This essay was written for Epochs fashion magazine and published in 2015.
The tie is a piece of neck covering usually worn with a shirt and suit. It serves no practical purpose and is a purely decorative object.
The tie’s origin is in the military. Roman legionaries seen on Trajan’s Column in Rome, which dates to the second century CE, are wearing a type of neckwear called a focale. The soldiers of the terracotta army of Shih Huang Ti and Qin dynasty, 221–206 BCE, wear silk cords around their neck as a symbol of status. And during Europe’s Thirty Years War, 1618–1648, Croatian mercenaries in the French Army wore neckwear similar to the cravat, the word itself is derived from Croat. Louis XIV of France adopted the style and gave it credibility in civilian society. In the 18th century the cravat morphed into stocks, which were made of muslin wound around the neck and pinned in place. From the 1850s this became a rectangular piece of cloth that could be tied in a four-in-hand knot.
The modern tie dates to 1924. Jesse Langford, an American tailor, patented the design characteristic of most ties today: three pieces of cloth with the fabric cut on the bias, stitched and folded into a point, so that the tie can be knotted and unknotted without being permanently creased.
In the 1920s ties in regimental colours began to be worn by the British armed forces at civilian dress functions. In the US, Brooks Brothers, inventors of the button-down shirt, took the style and made it a menswear standard. It soon became an Ivy League fixture. British universities already popularised wearing striped ties to mark their membership of colleges. And gentlemen’s clubs adopted their own ties as well.
Until the 1940s ties were quite short. Trousers rode much higher then and the idea was to focus on width and pattern rather than length. Fashions for the tie have been much more varied than other parts of the suit, from minimal boot-lace varieties, to skinny ’60s ties, to the wide colourful ties of the ’70s.
The death of the tie has been predicted for the past hundred years and may now finally be arriving with its increasing disappearance in public life. Though a revival may be possible, after all coloured neckcloths have been a menswear staple for 350 years.
Wearing a tie
A tie of some kind is usually worn with a suit. Be it necktie, bow tie, cravat, ascot, or the bolo ties worn in New Mexico. Smart casual clothes, such as jackets, cardigans, v-neck jumpers, or simple a shirt are also often accompanied by a tie.
The tie is usually between 7 and 9cm in width. The point is usually plain, not too elongated, and not too flat. It’s not recommended that end of the tie descends below the waistband, and is usually worn so it ends just about the trousers.
Most ties come with a small silk band on the back of the wide blade for tucking in the thin blade. If the tie does not, many men choose to tuck the thin blade into the maker’s label behind the wide blade. Tucking it in, gives the tie a finer line since only one blade is visible. Some men choose to wear tie clips, tie bars and tie pins, which are pieces of jewellery worn on the tie, though these are rare.
There are 85 possible ways to tie a tie, excluding mirror images. Of the 85 the most common is the the four-in-hand, which is a simple knot and many children are taught it while attending schools with uniform requirements. It is advisable to untie the tie when not wearing it, otherwise permanent creases can form and its life will be shortened.
Most ties are made of silk, or silk-like materials like rayon. Suits are generally made of wool or linen, shirts of cotton, and shoes of leather or suede. Beautiful contrast is achieved when a silk tie, which bounces and reflects light, sits on the matt frame of the suit and shirt. Cotton and wool ties are also sold on the high street. But these thicker ties form thick heavy knots.
High quality ties are cut on the bias, this means the material is cut diagonally, the silk being woven from threads that travel east to west and north to south. Inexpensive ties are often cut on the straight, along the grains of the material, they are less expensive because this method uses less cloth. Ties cut one the bias have more give in the material and form a neater knot.
Colour and Pattern
Ties come in a huge variety of colours and patterns. Occasionally the colour of the tie matches the colour of a handkerchief worn in the breast pocket of the suit. A black tie is usually worn with a black suit since black suits are most often worn to funerals or, in the form of a tuxedo, to black tie events. The colour tone of the tie is usually darker than the shirt, the shirt usually being significantly lighter than the suit and tie. Generally though you can’t go wrong with a plain navy tie, which seems to be the most common.
Patterns on ties are usually small, regular and abstract, though eye-catching prints and novelty picture ties have been more popular in the past.
Cleaning and Care
Ties should not be cleaned unless they are stained. It is usually recommended to dry clean ties, though they can be washed in the washing machine on a gentle cycle. Alternatively you can simply soak it in warm water with solution and rinse it lightly before hanging it up to dry.
Ties usually die when the edges of the wide blade fray. This happens long before any other part of the tie gets damaged. However you can simply get the tie shortened and this will double its life.
The Bow Tie and Cravat
The bow tie today is worn almost exclusively with evening dress. To wear one with a regular suit is unusual.
Bow ties come in three shapes: the butterfly, the bats-wing, and the one-hander. Unlike a necktie both ends of a bow tie can be used to form a knot. There is only one way of tying one: the reef knot, which is tricky and takes some practice. The tied bow has four layers of cloth, with three forming the bow and one going around the neck. Pulling on the three layers is how you adjust the knot to a good shape once it’s tied.
A bow tie is usually worn with a black tuxedo. The bow tie is usually black silk or satin. A marcella bow tie is worn with a white tuxedo. Marcella bow ties are called that because, like the white tie waistcoat, they are made of marcella cotton, also known as piqué. It is tied exactly like a normal bowtie.
The modern cravat is made of a long rectangular silk cloth pleated in the centre to form a band. It is often printed in polka dot, paisley, or foulard. The cravat is often worn casually around the neck and tucked into an open shirt. The cravat is tied by draping it around the neck, pulling one end so it is longer than the other, and going twice around the shorter end with it and finally pulling it up and over the knot. The cravat may also be worn as a silk scarf under the jacket without a knot.
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