Oscar Wilde once said, “A well-tied tie is the first serious step in life.”
December is National Tie Month, and to celebrate that mainstay of corporate fashion, here’s a brief history of the tie.
Before the 20th century
While the modern necktie emerged in the 1920s, the story really begins in the 17th century, during the Thirty Years’ War in France. King Louis XIII hired Croatian soldiers who wore a piece of cloth around their neck as part of their uniform. Louis loved it (as did his son, Louis XIV, shown), and even named it “La Cravate” after the Croatians he took it from.
The French Steinkirk (kind of a looser version of the cravat) followed shortly after at the end of the 17th century, and the stock tie came not long after that (think two giant rectangles of fabric crossing over each other).
By the 1800s, touching another man’s neckwear was apparently grounds for a duel. This is also the period when we start to see some of the ties that we’re more familiar with today.
The word tie starts to replace cravat. The ascot is popularized by King Edward VII. And the four-in-hand knot is embraced all over, especially in the military and at colleges (as the story goes, an Oxford student tied the ribbon from his boater hat around his neck with the knot, and it took off).
Meanwhile, more and more knots were being developed. In Paris, Stefano Demarelli charged steep prices to give valets a six-hour intensive in knotting neckwear.
And 1827 brought about the first best-selling book on the topic: L’Art de Se Mettre la Cravate included 32 knots to try (though more satirical tomes predated this one – Neckclothitania; or Tietania; being an essay on starchers, was published in 1818).
The tie landscape remained more or less the same until the early 1920s, when a tie maker in New York named Jesse Langsdorf patented a new way of cutting fabric on an angle and then sewing it in three segments to create the (aptly named) Langsdorf Necktie. It laid flat without getting twisted, and could spring back to its original shape after each wear, opening the door to even more knots.
In the 1930s, ties got wider and shorter – but the most notable development in this decade was the invention of the Windsor knot, created by the Duke of Windsor (or, possibly his father, George V) in 1936. The duke preferred an extra-wide knot and had ties specially made from a thicker cloth to create it – but eventually opted to invent a whole new knot that could create that larger look from normal cloth.
In this decade, things start to get a bit more playful. Think “zoot suits” and Hawaiian shirts. Patterns got more and more bright and garish, and the “Belly Warmer” was born: an extra-wide tie sometimes spanning five inches.
“Introduced as a joke, the belly warmer ties became trendy after actors like Bob Hope, Alan Ladd and Danny Kay were seen wearing them,” explains Vintage Dancer. “Soon after, scantily clad pin-up girls painted on the back side of a tie became a fashionable secret.”
If the ‘40s were all about super-wide ties, the ‘50s were just the opposite. The skinny tie, usually no more than two or so inches, and were paired with more tailored, streamlined, “skinnier” suits.
The pendulum swung back again in the ‘60s, with ties getting even wider than 20 years prior. The Kipper tie, for example – invented by British fashion designer Michael Fish in 1966 – could reach widths of six inches.
“Mr. Fish widened the blades of his ties to such an extreme they began to resemble a kipper (a popular British breakfast dish of smoked herring that is split butterfly style) and thus, also being derived from a ‘Fish’, the Kipper Tie was born,” explains Mason and Sons.
If you can believe it, ties continued to get bigger in the ‘70s, with new synthetic fabrics and loud patterns. (“Ties screamed with color and ballooned in size, with knots the size of small apples,” says Fortune Magazine.)
But another trend took the spotlight at this time: the Bolo tie. You know the one we’re talking about – the corded tie with an ornamental clasp, often associated with western culture.
It had been around since the 1940s – Victor Emmanual Cedarstaff says he invented the tie after he wore a silver-trimmed hatband around his neck and got a complement on the look. But when the Bolo was made the official neckwear of Arizona in 1971, it really took off.
This decade brought together a number of trends from previous eras. The novelty patterns of the ‘40s. The mega widths of the ‘60s and ‘70s (paired with banker’s collars and suspenders, of course). The Bolo (think Duckie Dale in Pretty in Pink). Skinny ties also made a comeback as part of the New Wave movement, though they were usually in leather now.
And if this hodgepodge of styles isn’t enough, we have two words for you: keyboard necktie.
As we near the end of the century, ties leveled off to a more uniform width (around four inches), and three basic knots: the Windsor, the Half Windsor, and the four-in-hand.
Though, of course a plethora of knot options were still out there (in fact, two Cambridge physicists penned a book called The 85 Ways to Tie a Tie: The Science and Aesthetics of Tie Knots in 1999).
But at the very end of this decade, a new influence came on the scene: “the Regis look.”
We’re not kidding. When Regis Philbin started hosting Who Wants to Be a Millionaire in 1999, people raced to mimic his look: a dark dress shirt with a shiny tie in the same colour. The Orlando Sentinel reported on the craze at the time:
“‘We get e-mail every day from people who want those shirts and ties,’ said Lou Melazzo, general manager of Beau Brummel, the New York retailer that provides Philbin’s on-air wardrobe. ‘He’s really put menswear on the map again, and it’s nice. It’s refreshing to have people go back to some elegance again.’”
The 2000s to present
As more and more startups eschewed business dress codes for more casual looks, ties became less of a daily wardrobe component starting in the late ‘90s and 2000s. Now, in many offices, ties are a novelty, with Tie Tuesday the new Hawaiian shirt day, and “casual Fridays” invading the rest of the week.
Though sartorialists will be happy to know that ties might be poised to make a comeback. And in honour of National Tie Day, we’ll leave you with Forbes’ inspiring words on the topic:
“Despite various attempts to kill them off over the years – by turtleneck-wearing intellectuals, laid-back Silicon Valley types, and the recent ‘corporate casual’ movement – neckties endure. Indeed, after a brief downturn a few years ago ties are coming on strong again amidst a revival of tailored clothing, as well as an upsurge in interest among young consumers whose penchant for pairing non-traditional elements to create distinctly personal looks cries out for captivating neckwear.”
We couldn’t put it better. Now if you’ll excuse us, we need to pick out a tie for tomorrow.