Part of the problem is that for a long time the
bow-tie has seemed anachronistic, at least outside of dinner dress - for which it is (the awfulness of ‘creative
black tie’ only going to prove) absolutely essential. Churchill looks the part because he was not alone among men
wearing bow-ties at the time. Likewise its other exponents: Miles Davis’ early preppy style - side-vented seersucker
sack coat, club-collared shirt and bow-tie - may have seen him look more jazzman meets door-to-door salesman, but
wasn’t so out of keeping in the 1950s; Truman Capote may have worn a bow-tie as something of a nod towards his
literary hero Mark Twain, but, again, the neckwear was still of the times.
Frank Sinatra similarly looked right in a
bow-tie for the early part of his career - respectable enough for all the screaming bobby soxers to take home, on an
album sleeve at least, to mom and pop - before adopting the long tie, always worn loosened, collar undone, as his
default look. That said, like Churchill, he looked great wearing his polka dotted bow-tie with pin-striped suit in
1955’s ‘Guys and Dolls’. But this would also mark the beginning of the end: to wear a bow-tie, rather than a sharp
long tie, in the following decade was to underscore your age, more old man than Mad Man - indeed, the fact that the
bow-tie persisted for eveningwear only stressed its status as a special garment worn for special occasions, further
dragging it out of the wardrobe of everyday wear.
Yet the bow-tie is, in a sense, the original neckwear, pre-dating the long tie,
a direct descendant of the cravat. The cravat was what upscale society made of the knotted piece of fabric worn by
Croatian soldiers during the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), whose necktie struck French soldiers as rather chic,
taking them back home and into court fashion. This new accessory evolved over the many decades - the stock tie of
the early 1700s, the Ascot of the early 1800s - becoming increasingly fanciful, until, towards the middle of the
19th century, the neat, organised bow-tie had its moment.
Then, as now, the advantages were convincing.
The bow-tie framed the face and didn’t require starching. It was compact but - tied free-hand, as a bow-tie should
be - also expressive, offering a decided flourish to any attire, an affect which arguably the long tie finds it
harder to accomplish despite its much greater real estate. It was the proto bow-tie, not the long tie, that also
first saw experimentation in the tying of knots. Come the late 19th century, advances in weaving technology allowed
for the mass-manufacture of fancy fabrics for bow ties, and in turn their wearing as badges of membership for some
or other club or clan. Look to the patterns possible in woven wool from a company the likes of Sera Fine Silk, or
the embroidered cloths used for bow-ties from Jupe by Jackie, and it’s clear to see that textiles still make a
bow-tie a great, expressive, joyful bow-tie.
It’s hard to imagine the bow-tie re-entering
the mainstream - but that’s precisely its appeal. The long tie has yet to quite dispel its association with the
world of work. The long tie is, essentially, an expression of conservatism. But the bow-tie, for all its still being
the unexpected choice, undercuts that: the bow-tie becomes an expression not of conformity but of individuality.
This isn’t to say there’s carte blanche in wearing one - others will beg to differ, but the wearing of a bow-tie
with, say, a lumberjack shirt, even with jeans or sneakers, just looks wrong. It’s bow-tie as novelty - it might as
well spin in circles or squirt water too.But compare that to the way
David Hockney wore a bow-tie during the 1970s and 1980s: still casually, but with a sense of mischief that went with
his deliberate mis-matching of socks, patterns and anything else he could turn his artist’s eye to. Or the similar
easy naturalness with which Manolo Blahnik has long worn his bow-ties - never primly, never too self-consciously,
simply as a small splash of colourful fabric that signs off his look; even - although in this case it’s much more a
piece of personal branding - that of science educator Bill Nye.Therein
lies an example of a man who first wore a bow-tie as a bit of a joke - to play waiter at a high school banquet - but
then fell in love with the accessory’s expressiveness. And the fact, as he’s noted, that it’s not so easy to get a
bow-tie either in your soup or your bunsen burner. Safety first.