked into his armor. It is also said that Roman orators of the 2nd century C.E. would wear neckerchiefs to keep their vocal cords warm. But the widespread use of ties in the Western World occurs in 1660 when uniformed Croatian soldiers visited Paris, France in celebration of their victory over the Ottoman Empire. Each Croat soldier wore a brightly colored scarf of silk as part of his uniform, the accessory not going unnoticed by the French king Louis XIV, who had a penchant for personal adornment. Shortly thereafter, the king established a regiment of Royal Cravattes and made cravats an insignia of royalty. So fashionable Frenchmen began wearing neck-cloths—so much so that the French word for tie, “cravate,” is believed to derive from “Croat,” the tie-wearing culture that introduced the accessory to the French.

By 1692, the “steinkirke,” a neck-cloth with long, lace ends, which is worn in a nonchalant, disheveled manner, had risen to prominence. (It is said that the imprecise manner of tying and wearing the accessory originated from the Battle of Steinkirke, where French soldiers were caught by surprise and, in their attempt to hastily dress, wound their cravats around their necks then tucked the ends into the buttonholes of their uniform jackets). By 1784, the neck-cloth had transcended the military uniform and had become a means of individual expression in civilian dress. And it is that advancement, attributed to the very fashionable Beau Brummel, that would set the stage for use of the modern tie as a means of declaring and defining personal taste.

In 1818, Neckclothitania , an illustration depicting 14 popular styles of tying a neck-cloth, was published, partly as a satirical document. It is in this published illustration that the neck-cloth or cravat is first described as a “tie”; and by 1840, the word “tie” had surpassed “cravat” in the lexicon. It was also in the first half of the 1800s that menswear saw the rising popularity of scarves, bandanas, and neckerchiefs, the ends of which, rather than being tied into a knot, were passed through a finger-ring or scarf-ring at the neck.

The faster pace of life ushered in by the Industrial Revolution (1760-1840) demanded that men devise simpler, more practical ways of tying ties. In response, by the end of the Revolution, ties were being designed longer and thinner; they were comfortable and practical in the workplace; and they were easier to knot and did not become undone during the course of the day. The year 1864 marks the beginning of the mass-produced, ready-made tie, which became especially popular in Germany and the United States. And it is the ties designed between the 1860s and 1920s—the bowtie, the ascot, the cravat, and the long-tie—that remain popular and are worn by millions of men in much of the Western and Western-influenced world.

One of the most significant advances for the popular long-tie occurred in 1926 when New York tie-maker Jesse Langsdorf came up with an ingenious idea for enhancing the long-tie’s ability to knot luxuriously and retain its form—rather than eventually stretching out of shape as a result of frequent tying and untying. Probably inspired by French fashion designer Madeleine Vionnet, who in the 1920s caused a sartorial sensation with her fluid, liquid-like, bias-cut dresses, Langsdorf decided to cut the fabric for his ties on the bias (diagonally across the grain) and to make the ties in three parts. Cutting a woven fabric on the bias capitalizes upon the natural elasticity in the fabric, thereby allowing ties cut accordingly to knot with more suppleness then return to their original shape after being untied.

The end result of cutting long-ties on the 45-degree bias is perhaps most evident in striped ties, the stripes slanting rather than running horizontally or vertically. Traditionally, ties with stripes slanting downward from left to right are European-made; and ties with stripes slanting downward from right to left are American-made. Striped ties, today one of the most popular patterns of men’s ties, date back to the 1880s when the British military decided to abandon brightly colored uniforms (such as “red coats”) in favor of khaki and olive-drab uniforms in order to camouflage. The earlier, bright uniform colors were maintained, however, in the striped ties worn with the neutral-colored uniforms. Eventually, because of their military origins, the striped pattern in ties came to be called “regimental stripes.” The tradition of the club tie (as well as university ties) is also believed to date from the 1880s when it is said that the young men of the rowing team of Exeter College removed the striped bands from their hats and tied the bands around their necks.

Another tie-advancement during the late 1920s is credited to Richard Atkinson & Company of Belfast, Northern Ireland: The technique of using a slip stitch (an “invisible” stitch made by hand) to connect the tie’s lining and interlining once the tie has been folded into shape.

Perhaps there is some truth to the notion of men associating—subliminally or otherwise—the long-tie to swords or other weapons, for after World Wars I and II, ties took on a decidedly colorful look as if in deliberate contrast to military uniformity. Post-World War I ties, for example, were often hand-painted. And in the 1940s, after World War II, ties were so flamboyantly patterned that the look would come to be called the “Bold Look.”

Ties have also long been associated with the phallus. And when it comes to ties, size does matter. In the 1950s, for example, ties became as wide as 5” (13 cm), then in the 1960s, they were as narrow as 1” (2.5 cm). To a large degree, tie widths are determined by other fashion trends—especially those related to jackets—such as lapel width and overall silhouette. However, moderate widths, anywhere between 3” – 3 3/4” (7.6 – 9.5 cm), are regarded as the “classic” width.

What a tie lacks in width, it can sometimes compensate for with length: Over the years, depending on fashion, long-ties have varied in length from 48” (120 cm) in the 1940s to 57” (140 cm) in the 1980s to as much as 65” (165 cm) in the 21st century. (And, of course, custom-made ties may be made to specification—sometimes being made to over 70” [179 cm] in length for very tall men). In the 1940s, for example, when men routinely wore vests (also called “waistcoats”), ties were generally shorter since much of the tie would be concealed by the vest. But in the 21st century, with low-rise pants and the modern tendency for a gentleman to wear his pants on his hip rather than on his natural waistline (in the vicinity of his navel), as was the case in earlier years, ties have had to be manufactured longer so that their end(s), after the necktie has been tied, can extend to approximately the mid-way point of a gentleman’s belt buckle. A tie that is tied too short or too long looks immediately incorrect. Each tie, therefore, has a “sweet” spot called a “knot spot”—the precise spot where the initial overlap in the knot is placed so as to achieve the desired finished length—and a gentleman must sometimes tie and untie his tie twice or thrice in order to identify a particular tie’s “spot.”

Types of Ties

But as indicated above, long-ties are not the only neckties. There are also bowties, bolo ties, ascots, cravats, and neckerchiefs, for example, each with its own domain.

Considered the most formal of ties, bowties are traditionally regarded as de rigueur for white tie and black tie occasions; but bowties, sometimes referred to as “butterflies,” are also popular with schoolboys and professors and with businessmen and politicians—especially in the United States.

Several southwestern states, beginning with Arizona in 1971, have designated the bolo tie (also called the “shoestring tie”) the official state tie. The exact origin of the bolo tie is uncertain. It’s name, however, is believed to derive from “boleadora,” the Argentinean throwing-weapon consisting of interconnected cords to which a ball-like weight is attached to each end. Some fashion historians date the bolo tie to the 1860s or 1880s; but for certain it was in existence by the 1940s—so much so that by 1959, Arizona silversmith Victor Cedarstaff, who helped to popularize the tie in the ’40s, received a patent for a “slide,” the decorative, ring-like device that holds the strings of the tie in place at the neck.

A cravat and an ascot are two separate and distinct ties—unbeknownst to many men. And to further add to the confusion is the fact that it is a cravat, not an ascot, that may be worn to the Royal Ascot, though most often it is a long-tie, not the cravat, that is worn with morning dress in the Royal Enclosure at that great event. Remembering which is which, then, can prove for some men to be as convoluted as the legendary Gordian knot. Between an ascot and a cravat, the ascot is the more casual and, arguably, debonnaire. It is worn directly on the neck and tucked inside the partially unbuttoned shirt. The cravat, on the other hand, is worn on the outside of the shirt like other ties, with the shirt buttoned up to the neck. Neckerchiefs and bandanas are the simplest forms of ties. While scouts and paramilitary groups oftentimes have specific ways to fold and tie their uniform neckerchiefs, the gentleman who causally wears a bandana on his neck is expected to express his personal taste and style in the tying and wearing of that accessory.

Neckties are best when made of natural fibers: silk, linen, cotton, or wool. Leather has also been used to construct ties. Bolo ties—those “string ties” popular in western wear—are oftentimes made of braided leather or cordage stock. But by far, fine ties are made of silk—even if the traditional fabric for the most formal tie, the white bowtie, is made of cotton piqué.

Tying a Tie

Of course, no gentleman would wear a pre-tied tie. So learning how to tie the basic knots is mandatory.

Much ink and even more paper have been consumed on oftentimes futile attempts to instruct men on how to tie the various types of ties and knots via diagrams supplemented with written instructions. Typically, those attempts leave many a young man in more of a quandary after his attempt than before—even adroit, knot-tying, boy scout types. But today, because of the plethora of instructional videos posted on internet sites such as , a gentleman may easily learn at his computer what he once had to, in generations past, learn from a male member of his family or a good salesperson at a fine men’s store. Today, then, learning how to tie a bowtie or any other type of tie is more a matter of practice than privilege or patrimony. Traditional long-tie knots such as the four-in-hand, the Pratt, the Half-Windsor and Full Windsor, the Trinity, and the Eldredge are well demonstrated in online videos. And how-to videos on modern knots such as the “Novotny” and “Truelove” may also be found online.

Exquisite Ties

It is oftentimes said that a gentleman should never compromise on the quality of his shoes, his belt, or his necktie, for they are barometers of taste. A tie is a deceptively simple accessory: The making of a standard long-tie involves approximately 25 steps. A good tie should be made by hand—not by machine—using an exquisite shell (outer) fabric and an excellent lining and interlining. But the crème de la crème of long-ties is the “self-tip, seven-fold tie,” made by hand of a luxurious fabric, with the shell fabric being folded inward upon itself as the tie is being shaped, thereby eliminating the need for any interlining or lining of other fabrics. Consequently, the seven-fold tie consumes more than twice the amount of the shell fabric than other handmade ties, and, as a result, typically costs more than twice as much. But for the connoisseur, the seven-fold tie, with its special “finishes” such as “self-tips,” a “self-loop,” hand-crocheted bar tacks, and a hand-tacked label, reward its wearer tenfold. And immediately upon beholding such a tie, one senses its special attributes. As is said in the trade, a seven-fold tie possesses a superior “hand.”

Accessories to the Tie

For the purist, the only legitimate pocket square is one of white linen; and a white linen pocket square is only properly worn with a white shirt (or a shirt with significant embellishments in the color white). For the purist, only between ¼ and ½ inch of the white pocket square should be exposed, and the upper edge of the exposed portion should be parallel to the opening of the jacket pocket into which the square is placed. The objective is to create a visual and proportional balance between the portion of white shirt-cuff that extends beyond the jacket sleeve of a properly fitted jacket and the white pocket accessory. The “puff,” “points,” and “butterfly” pocket square formations that some men wear, then, even when of white linen, are regarded by the purist as “distractions.” And even more distracting are those colorful pocket squares—usually made of silk—that are color-coordinated with ties, shirts, or jackets. Wearing colorful pocket squares is a popular practice that, according to purists, should be abandoned posthaste. As far as the purist is concerned, if a man wants to wear a “flower” on his jacket, he should be bold and wear a real flower! After all, that is the precise purpose for the placement of a buttonhole—also called a “boutonniere”—on the left lapel of a jacket. Yes, a man is entitled to display panache, but it must be done with good taste. (It should also be noted that with black tie wear, the pocket square is always white to complement the shirt—never black to match or compliment the tie or the tuxedo. Likewise, with white tie wear, the pocket square is always white—to complement the shirt, the complement to the tie being coincidental). But what the purist finds especially egregious is the wearing of tie-and-pocket square sets! That, in his way of thinking, is the fashion equivalent of painting-by-numbers. Unless a man wants to look like a dodo, he should regard tie/pocket square sets as a definite no-no—according to the purist.

(The decorative pocket square’s affiliation with modern-day menswear begins in ancient times as a ceremonial, and then practical, handkerchief. It would not be until the 1950s that the pocket square would assume a purely decorative role.

The earliest records of handkerchiefs date back to 4th millennium B.C.E. Egypt, as evidenced by the red-dyed linen squares found at Nekhen (Hierakonpolis). By 2000 B.C.E., wealthy Egyptians were carrying bleached-white linen handkerchiefs, presumably for hygienic uses: A beautiful stela housed at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, Austria shows Keti and Senet carrying handkerchiefs. Throughout the ancient and medieval worlds, handkerchiefs—plain and elaborate, perfumed and unscented—were used for everything from absorbing perspiration to wiping the hands and nose to shielding city dwellers from urban stench. But it was in the 1920s, with the rise of the two-piece suit, that men started wearing pocket squares in the left chest pocket of their jackets. And immediately, it became unthinkable for a gentleman to wear a jacket without a pocket square. Before the 1950s, when, for hygienic reasons, disposable tissue became preferred over cloth handkerchiefs, gentlemen would routinely carry two handkerchiefs: one in their pants pockets for personal use; and one in the chest pocket of their jackets in the event they needed to quickly offer a clean handkerchief to another person—especially a damoiselle in distress. Rather than reaching into a private, obscured part of the one’s garment to procure a handkerchief, a gentleman would, in plain view, simply pluck the handkerchief from his chest pocket and present it to the person in need. But in the 1950s, with the hygiene-justified preference for disposable tissue over cloth handkerchiefs, the once-practical chest handkerchief was relegated to being a purely decorative accessory. And once the pocket square no longer served its hygienic purpose, it no longer needed to be white—except for the purists. Over the years, pocket squares have waxed and waned in popularity. In the 1970s, for example, pocket squares had virtually fallen into oblivion; but since the 1980s, there has been a steady resurgence, especially of the colorful, patterned silk varieties).

The tiepin (“tie pin,” “stickpin,” “stick pin”) dates from the early 1800s and was used to secure the folds of a cravat. By the 1860s, when long-ties emerged onto the fashion scene, tiepins were used to decoratively secure the tie to the placket of the shirt, preventing the tie from blowing about in windy environs such as on board yachts and at outdoor sporting and social events. By the 1920s, however, when long-ties of very delicate silk fabrics became popular, tiepins were succeeded by tie clips (“tie bar,” “tie slide,” “tie clasp”). Tiepins, because of their design, pierce the fabric of the tie in the process of securing the tie. And with repeated use, they may cause damage to a delicate tie. A tie clip, on the other hand, clips the long-tie to the placket of the shirt without penetrating or damaging the tie in any way. Both would remain a part of menswear accessories until the end of the 1960s, when both fell out of fashion favor—partly because ties went somewhat out of fashion in the ’70s with mod fashion of the Hippie Movement and the leisure suits of the disco era. But since the beginning of the 21st century, tie clasps (but not tiepins) have made a triumphant return.

Like all masculine jewelry, less is more. A simple, understated tie clip of silver, gold, or some other precious metal is recommended. A tie clip remains one of the few items of jewelry permissible while in military dress.

Tie Maintenance

The same care used to tie a tie should be employed in the untying of it. Never should a tie be untied by pulling the knot apart. Instead, the tie should be carefully untied by “reversing the knot.” And for the man who thinks it time-efficient to slip the tied tie over his head so as to save a few minutes the next time he wears the tie, he should think twice: A tie stored with its knot intact will eventually lose its shape. Also, a tie should be allowed to “rest and breathe” two or three days between wearings so that it may air-dry (in the event it became dampened by perspiration) and regain its shape.

There are devices—called tie racks—specifically designed for storing ties by allowing them to hang freely so that any creases or wrinkles may fall out while allowing a tie to regain its shape. Many fine men’s stores and haberdasheries sell tie racks. Tie boxes are also excellent for storing ties. To store a tie in a tie box, both points of the tie should be brought together before the tie is loosely rolled and placed into a slot in the box. Alternatively, ties may be folded and laid flat in a drawer. To fold a tie, its points should be brought together before the tie is folded in half (and then in quarter if space is limited). Whichever storing method is utilized, it is advised that ties be kept away from direct light and from dust so as to preserve the color and texture of the ties. When traveling with ties, it is best to fold them in quarter. The folded tie(s) should then be placed into a plastic zip-lock bag and laid flat between other garments within the luggage. Upon arriving at the destination, the ties should be removed from the travel bag and allowed to hang in a wardrobe. It is best that a tie not be ironed since ironing, unless done professionally or by a person skilled at pressing ties, will flatten the edges of the tie—an undesirable result.

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