Bow Ties 101

Let’s take a look at that most misunderstood aspect of menswear, the bow tie.

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Despite the modern association with nerdiness and fastidiousness, believe it or not, the bow tie has particularly roughly-hewn origins.  Croatian mercenaries during the Prussian Wars in the 1600s used a scarf around their necks to close the opening of their shirts.  The French became fond of the look, adapting it for less utilitarian purposes, and calling it a “cravat” from the French for “Croat.”  When and how the cravat of the 1700s and 1800s mutated into the bow tie is lost to history.  However it happened, bow ties and their variants dominated formalwear for the second half of the 19th century and the first quarter of the 20th century before giving way to neckties.  Favored by professors, architects, and other more fussy, old fashioned-types, bow ties began to fade in popularity in the years leading up to World War II, with neckties becoming the garment of choice for fashionable men.  Bow ties became associated with being old, or awkward, or even specifically being politically and socially conservative.

It wasn’t until recently, with the rise of the “hipster” look, which deliberately seeks out odd or contrarian fashion choices, have bow ties returned to the mainstream, and have even become “cool” again.  Young people, fashionable people, sports starts, and even dyed-in-the-wool liberals are wearing bow ties again (we still think conservative columnist George Will wears the look best in the political world right now, though).  And, of course, scientists, professors and the more socially reserved continue to love them as they always have.

Considering adding bow ties to your fashion repertoire?  Here are some things you need to know.  First, here’s how to tie a bow tie, from WikiHow.  Unlike neckties, there aren’t a lot of variant ways to tie these pieces of neckwear.

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  • Drape the bow tie around your neck, under your collar, and grasp the ends. The end on your right should extend about 1.5 inches lower than the end on your left side.
  • Cross the longer end over the shorter end. You should cross the tie near your neck so that the loop around your neck is just large enough to work with but not loose; you don’t want your bow dangling in front of your chest.
  • Pass the longer end up through the loop, forming a simple, loose overhand knot. Use this opportunity to tighten the knot if necessary.
  • Pull the dangling end to the left and then fold it back over itself to the right. Hold this fold, which will be the front loop of the completed tie, between your shirt’s collar points.
  • Drop the raised end of the tie over the front of the bow.
  • Grab the left and right sides of the horizontally-folded end and pinch them together in front of the dangling end. The top of the dangling end will now be held between them.
  • Feed the middle of the dangling end back through the knot you made in Step 3. It will now form the back half of the bow.
  • Tighten the bow by pulling on opposite sides and halves simultaneously. Pull the front right and back left ends apart to loosen; pull the front left and back right apart to tighten. Repeat until the bow is the desired shape and tightness.

The second thing you need to know are the types of bow ties.  It may seem like there is only one kind of bow tie, but that is not the case!  The most obvious distinction is between “freestyle,” “pre-tied” and “clip-on” bow ties.  We really, really don’t recommend wearing anything other than a freestyle tie (which you tie yourself), unless you absolutely have to.  It’s quite a fashion faux pas to wear a pre-tied tie!

The next big distinction is between the tie sizes.  There’s the skinny 1.5-inch bow tie, fun and slightly formal, famous from the look of the 1950s and 1960s.  Then there’s the thin 2-inch bow tie, streamlined and sophisticated, and hard to go wrong with (unless you have a truly enormous head!).  Next is the standard 2.5-inch bow tie, balanced and classy, and impossible to do wrong.  After that we have the 2.5-inch diamond bow tie, which takes the classic bow tie and makes it a bit more striking (this is usually James Bond’s favored bow tie).  Then we have the 2.5-inch self tie bow tie, which has a charmingly imperfect, flat-ended shape.  Finally, there’s the 3-inch butterfly bow tie, with flared edges, and not always in fashion, these are perfect for bigger, broader-shouldered guys.  Remember, the ties need to be in proportion to you!  If you’re 6’6″ with huge shoulders, the thin tie might make you look like a tied-off balloon, and if you’re 5’6″ with a small build, the butterfly tie will make you look like a kid wearing his dad’s suit!  Wear what looks and feels good on you!

The last thing to keep in mind is that freestyle ties come in two major groups, “bat wing” and “thistle.”  Which one to wear depends completely on personal preference.  The thistle tends to be more adjustable and versatile.

To close, let’s let Bill Nye the Science Guy explain his own love affair with the bow tie.  Cheers!

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