“What do ties matter, Jeeves, at a time like this?”
“There is no time, sir, at which ties do not matter”
― P.G. Wodehouse
Rather than simply describe how to tie a necktie (which can be done in three words: over, under, through) or delve too deeply into its construction (see this informative article), this is a meditation on how to wear a tie. For a historic primer, in which the word “tie” is introduced into the lexicon, check out this 1818 printing on Necklothitania.
A good necktie is rarely inexpensive, due to the preference for hand sewing the slipstitch on the inside of the folds, allowing the fabric to slide and lay flat. Bow ties, in comparison, can be machine-made. While shirts and jackets keep you covered and warm, ties serve no essential function more than decoration. They do not solve a need, but can be subtle communicators of class, society and history. Therein lies the joy.
The way every schoolboy is taught to knot his tie is the simple four-in-hand (over, under, through), so-called for the drivers of four-horse carriages, who tied the reigns in this same manner. For a thicker knot, try the double four-in-hand (whip it around twice), or the Half-Windsor and the Windsor (also redundantly called the Double or Full Windsor). For an exhaustive list of knots, refer to 85 Ways To Tie A Tie.
In the early James Bond films, Sean Connery was fitted with a woven silk grenadine or a silk knit tie, both knotted with the trusty four-in-hand method. (Good thing, since author Ian Fleming declared in regards to From Russia With Love, “Windsor knots are characteristic of SMERSH.”) The Duke of Windsor (not a SMERSH member, as far as we know) popularized the Windsor as it created a large knot without using thick material. For the past few years, this style has been taken to collar-blocking extremes by ESPN analysts and junior catering managers. Bigger is not always better, chaps.
Material & Design
In fact, they already speak volumes. Regimental or club striped silk ties, for example, feature color schemes from the uniforms of England’s traditionally all-male boarding school system. As alumni, “old boys” would wear their school ties as a calling card. In a tight situation (say, in need of a drink but having forgotten a wallet), they might scan the room for a familiar striped tie… Regimental ties always have the stripe running from left to right – from heart to sword. On the other hand, generic striped ties (often referred to as “repp” ties for their tight weave) should be striped from right to left to prevent any unintentional affiliation. To confuse matters further, American institutions usually also stripe their ties from right to left, though Anglophile Ivy League schools follow the British custom.
The British Army’s Royal Signals Notes for Young Officers once advised to “wear a Corps tie when in plain clothes on Fridays,” eventually leading to the colloquialism “Fridays are ties days.” One could often see a retired British officer dutifully wearing a regimental tie on the last weekday. Others may carry this tradition forward as a latter-day salvo against the encroachment of casual Friday. This habit was used to great effect in the classic comedy Fawlty Towers, in which Major Gowen wears his Royal Artillery (Gunners) tie in a snazzy lightening bolt pattern.
On the other end of the spectrum, woolen ties simultaneously dress you up and down – a hugely underrated accomplishment. They signify sartorial effort, but compared to a silk tie can be casual and earthy. The texture of a woolen tie is synonymous with the outdoors. (Bonus points for bringing a family tartan into the mix.) Wool was often the choice of the working man, as a less expensive material that can take more wear and tear. In further praise of woolen ties, Patrick Grant of Savile Row tailor Norton & Sons pointed out that the rougher texture makes them “stay put all day.”
Robert Redford sported this look for most of the 1975 movie Three Days of the Condor. It may look like a simple getup, but wardrobe man Bernie Pollack (brother of Sydney, who directed the film) said they the ensemble came to define Redford’s character, a bookish CIA researcher. “We wanted an intellectual East Coast thing,” Bernie explained. “Some sort of jacket, a chambray shirt with a wool tie – not silk but wool, which gave him a bit of a rougher, college professor look.”
Three Ways To Add A Twist
Allow the blade, or thin bit of the tie that is conventionally tied up shorter than the front, to hang lower. Some buck this rule intentionally, leaving the blade rakishly trailing in a dare-you-to-mention-it move.
Bow ties function on a similar principle. Though stereotypically used as sartorial shorthand for geek, they can have an aggressive streak. As my brother was recently told by his potential employer, “You got some balls wearing a bow tie to an interview, kid.” He got the job. (Sidenote: Why do you think white collar workers, from doctors to olde time soda jerks and gas station attendants, chose bowties? The answer is practical: straight neckties have a habit of dipping into open bodies or moving gears as you bend over…)
In August 1942, a revision to the U.S. Army Regulation 600-40 (Wearing of the Service Uniform) clarified the rule that without a coat, “The necktie will be tucked into the shirt between the first and second visible buttons.” When you need to get down to work, be it stacking wood or steering your yacht, clubbing your tie keeps it out of the way.
Usually done in conjunction with a sweater or waistcoat, arching the tie is accomplished by puffing it out and pulling it up to project like a pelican’s neck. A flat lying “noose” is all of a sudden boring in comparison. So arch that tie up like a charismatic physics teacher – mine did to great effect.
Ever attempt an Eldredge Knot? How about the King George? Or do you just go the bow tie route?