“Wearing a bow tie is a way of broadcasting an aggressive lack of concern for what other people think.” (Warren St. John, The New York Times)
Bow ties tend to provoke strong reactions. For some they conjure images of Winston Churchill standing firm against German bombings or of Frank Sinatra looking Rat Packish. Others think Orville Redenbacher or Pee-wee Herman.
Once common, in fact the bow tie is a more natural successor to the old cravate than the four-in-hand, they largely were banished from menswear since the middle of the twentieth century. Even in semi-formal wear (aka, the “tuxedo”), celebrity types led the charge for the black four-in-hand rather than the traditional “black tie” bow tie on the red carpet.
But the recent Ivy/Prep/Trad movement has returned bow ties to a wider acceptance than they have had in decades. Bow ties always maintained a bit of a stronghold in the South, lawyers in seersucker serving as standard bearers, and in the Ivy covered walls of the Northeast. Now you can find them virtually everywhere.
And bow ties are not only experiencing a revival in America. From across the pond, Matt Smith’s Doctor Who has been instructing the English speaking world that “bow ties are cool”. Of course, the Doctor is not coming from an Ivy/Prep perspective, but rather from the English countryside.
Start simple and classic, with either a Churchill dot or traditional stripe. I’m partial to the Brooks Brothers mini BB #1. Other reliable options include foulard prints (other than dots), paisleys and emblematics.
I find bow ties really shine with blazers, sport coats and sweaters. They can look fine with suits, but especially suits with a vest, either matching or odd vest.
Choosing to wear a bow tie also means choosing to learn to tie one (no clip-ons!). Many find this intimidating, but if you can tie your shoes you can tie a bow tie. It’s the same bow knot. Practice using the video instruction below and you’ll finally get it. Some find it useful to practice by tying the bow tie on their thigh so they can see the knot more closely.
And one final tip: shorten the length of your bow tie a quarter to a half inch beyond your normal neck size. This will tighten up your bow tie, leaving less flop in the wings. You don’t want the bow tie to extend beyond the edge of your face.
Wearing a bow tie is an act of sartorial courage, but it’s one well worth taking.
[Sources: In addition to the usual suspects (Brooks Brothers, Polo), the resurgence in bow tie wearing has led to a wave of new suppliers. For price to value you can’t beat the good folks at The Cordial Churchman. They’re hand made in South Carolina one tie at a time. Read the latest article about them, and look for an upcoming Pinstripe Pulpit giveaway with a Cordial Churchman connection.]