I wear bow ties because it’s a hell of a lot harder to spill food on them than it is neckties. That’s not exactly why I wear them, but it’s a convenient excuse to give at cocktail parties and wedding receptions. And you’ll need an excuse if you’re going to wear bow ties these days, especially if you’re a twenty-something who doesn’t have the luxury of being pardoned as a cantankerous old fart who doesn’t know better than to dress like a Supreme Court justice.
Supposedly the bow tie originated in cravats that Croatian mercenaries wore during 17th-century Prussian wars. Which is fitting, because most people today wouldn’t wear one unless someone else were paying them to do it. Originally, however, they were a point of pride: The soldiers’ different colored scarves denoted rank and also conveniently kept their shirt openings closed. Afterward, the French upper crust adopted the mode, and snooty people have been wearing them ever since. Or at least that seems to be the consensus, given the way the necktie brigade is wont to denigrate the bow and its wearers.
My mom always told me that her dad wore bow ties, which was really thanks to my grandmother, who dressed him. This was a blessing, because he would have worn a striped golf shirt with plaid shorts every day of his married life had his wife not commandeered his closet. She credited the habitual bow ties for making him look like a “Dapper Dan” no matter what the occasion.
Because my mom was partial to bow ties, she bought me a few, and I started wearing them when I went to college in South Carolina. I liked the individuality the bow tie represents and thought that if it worked for Mark Twain, James Bond, and Budweiser, it could well suit me. I didn’t worry much about the pretentious or stuffy impression the look often makes. It’s not like I was a rich Charleston kid or a New England boarding school prepster. I had a beard, after all. If anyone should be free from bow tie ridicule, it’s people who wear flannels and duck boots on their off days.
All the way back in 2009, The Wall Street Journal reported that “after years under the chins of the pocket-protector crowd, the bow tie is cool. It now appears on Gossip Girl characters, fashion runways and sports stars—as well as young hipsters.”
According to a Los Angeles Times article from the same year, Dhani Jones is “leading a bow tie revolution.” Jones is a burly former NFL and University of Michigan linebacker—not your stereotypical bow tie-wearer. Usually on college campuses it’s the tweedy professor who’s sporting bow ties, not the guy who used to play tackle football on Saturdays. “To me,” Jones told the Times, “it characterizes someone who is well rounded, who can speak to someone in Outer Mongolia or downtown Chicago.”
His description echoes that of New York Times writer Warren St. John, who once wrote that the bow tie “hints at intellectualism, real or feigned, and sometimes suggests technical acumen, perhaps because it is so hard to tie.” It’s a lie—they’re not hard to tie. I had a harder time learning how to wear a scarf during D.C. winters.
In Canada’s Globe and Mail, Russell Smith called bow ties “tricky” because they look “fastidious but not exactly sexy.” Smith also says that if you’re going to wear a bow tie, “it’s best to pair it with some flashy item to show that you’re not just a really square guy,” which might be the worst bow tie-wearing advice I’ve heard. The bow is the flash. You don’t have to be the oft-bowed and always debonair Andre 3000 to figure that out.
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So why do so many people deride the look? Esquire, for instance, noted last fall that “the bow-tie trend is on our minds. Namely: Is wearing one ever worth pursuing as a grown man, or will you just look like a five-year-old on your way to a piano recital?”
Maybe some people worry that tying the tie really is troublesome, so they lash out at others who have an aptitude for it. But most potential wearers probably hold back for fear of coming across like the aforementioned piano virtuoso, if not like Tucker Carlson, the conservative and boyish one-time cable news pundit who used to be known for his bow ties. Appropriately enough, he was a New England boarding school prepster. During a segment on Carlson’s old CNN Crossfire show, guest Jon Stewart asked incredulously, in reference to the neckwear, “How old are you?” (Carlson was 35 at the time.)
I met Carlson one time, and he was wearing a long orange necktie. He chewed tobacco during our entire meeting, and when I inquired about his penchant for bow ties, he simply said that he didn’t wear them anymore. I read that people ask Washington Post columnist George Will the same thing, with a dash of disappointment, when he wears a necktie.
Given the ribbing that habitually accompanies bowed neckwear, it’s safe to assume that a man who wears a bow tie is deliberate in his actions. He has read the headlines of the morning paper. He probably has no trouble leading a girl around the dance floor. He knows where he’s going and what he’ll do once he gets there, which is probably order a bourbon. A fabric bow does not get tied to your neck by accident.
Every genuine bow tie-wearer feels the same disdain for people who wear pre-tied ties as the rest of the world feels for his wearing of bow ties. My grandfather, for instance, would never have worn a pre-tied one. That’s because pre-tied bow ties are dreadful. Wearing one is like sporting a spray-on tan during a Wisconsin winter—forget what GQ will tell you: “Yes, a strap-on, like the one you wore to prom, is perfectly acceptable.”
One misconception is that a bow tie knot should be flawless. It shouldn’t, which is another reason pre-tied bows are so horrid—the tie is so damn neat, which is how you want your bourbon but not your knot. Most of the bow tie charm is in the off-kilter, not-quite-proportional-let-alone-perfect tying of it.
Everyone ties a unique knot. It’s subconscious and unavoidable. Even for a particular wearer, a knot tied today will differ from one tied yesterday or tomorrow. A true gentleman knows the difference between a well-tied knot and a perfectly tied one, and you do not want to be caught stiff-necked with the latter.
No one would believe that a real bourbon drinker could tie a perfect bow anyway.
Tate Watkins is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C. He writes about economic development, foreign aid, and immigration, among other things. Find him on Twitter: @tatewatkins.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Joseph Hammond
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Emma Elliott Freire