“A well-tied tie is the first serious step in life” ~ Oscar Wilde
The June 4 Wall Street Journal carried a story on the front page by Ray A. Smith that seems to indicate impending doom for the men’s necktie. In the article, which is about the closing of the American Dress Furnishings Association, a trade group that represents American tie makers, Mr. Smith reports that sales of neckties in the U.S. have fallen by about 50% since 1995, and that a recent Gallup poll found that the number of men in the U.S. who reported wearing ties to work every day reached a record low of 6% last year, down from 10% in 2002 — a 40% drop in just five years. If that trend continues, ties may join the frock coat and spats in the dustbin of history within another generation.
Younger readers may not understand why this is literally front-page news. But, in the grand scheme of things, this a startling, sudden change; ties were ubiquitous in the business world just one generation ago, and ubiquitous in all of society just two generations ago.
To better understand how important ties once were, consider the anecdote from John T. Molloy’s 1975 book, Dress for Success, in which a man showed up for a job interview without a tie, and the interviewer was so bothered by it that he gave the man $6.50 (about $27 in 2007) out of his own pocket and told him to go buy a tie, after which they would continue the interview. Do I need to tell you that he didn’t get the job?
This decline of ties is unfortunate, because they’re attractive: they add a layer of visual interest to an outfit, give a sense of added height by enhancing the verticality of the body, hide the shirt’s buttons and placket, and fill the "dead" space between the jacket’s lapels.
The History of the Necktie
The history of the necktie is difficult to discern, which may be partially due to the fact that it hinges on how one defines "necktie." The earliest historical example of anything resembling a tie is from ancient Egypt, where men would tie rectangular cloths around their necks to show social status. Art from the Roman Empire also depicts men wearing neck scarves similar to the modern necktie. Most seem to agree that the modern necktie dates directly to 1660, where it was popularized by Louis XIV. Its popularity quickly spread throughout bourgeoisie society in France, then through all of Europe, then to America; soon, no man could consider himself well-dressed without a band of silk around his neck. (A look through the photos of past presidents shows how the tie evolved from the late-1700s to the early-1900s.)
The modern necktie originated in 1924, when New York tie maker Jesse Langsdorf discovered that cutting the tie at a 45-degree angle, on the bias (against the weave’s grain) caused the tie to hang in a straight line from the knot, rather than twist, as ties of the time were prone to do. He further discovered that sewing a tie from three pieces, rather than two, made a more resilient tie that more easily returned to its original shape. He patented this method of construction, and it has remained the basic formula for manufacturers worldwide ever since.
Ties fell from widespread use in American society during the social upheaval of the mid-late ’60s, and their popularity in the business world declined during the "business-casual" craze in the mid-late ’90s.
The Freedom to Conform
It’s ironic that, when tie wearing first declined in the ’60s, the argument was that they’re oppressive — an argument that persists today. The truth is the opposite: they’re not only expressive, they’re probably the most expressive things a man can wear that still fall within the bounds of good taste (in other words, not counting loud, ugly, and often vulgar t-shirts).
In fact, there are probably thousands of ways to personalize the "oppressive," classic male outfit of suit and tie, even allowing for the fact that suits generally must be navy blue or medium-to-dark gray to be tasteful (there are exceptions to almost everything, and brown or black may be appropriate in some situations, and tan or even white may work in the summer, but navy or gray are always right): a suit can be single-breasted (with two or three buttons) or double-breasted (with a six-to-one, four-to-one, or six-to-two button stance); solid or with a pattern like stripes of various kinds, plaid, or checks; a shirt can be French- or barrel-cuffed and can have a straight, spread, club, tab, or button-down collar; some collar styles can be worn pinned, or not; and shirts can be solid, striped, have a bolder pattern like tattersall, or even have a collar and cuffs that contrast the rest of the shirt. Add the possibilities for tie, pocket-square, and suspender colors and designs, not to mention patterned sport jackets for more casual wear, and the possibilities are mind-boggling.
Thankfully, white-collar men have been freed from the shackles of this (elegant) "oppression," and are now free, as GQ columnist Glenn O’Brien wrote in the Sept. 2002 issue, "to go to work expressing the full range of their individuality in khakis and polo shirts." In other words, men have exchanged their obligation to look like everyone else for an obligation to look like everyone else, only the new standard outfit is not only far less elegant, but also offers far less room for customization. Contrast the list of options in the previous paragraph with the one for business-casual, which basically consists of changing the color of the polo shirt and changing the chinos to a slightly darker or lighter shade of khaki.
This erosion of standards in the business world parallels the similar erosion in clothing standards in the rest of life; many men today seem to connote "formal" with a business suit, "dressed up" with any non-denim trousers and any collared shirt, and "casual" with everything else, which may include gym attire or even pajamas.
Another argument against ties is that they’re uncomfortable, but that’s ridiculous. As Jeff Tucker wrote in his 2003 LRC article, Dress Like a Man, if it chokes you to wear a tie, it has nothing to do with your tie; it means your shirt collars are too small. A good rule-of-thumb is that you should be able to comfortably fit two fingers into your shirt collar. To know what size shirt to buy, measure your neck with a tape-measure, then add one inch to allow for extra room and shrinkage.
A Return to Elegance?
On a recent Lew Rockwell Show, Lew and Mark Thornton speculated that the economic downturn we’re suffering may have a reversing effect on some trends in society, especially regarding people’s appearances — against things like tattoos, body piercings, and casual dress, as people look for ways to look more professional than others in an effort to either keep their jobs or find better jobs. That would definitely be a silver lining to the recession, and it looks like it couldn’t come at a better time for the necktie.
If you’d like to start wearing ties, but don’t know where to start — or if you think a tie is a tie, here are some guidelines:
This guide will focus on long, "four-in-hand" neckties, but here’s a word on bow ties: if you like them, feel free to wear them whenever they’re appropriate to your particular situation. But, in my view, they look best with three-piece suits or with sweater-vests, because on their own they leave too much "dead" space at the front of the shirt.
But never wear a clip-on or strap-on bow tie; learn to tie a real one — with practice, tying a bow tie is no more difficult than tying your shoes.
Why bother? Because it’s one of the little touches that defines a well-dressed man, and it’s impossible to tie the types of perfect little bows seen on pre-tied bow ties; bow ties are supposed to be a little asymmetrical and askew, and anyone who knows what a real bow tie knot looks like can spot a pre-tied bow tie from 10 feet away. (If anyone makes a pre-tied bow tie that looks like a real, askew knot, you should still wear a real one, if for no other reason than the satisfaction from knowing you’re one of the few who wears a real bow tie.)
These long ties that have become popular with tuxedos are abominations. So, even if you don’t care for bow ties with suits, you should still learn to tie a bow tie for black tie events. Colored bow ties with tuxedos are also abominable, so buy a black one to wear with a tuxedo — the outfit is called "black tie" for a reason.
Colors, Patterns, and Materials
Ties should be made of natural materials, usually 100% silk (wool ties for winter, and cotton ties for summer, are appropriate in more casual situations).
Ideally, patterns should be woven, rather than printed. Patterns other than stripes should also be small.
This number can be adjusted for one’s personal needs, but consider purchasing the following ties for a basic collection: solid navy; solid burgundy; solid red; navy with white pin-dots; burgundy with white pin-dots; and about 20 more in repps (diagonal stripes; stripes of equal widths are called block stripes, while stripes of varying widths are known as ribbon stripes) and foulards (small, repeating pattern of diamonds, flowers, etc.), all in some two-color combination of navy, red, burgundy, or white; maybe with a couple of paisleys. Assuming you wear a tie six days a week, this would give you enough ties to go a month without wearing the same one twice. And, if you’re a man who doesn’t like to think much about clothes, and you have just the usual assortment of suits in navy or gray and shirts in white or light blue, this selection of colors will allow you to randomly grab any tie from your closet without thinking about it.
But a wardrobe is a journey, not a destination. So, if you’re a man who does like to think about clothes, once you have this foundation in place, now the fun begins. Add some club ties to your collection (a club tie has a small, repeating pattern, often with a sporting theme, like fish, boats, anchors, shields, golf clubs, etc.). The Mises Institute tie is a great start; it’s a beautiful addition that also supports a worthy cause. Then you can branch out into black, gray, brown, yellow, lighter shades of blue, and even pink ties. You can also add more than one solid tie in the same color, because they can have different textural patterns; one could theoretically have 50 solid ties, all in the same color, but all different. Grenadine is an especially beautiful solid weave, but it can be hard to find. Ties in colors that might be inappropriate for most days can work for holidays, like orange for Halloween or green for Christmas. Holiday-themed club ties are also fun. Generally, you should avoid any "loud" tie but a paisley — anything with odd patterns and/or harsh, bright colors. If this needs to be explained further, do a Google image search for Rush Limbaugh ties; his contribution to haberdashery is similar to his contribution to political thought.
Also avoid ties with designer logos on the bottom; fortunately, this will be easy since few brands have them. The brand Countess Mara may be the worst offender; they make beautiful ties, including some of the most beautiful repps available, and the brand is often easy to find in thrift stores (more on that later). Unfortunately, many of them are almost ruined by a garish logo in contrasting-colored thread at the bottom; the ones I’ve purchased have the logo in the same color thread as the background so that the logo is hardly noticeable, but it’d still be better if it weren’t there at all.
Length and Width
Tie widths should be determined by the rules of proportionality, not by the whims of fashion designers; any tie that’s between three and four inches at the widest point will always be in style.
The bottom of your tie should fall somewhere on your waistband, ideally in the middle (or around the middle of your belt buckle, although you shouldn’t wear belts with suits as they draw attention to your waist and destroy the line of the suit, cutting your body in half visually). Most standard ties are around 56-inches; while I could be wrong, this length will probably suit most men, although the number of times you have to "wrap" the tie as your knotting it will vary with your height, as it will with the thickness of the tie’s outer material and lining. Very short men may have to have their ties cut, which a seamstress could probably do for a small charge; very tall men may have to buy extra-long ties, which are easy to find at big and tall stores, but may be difficult to find elsewhere.
Evidently there are 85 ways to tie a tie, according to the book by that name. But probably the three best-known are the four-in-hand, the half-Windsor, and the full-Windsor; diagrams of how to tie each are easily found online. The four-in-hand is probably the most popular of these, and is the knot I’ve been wearing since I started wearing real ties, when I was 12. In my experience, it’s more difficult to make a neat knot with the half-Windsor, which also makes a bigger knot than the four-in-hand. The full-Windsor makes a still-bigger knot, and looks best with spread-collar shirts, which have the widest space between collar points. (For a look at this knot, look at Pat Buchanan on MSNBC, because it has to be the one he wears; his knots are as big as his fist, but they suit him.)
Whichever knot you choose, pull it tightly; nothing looks worse than a knot that is too loose.
Ideally, a dimple should be centered under the knot. To make one, after making the knot — but before making the final pull to make it tight, place your thumb and index fingers on the sides of your tie (with your thumbs on the bottom of the wide blade and your index fingers on the top), turn both sides toward the center horizontally, then pull vertically.
Buying a Tie
I have a confession: I have an addiction to thrift-store ties, and my collection of probably 300 ties indicates that, if "addiction" is an exaggeration, it’s not by much (although, in my defense, it has taken me about 15 years to amass this many). Thrift stores are great places to build a tie collection; like-new ties can often be found for 50 cents—$2 each, so a man could spend a day going to all of the thrift stores in his city and probably find 20 ties for the price of one new one in a department store. As with any second-hand merchandise, you’ll have to wade through a lot of junk, but the advice in this article should help you find the good ones. Basically, avoid synthetics, anything dirty, and anything outside of 3—4 inches in width. Unfortunately, it will be difficult to build your foundation at thrift stores, so they’re more for expanding your collection once your foundation is in place.
To build your basic collection, look to discount stores like Stein Mart and T.J. Maxx and to eBay, which is probably the best source if you don’t have to have any one tie immediately. If you live near a large city, you may also have outlet stores near you. Good quality ties can usually be found from any of these sources for about $10 each.
There are many excellent brands, but three that should be easy to find from any of these sources (including thrift stores) are Polo Ralph Lauren, Brooks Brothers, and Robert Talbott.
But, to support the necktie industry, also treat yourself to a tie in a retail shop at least a couple of times per year. Unfortunately, finding tasteful ties in more inexpensive stores can be difficult. But, for one inexpensive source, Ralph Lauren recently introduced a line of products, including ties, for JC Penney called American Living. The line’s ties that I’ve seen are quite tasteful, and include many of the ties suggested for my basic tie wardrobe. They retail for $38, but are frequently on sale (I don’t follow JC Penney that closely, but it looks like their pricing may be like that of Jos. A. Bank, where the merchandise is literally always on sale, so the sale prices are the real retail prices.)
And, if you acquire a taste for ties and really want to treat yourself, consider a custom-made tie from a firm like Sam Hober. At about $80 each, they’re expensive for ties, but cheap by the standards of bespoke clothing.
Wearing a Tie
Again, the bottom of the front, wide blade of the tie should fall somewhere on the waistband of the trousers. Hopefully no one needs to be told this, but the narrow, back blade must be shorter than the front blade so that it doesn’t stick out underneath it. It should also be long enough to tuck into the keeper tab on the back of the tie’s wide blade. So the back blade should fall somewhere between these points. Virtually any tie can be tied to achieve this; eventually, you’ll be able to tell by instinct where to place the blades before beginning your knot and how many times to "wrap" the knot, and you’ll almost always get it right the first time. If not, just try again.
One should generally avoid wearing a tie loosened, with an unbuttoned collar.
Never, ever wear a tie without a sport or suit jacket. (It may be fine to remove the jacket later, depending on the situation, but you shouldn’t leave the house wearing a tie with no jacket, unless it’s part of your required work uniform. Ties go with jackets. Period. A cardigan sweater might be an acceptable substitute for a jacket in a few casual situations, but a pull-over sweater with a tie would still require a jacket. No other jacket is an acceptable substitute.)
Various implements exist to keep a tie in place; I’m not that big on them, maybe because they indicate an obsession with perfect neatness that can only exist on mannequins, not on real people wearing real clothes and living life. I especially find tie chains to be ostentatious. But it’s a matter of personal preference; tie bars or tacks are fine, but they should be as small and plain as possible. Don’t worry about the holes a tie tack makes in your ties; they should close as soon as the tack is removed.
I highly recommend the occasional use of collar pins, which are basically safety pins worn to pin the two halves of a straight collar or Eton collar (collar with rounded points) together underneath the tie’s knot. Some shirts come with permanent holes in the collar; they’re fine, but they leave no option but to always wear a pin with that shirt. In any case, avoid the kinds of clip-on pins usually sold in department stores; in my experience, they never stay in place, and sometimes one side will even come completely unclipped from the collar. After your first experience wearing a clip-on pin, you’ll find yourself constantly feeling your collar or looking for a reflective surface to check it. But, if you buy one that pins through the collar, you’ll put it in place and forget about it.
Caring for Your Ties
I’ve long heard that you should untie your tie by reversing the steps of tying the knot, rather than by just pulling the back blade through the knot. But I’ve never done that and I’ve never had a problem with it damaging any of my ties. The most important thing is to build a big enough collection to ensure a sufficient rotation; that way, any one tie won’t get worn that often, so it’ll wear out much slower than it would otherwise, even if you don’t take perfect care of it. In any event, never leave a tie knotted after you take it off, because that may permanently crease it.
Speaking of creases, ties should never be ironed because doing so can permanently flatten the tie’s rolled edges, giving it an unattractive, one-dimensional appearance. To remove wrinkles, steam it with a steamer, with the steam function on an iron, or by hanging it in the bathroom before showering.
Any tie can be stored either by hanging it on a tie rack or by rolling it up and placing it in a drawer; the one exception is knit ties, which should never be hung because, like hanging a sweater, hanging them will stretch them out of shape.
Stains are one hazard that tie wearers must face, and this is one area where bow tie fans have a big advantage. Stains usually occur when eating; other than just generally being careful, tucking a cloth napkin in your collar or slinging your tie over your shoulder may help, although I can’t recall ever doing either of those things, and I don’t know whether either of them would be considered good manners. I do know that once a tie is stained, it’s usually ruined; dry cleaners are notorious for destroying ties, even if they manage to remove the stain. There’s a company called Tie Crafters that will attempt to clean a tie for $10.50, but there’s a four-tie minimum, plus about $9.00 shipping, depending on the shipping method you choose. So getting a tie cleaned by people who know what they’re doing will cost about $50; unless the tie was extraordinarily expensive or has special sentimental value, it’s probably not worth it. Just approach tie wearing with the mentality that any tie that gets stained is ruined.
Tie One On
Now you’re ready to start wearing ties, to strike a blow for aesthetics, elegance, and professionalism and against slovenliness. Help save the venerable necktie from extinction!