Bow ties

bow ties

The incomparable John Glenn

Bow ties are the hallmark of vintage class and sophistication. Distinctive yet quirky, they remain one of my favorite vintage men’s fashions (spats will always hold the coveted top spot!). But I realized, it’s a style I don’t know much about. While researching for this article, I was surprised to learn of the bow tie’s bloody history. I’ve always considered this accessory at home in the realm of academia or on the red carpet, not the battlefield. But whenever you start nosing around in the past, surprises always emerge. Please join me as we learn more about bow ties…

It all started in the 1600s off the shores of the Adriatic Sea. The year was 1618 and, while Europe didn’t know, it was embarking on a conflict that would last three decades. Aptly named the Thirty Years’ War, it ravaged Central Europe. Some scholars estimate that 60% of Germany’s population was wiped out during this time. This was generations before anything like a world-wide conflict could be imagined, but the scale of this war was staggering. A religious war, many mercenaries joined the battle. They hailed from places near and far to defend their beliefs. And this is where the bow tie’s predecessor, the cravat, first debuted. Like many vintage fashions that have transitioned to the realm of fancy dinner parties, the beginnings for the cravat were purely utilitarian. Mercenaries from Croatia wore neck scarves as a way to keep their shirt collars in place while they fought. How exactly the French aristocracy stole the look for their decadent affairs I don’t know, but the cravat’s popularity soared during the 18th and 19th centuries.

The name “cravat” speaks to its origins – its derived from the French word for Croatians

By the mid to late 1800s the fashion industry had created the next generation of the cravat: the bow tie. (Although historians are a little fuzzy on which came first: the bow tie or the neck tie.) Many credit Pierre Lorillard with catapulting the bow tie into the pantheon of fashion. The year was 1886 and Pierre was hurriedly planning his first annual ball – at the appropriately named Tuxedo Park – in upstate New York. This section of New York was like the American Monaco – a retreat for the nouveau riche and a playground for tycoons and socialites. For Pierre this Autumn Ball was meant to elevate his family’s standing in the elite stratosphere and provide a networking opportunity for other well-heeled friends. You could say it was the place to see and be seen. In other words, it was the perfect moment to be bold.

While we now consider the tuxedo, with it’s crisp black bow tie and smart two-tone palette, to be the epitome of male confidence – it was a shocking revelation in 1886. Pierre’s black and white look took the fashion world by storm. The bow tie, set against the background of the tailored tuxedo, remains the standard for formal attire. Over one-hundred years and counting is quite the legacy!

bow ties

Ethel Merman in 1938

If you think bow ties might just be for stuffy occasions – think again.┬áThe bow tie has also enjoyed quite a life on stage. Whether it’s Fred Astaire gliding across the screen with Ginger Rogers or a clown performing in his exaggerated costume, the bow tie brings the joy. By the 1920s and 30s we saw the bow tie cross another line – this time into women’s fashion as cutting-edge stars such as Katharine Hepburn and Marlene Dietrich adopted the look. The smart bow tie went from cool, male sophistication to hip, female glamour without missing a beat. We’d see a revival of this style in the 1980s as more women entered traditional professions such as law or medicine.

Even though the bow tie fits the bill for a night on the town, it never strayed from its pragmatic origins. Pediatricians in the Victorian era wore the bow tie as standard practice. The bow tie allowed them to communicate their status, while keeping their patients safe. (As any father can attest to, little grabby hands and a neck tie can be a chaotic combination!) Just like the Croatian soldiers before them, waiters, architects, financiers, professors, lawyers and a variety of other career-minded men looked to the bow tie as a way to be unencumbered during their work day. Putting on a tie bar was too much for these chaps!

There are three main types of bow ties: the self-tie, pre-tied, and clip-on. The self-tie is for the true bow tie enthusiast and purist. There is a stunning variety of options, one for each mood or event I would imagine. It’s not as crisp or precise in aesthetic as the pre-tied, but does allow the wearer’s individuality to shine through. I’d say this style is the most true to the bow tie’s origins. The clip-on doesn’t get as much respect in the bow tie world, but for the dashing kiddo it’s the way to go.

Learning more about the bow tie has given me a greater appreciation for this fashion accessory. I would venture to say it’s the best-looking worker bee in the wardrobe. It’s unparalleled in its versatility: regardless of gender, age, type of occasion its there to add a pep to your step. I’ll always adore spats, but the bow tie is definitely giving them a run for their money! Tell me, dear reader, what are some of your favorite vintage men’s fashions?


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