There has been a bit of a kerfuffle (as the British say to describe a fuss) back in the land of my birth recently over the demise of the men’s neck tie in that bastion of civilization – the British parliament.
The UK’s House of Commons (roughly equivalent to the U.S. House of Representatives) enjoyed a raucous debate recently when a Conservative (Republican equivalent) member of Parliament (MP) raised the question of whether another MP from the Liberal Democrats (Democrat equivalent) was breaching the rules by wearing a shirt open at the neck.
While a suit and tie is traditionally seen as a signifier of male seriousness at school, offices and funerals, there is a definite trend toward getting rid of this part of the male uniform. In fact, my husband – whose trademark look for years was suit and tie - now only rarely wears a tie. His transformation took place when he stopped running traditional engineering companies and moved to the world of technology a few years ago, where the trend is more laid back and informal. He has over 100 ties and hardly ever wears them.
The history of neck scarfs used for warmth goes back thousands of years, but the decorative necktie has its roots in 17th century France. During the 30 Years War that engulfed all of Europe from 1618-1648, Croatian mercenaries supporting King Louis XIII of France wore a brightly colored cloth at the top of their jackets. The king liked this, named it "la cravate" to honor the Croats, and required it as mandatory for all royal gatherings. These looked more like today’s modern bowties than neckties, and while their use expanded throughout Europe over the next couple hundred years, they didn’t change much.
Then, in the 19th century, British horsemen wanted to wear cravates, but couldn’t tie them with just one hand since the other was holding onto the reigns of their horse. They invented the "four-in-hand" necktie knot which could be tied with just one hand, and this eventually morphed into the ascot tie.
About this time, men’s neckwear was taking off as a fashion trend across Europe, and there was a lot of experimenting with different ways to tie a tie. Ascots and bowties dominated in the 1800s, and during this period, the idea that men needed neckwear to be completely and formally dressed really took hold. By the turn of the 20th century, while we might chuckle at the colors, patterns and width of these decorative male garments of the day, we would certainly have recognized them as men’s ties. Check out the Washington Post article "A Twisted History of Neckties" for more information.
The modern necktie that we recognize today was invented in 1924 by Jesse Lansdorf, a New York garment maker who invented a new, three layered way to cut and stitch neckties together, allowing them to always go back to their original shape. While bowties and ascots continued to be used primarily for formal wear, the Lansdorf tie is the one that most men have worn since the 1920’s.
Over the past 100 or so years, the width, length, colors and pattern has changed every decade or so. In the 1930s, ties got up to 6 inches wide, short (only about halfway down the stomach) and often had art-deco prints. In the 1950s, they got as narrow as 1 inch with the "skinny tie," but were worn much longer. In the 1990s, they standardized to the 3½ inch wide versions that are most common today.
Are there other ties for men? Of course! String ties and bollo ties (like a handkerchief around the neck kept in place with a ring or clasp in front) for that cowboy-look, clip-on ties, and who can forget those nifty knitted ties, often worn with corduroy jackets with leather elbow patches. And we could also talk endlessly about different types of bow ties, and their migration from formal wear, to romance (think Frank Sinatra in the 1950s), onto the nerdy look, and today as an expression of uniqueness and individualism. American network TV news producer Rick Kaplan once said, "Wearing a bow tie is a statement, almost an act of defiance."
And as a waiter once told me, bowties never accidently drop into a customer’s soup.
God bless America!
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