There are few items more polarizing in classic menswear than the bow tie. Either you love ’em or hate ’em.
For those who embrace the neckwear, the bow tie they conjure up images of elegant, intelligent, manly men: Theodore Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Fred Astaire, or Charles Osgood. Bow tie wearers are a special breed. As Warren St. John, men’s style writer, noted in his 2008 New York Times piece about bow ties and the men who wear them:
To its devotees the bow tie suggests iconoclasm of an Old World sort, a fusty adherence to a contrarian point of view. The bow tie hints at intellectualism, real or feigned, and sometimes suggests technical acumen, perhaps because it is so hard to tie. Bow ties are worn by magicians, country doctors, lawyers and professors and by people hoping to look like the above. But perhaps most of all, wearing a bow tie is a way of broadcasting an aggressive lack of concern for what other people think.
Regardless whether you love or hate bow ties, they have a long tradition in menswear. They originate from the uniforms of Croatian mercenaries during the Prussian War of the 17th Century and likely were the precursor to the traditional long tie so many of us wear on a daily basis.
Embrace history. You can effectively incorporate bow ties into your professional wardrobe in five simple steps.
Step 1. Get Over Yourself
You may have initial hesitation about wearing a bow tie. You might be worried that people will make comments to you about it, or make fun of you because of it. They will. Get over it.
Fact: Bow ties are great.
Accept this and move on to step 2.
Step 2. Get a Real Bow Tie
Now you need to get a bow tie.
Yes, it must be a self-tie bow tie. Pre-tied bow ties are a crime against proper style.Whether clip-on or pre-tied with a strap, they look too perfect and too precious, and therefore should be avoided at all costs. Just like a clip-on long tie, pre-tied ties are meant for children.
When picking out your first bow tie, start with traditional fabrics, colors, and pattens. Then, as your collection grows, you can move into more eccentric designs. You can have a bit more fun with bow tie patterns than long ties.
Consider different bow styles and widths as well. Just as long ties vary in width, so do bow ties. Larger guys should look to wider butterfly styles, whereas slimmer guys ought to stay with slimmer ties.
Then, ensure that your tie is sized correctly. Generally, the properly sized bow tie is the same size as your collared shirts. For example, if you have a 14.5″ pencil neck like I do, you’d want a tie sized around 14.5″. While you can purchase ties that are a fixed size, you may prefer an adjustable-length tie.
Step 3. Learn How to Tie It
Now that you’ve got your tie, learn to tie it right. A key to a successfully worn bow tie is asymmetric charm. Successfully tied, the bow tie will end up looking slightly imperfect, but that’s what makes it good. The Italian term for this is sprezzatura — elegant nonchalance.
Take the three minutes to learn how to tie one. It’s as easy as trying your shoes. Literally. It’s the same knot.
Here’s a good example video by Brett McKay of Art of Manliness:
You’re going to need a practice a few times until you get it, but just like riding a bike, you never forget how to do it once you get it right. Now that you got the basics of tying the knot, you need to make sure the proportions are right.
Step 4. Learn to Tie the Right Size Bow
You need to make sure the tie’s proportions are right. With a long tie, you ought to pay attention to whether your tie is too long or too short (hint: ideally the point of your tie should hit at your belt line). When donning a bow tie, though, you should pay attention to the width of the bow.
Here’s the easy rule: the properly tied bow should not be any wider than your face. A bow too big will look oversized and cartoonish. A bow too small will look puny and silly. Getting it right will take practice, but so does anything worth doing. Once you get this just about right, move on to Step 4.
Step 5. Wear it Proudly
Congrats, you’re wearing the sartorial equivalent of the middle finger around your neck. People will notice. Some might point and snicker. You know what? Embrace it.
Until next time.
Read the next post in this series: "The Perils of Dressing While GLBTQ."