NECKWEARby Alan Flusser
"A well-tied tie is the
The history of neckties dates back a mere hundred years or so, for they came into existence as the direct result of a war. In 1660, in celebration of its hard-fought victory over Turkey, a crack regiment from Croatia (then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire), visited Paris. There, the soldiers were presented as glorious heroes to Louis XIV, a monarch well known for his eye toward personal adornment. It so happened that the officers of this regiment were wearing brightly colored handkerchiefs fashioned of silk around their necks. These neck cloths, which probably descended from the Roman fascalia worn by orators to warm the vocal chords, struck the fancy of the king, and he soon made them an insignia of royalty as he created a regiment of Royal Cravattes. The word "cravat," incidentally, is derived from the word "Croat."
It wasn't long before this new style crossed the channel to England. Soon no gentleman would have considered himself well-dressed without sporting some sort of cloth around his neck--the more decorative, the better. At times, cravats were worn so high that a man could not move his head without turning his whole body. There were even reports of cravats worn so thick that they stopped sword thrusts. The various styles knew no bounds, as cravats of tasseled strings, plaid scarves, tufts and bows of ribbon, lace, and embroidered linen all had their staunch adherents. Nearly one hundred different knots were recognized, and as a certain M. Le Blanc, who instructed men in the fine and sometimes complex art of tying a tie, noted, "The grossest insult that can be offered to a man comme il faut is to seize him by the cravat; in this place blood only can wash out the stain upon the honor of either party."
In this country, ties were also an integral part of a man's wardrobe. However, until the time of the Civil War, most ties were imported from the Continent. Gradually, though, the industry gained ground, to the point that at the beginning of the twentieth century, American neckwear finally began to rival that of Europe, despite the fact that European fabrics were still being heavily imported.
In the 1960s, in the midst of the Peacock Revolution, there was a definite lapse in the inclination of men to wear ties, as a result of the rebellion against both tradition and the formality of dress. But by the mid-1970s, this trend had reversed itself to the point where now, in the 1980s, the sale of neckwear is probably as strong if not stronger than it has ever been.
How to account for the continued popularity of neckties? For years, fashion historians and sociologists predicted their demise--the one element of a man's attire with no obvious function. Perhaps they are merely part of an inherited tradition. As long as world and business leaders continue to wear ties, the young executives will follow suit and ties will remain a key to the boardroom. On the other hand, there does seem to be some aesthetic value in wearing a tie. In addition to covering the buttons of the shirt and giving emphasis to the verticality of a man's body (in much the same way that the buttons on a military uniform do), it adds a sense of luxury and richness, color and texture, to the austerity of the dress shirt and business suit.
Perhaps no other item of a man's wardrobe has altered its shape so often as the tie. It seems that the first question fashion writers always ask is, "Will men's ties be wider or narrower this year?"
In the late 1960s and early 70s, ties grew to five inches in width. At the time, the rationale was that these wide ties were in proportion to the wider jacket lapels and longer shirt collars. This was the correct approach, since these elements should always be in balance. But once these exaggerated proportions were discarded, fat ties became another victim of fashion.
The proper width of a tie, and one that will never be out of style, is 3 1/4 inches (2 3/4 to 3 1/2 inches are also acceptable). As long as the proportions of men's clothing remain true to a man's body shape, this width will set the proper balance. Though many of the neckties sold today are cut in these widths, the section of the tie where the knot is made has remained thick--a holdover from the fat, napkinlike ties of the 1960s. This makes tying a small, elegant knot more difficult. Yet the relationship of a tie's knot to the shirt collar is an important consideration. If the relationship is proper, the knot will never be so large that it spreads the collar or forces it open, nor will it be so small that it will become lost in the collar.
Standard neckties come in lengths anywhere from 52 to 58 inches long. Taller men, or those who use a Windsor knot, may require a longer tie, which can be special-ordered. After being tied, the tips of the necktie should be long enough to reach the waistband of the trousers. (The ends of the tie should either be equal, or the smaller one just a fraction shorter.)
After you've confirmed the appropriateness of a tie's shape, next feel the fabric. If it's made of silk and it feels rough to the touch, then the silk is of an inferior quality. Silk that is not supple is very much like hair that's been dyed too often. It's brittle and its ends will fray easily. If care hasn't been taken in the inspection of ties, you may find misweaves and puckers.
All fine ties are cut on the bias, which means they have been cut across the fabric. This allows them to fall straight after the knot has been tied, without curling. A simple test consists of holding a tie across you hand. If it begins to twirl in the air, it was probably not cut on the bias and it should not be purchased.
Quality neckties want you to see everything: they have nothing to hide. Originally, neckties were cut from a single large square of silk, which was then folded seven times in order to give the tie a rich fullness. Today the price of silk and the lack of skilled artisans prohibits this form of manufacture. Ties now derive their body and fullness by means of an additional inner lining.
Besides giving body to the tie, the lining helps the tie hold its shape. The finest-quality ties today are lined with 100 percent wool and are generally made only in Europe. Most other quality ties use a wool mixture. The finer the tie, the higher the wool content. You can actually check. Fine linings are marked with a series of gold bars which are visible if you open up the back of the tie. The more bars, the heavier the lining. Many people assume that a quality tie must be thick, as this would suggest that the silk is heavy and therefore expensive. In fact, in most cases it is simply the insertion of a heavier lining that gives the tie this bulk. Be sure, then, that the bulk of the tie that you're feeling is the silk outer fabric and not the lining.
After you've examined the lining, take a look at the tie just above the spot where the two sides come together to form an inverted V. In most quality ties, you will find a stitch joining the back flaps. This is called the bar tack, and it helps maintain the shape of the tie.
Now, if you can, open up the tie as far as possible and look for a loose black thread. This thread is called the slip stitch and was invented by a man named Joss Langsdorf in the 1920s to give added resilience to the tie. The fact that the tie can move along this thread means that it won't rip when it's being wrapped tightly around your neck, and that it will, when removed, return to its original shape. Pull the slip stitch, and the tie should gather. If you can do this, you've found a quality, handmade tie.
Finally, take the tie in your hand and run your finger down its length. You should find three separate pieces of fabric stitched together, not two, as in most commercial ties. This construction is used to help the tie conform easily to the neck.
There are several standard ways to knot a tie: the four-in-hand knot (which dates back to the days of the coach and four in England, when the men on top of the coach would knot their ties in this manner to prevent them from flying in the wind while they were driving); the Windsor knot, purportedly invented by the Duke of Windsor, though he later disclaimed the invention; and the half-Windsor.
Though many men considered good dressers use the Windsor or half-Winsdor knot, it has always struck me as giving too bulbous an appearance. For the most part, the majority of men simply do not look good wearing this knot, though there are a few notable exceptions, particularly Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. In any case, the Windsor knot only looks good when worn with a spread collar, which is how the Duke of Windsor originally wore it. My preference remains for the standard four-in-hand knot. It is the smallest and most precise of knots, and it has been the staple of the natural-shouldered, British-American style of dress in this country and in England for the past fifty years.
But whether one chooses the four-in-hand, the Windsor, or the half-Winsdor, each should be tied so that there is a dimple or crease in the center of the tie just below the knot. This forces the tie to billow and creates a fullness that is the secret to its proper draping.
The bow tie is derived from the stock worn several centuries ago. Stocks were made of washable fabrics and were wrapped many times around the neck and then tied in front. Eventually, this evolved into the single band around the neck, with the ends tied up in a bowlike configuration.
Recently, bow ties have enjoyed a renaissance. Worn for formal wear with a pleated-front shirt, they are appropriate and elegant. Worn during the day, they will give a man a casual or professorial look.
Bow ties should also avoid the extreme proportions. Tiny bows look just as silly and out of place as those huge butterflies that make men look as if their necks have been gift-wrapped. The general rule of thumb states that bow ties should never be broader than the widest part of the neck and should never extend beyond the outside of the points of the collar.
Ties are the most perishable item in a man's wardrobe, and as such they should be cared for appropriately. The proper care of your neckties actually begins when you take them off your neck. No matter how convenient it seems to slip the small end out of the knot, remember that you are significantly decreasing the longevity of the tie by using this method. Instead, untie the knot first, usually reversing the steps you used when you dressed in the morning. This reversal of steps will untwist the fibers of the material and lining and will help alleviate light creases. If creases are particularly severe, put the two ends of the tie together and roll the tie around your finger like a belt. Slip it off your finger and leave it rolled up overnight. The following morning, if it is a woven silk tie, hang it in your closet. Knitted or crocheted ties should not be hung but laid flat or rolled up instead and then placed in a drawer. This should return the tie to its original state.
Most experts agree that one ought not send a necktie out to be dry-cleaned. While dry cleaners may be able to remove spots, once they press the tie, they will compress the lining and dull the luster of the silk. A water stain can generally be removed by rubbing it with a piece of the same fabric (the other end of the tie, perhaps). More serious stains will often respond to a spot remover such as carbon tetrachloride. If none of this works, follow the example of Fred Astaire and turn your tie into a belt.
With proper care, your neckties can last almost forever. And if you've chosen them with a proper eye toward proportion, there's no reason you can't wear them at least as long as that.