Maybe you got one for Christmas; you had to wear it that day but never again. I’m not talking about the current rage for ugly sweaters but the classic necktie. I got one this Christmas but I appreciated it; I love vintage neckties, the bolder and brighter the better.
Let’s face it; men’s clothing is pretty boring. High end fashion changes subtly, only those in the know can tell. Formal business wear, conservative by nature, doesn’t change much for men or women. Casual clothing almost never changes. You wear jeans, flannel or kaki, depending on whether you are working, hunting or having casual day at the office.
If you’re a guy you can get away with wearing the same clothes for years until they either wear out or your wife throws them out but you can’t keep wearing the same tie for years and expect to look current. If you are interviewing for a job or want to impress somebody and your tie is not the right width, length and colour, or if the pattern is out of date, you could be in trouble.
Why do we as a society place so much weight on a ribbon around a man’s neck? The answer is not so much about fashion as it is about power. Our modern tie came from the military, then spread to political rulers and finally to business.
While there is some evidence that the ancient Chinese and maybe some Roman soldiers occasionally wore some kind of scarf for most of history it was generally considered effeminate, not something a soldier should do. It was Croatian soldiers who changed that perception in the 17th Century.
Croatia was a minor power in Europe but it had a very impressive fighting force because the government offered freedom of religion and free land in what was called the Croatian Military Frontier to anyone that wanted it but in return required all males between the ages of 16 and 66 to be available for military service, often as mercenaries. Europe was in constant turmoil so men didn’t spend much time on their free land. The Croats, who are thought to be descendant from a tribe that wandered north from the Middle East, had their own, unique form of dress. The soldiers wore scarves around their necks, tied in a knot to keep them in place and as they tended to win a lot of battles, nobody was calling them sissies.
France, the top power in Europe at the time, hired Croat soldiers to fight throughout the century so they were a common sight in Paris, looking pretty cool. After a particularly impressive win around 1650 King Louis XIV, who had an eye for fashion, invited a group of them to the palace where they were wined and dined and treated as heroes. It was then he adopted what was called the cravat (likely from the French word for Croat) for himself and had his entire court do the same. He even created an elite regiment, the Crevate Royale, which remained in existence until the French Revolution.
It wasn’t long before some sort of neckwear that hung over the chest became a sign of prestige all over Europe. There were many variations and designs but generally, the more complex and time consuming the neckwear, the more prestige you got.
In 1660, King Charles II returned to England after nine years in exile. You remember him; he had been deposed by Cromwell who then imposed an austere, Puritan rule over England. Charles’ reinstatement marked a return to “sunny ways”, drinking, partying and colourful clothing returned including the cravat, which Charles and his entourage of aristocrats had adopted in Europe. There were many different styles, usually involving lace. One of the most popular was called the Jabot, pronounced ja-bow¬ in France, which became the bow tie in England. Another was called the Sock, basically a long fill of lace. It survives today on some very high officials, such as judges, all over the world.
All these ties were very fussy and, for the most part, limited to the aristocracy but the Industrial Revolution changed all that.
Owners and managers of factories wanted to distinguish themselves from the workers but they could not spend hours fussing with a lace cravat, they had to actually work. The long tie, similar to what we have now, was the perfect solution. It was long and thin and easy to knot. You could wear one all day and it wouldn’t come undone. It was also dangerous to wear while operating machinery so factory workers were forbidden to wear it.
If you were a machine operator aspiring to the middle class (as most were) and you got a promotion that took you off the factory floor, the first thing you did was put on a tie, the ultimate symbol that you had made it.
In 1880 when the British military finally got the message that wearing colourful uniforms in battle was not a good idea they switched to drab uniforms and colourful ties. Military ties had stripes that ran downward from the wearer’s left side; a precise code for rank. The use and distribution of those ties was tightly controlled so rare examples are at the top end of the collectors’ market today, sometimes selling for thousands of dollars. When striped ties became fashionable American companies started making them but in deference they had the stripes run down from the wearer’s right side, a convention that remains today when a striped tie is not used as a sign of membership in a club.
It was an American, Jesse Langsdorf, who in 1926 came up with a method of cutting the fabric on the bias (on an angle to the thread weave) which made the long tie hang better and gave it its signature pointed end. Basic tie construction hasn’t changed much since then but tie fashion changes with the wind. That’s where it gets interesting for those of us who love vintage ties.
Ties were pretty formal up to the 1930s when Art Deco designs started to appear. After World War II there was a new exuberance; returning soldiers especially were ready to express themselves and that gave rise to the bold tie – wide, short ties with bright colours and crazy designs, some even included scantily-dressed women. They were shorter because men wore their trousers higher at the time and waistcoats were still in fashion, so you couldn’t see the tip of the tie anyway. That makes it difficult for those of us who like to wear them now; it looks kind of dorky to wear a tie that only goes halfway down, especially for those of us who have to admit that the distance from our neck to our waist is a bit more than it should be.
You used to be able to find these easily in thrift stores but not so much anymore. Hands painted silk ties are getting especially hard to find.
In the years that followed ties got thinner and longer, then thicker and longer then thinner again. Novelty ties in the 1970s pretty well knocked the stuffing out of tie snobs. Today the strict code of tie wear remains mostly in the upper echelons business, politics and the military but if you ever find yourself in a social situation where your tie is important and you don’t know what to do, here’s a sure-fire tip; wear a vintage tie that makes no attempt to be in the current fashion. As long as it’s tasteful (nudie girls might not work) you can’t lose.