Good Life / Muse / Style

Musing on Bow Ties

Bow Ties

The definition of Ren-ais-sance Man {noun}: a person with many talents or areas of knowledge. Where I’m from, that adage seems to fall more into the category of ‘jack-of-all-trades–master-of-none’. I figure a renaissance man could, if he chooses, be a fine candidate to don a bow tie. This humble author admits to be an expert in few things, but bow ties, now that’s one of those things.

It’s hard sometimes to be the enduring and consummate wearer of the other tie. I started wearing them in high school. Somewhere between marching to the beat of a different drummer and being an artsy, smarty, nerdy class clown, I found a wide and trawdy madras bow in my father’s closet (circa 1970) and never looked back. Being honest, it felt good to learn that I was not alone when I made it to college and the other gents in bows seemed to be right smart and well regarded. As time moved on, the tide of fashion moved in the favor of the bow. At first, and still now, its the hip thing with fratty-baggers. Every week, I see mature gentlemen in greater numbers in the pews of the Presbyterian church showing out with polite flowers around in their collars rather than long dangling ribbons down their chests. I’m not talking about weird country lawyers, the white belt crowd, just regular well dressed gentlemen. So what’s hard about being a lifelong bow tie guy? A fear that when fashion wanes, us bow bearers will be left out there– we hope you remember, we were always that way.

Wearing a bow tie for most men, especially when fashion trends favor the more traditional, falls into an alien area, something akin to the passing desire to grow a beard, buying a bottle of cognac, or going through a phase of listening to fusion jazz. For some, there must be an awkward feeling showing out in a bow. No matter how long one has worn a bow tie, someone will comment on it, so the wearer must be prepared with a response to comment with. They must be prepared to have old women try to make the knot tighter and the wings more straight- and prepared to defend their neck politely. I have been told that wearing a bow tie can feel foreign, as if the front of one’s shirt is naked and exposed. Quite contrarily, when I wear a long necktie (usually when occasion dictates- let’s say a funeral), I feel as if there is a phallus dangling along my neck.

This is a golden age for the bow tie. After my first tryst with my father’s old bow tie, I set out to fine a few of my own. In the early nineties, living in a small city, without access to a variety of fine men’s shops and before the advent of the internet, the quest for a good collection of bows was fruitless. The best bet on my first mission was a tuxedo shop and the best offerings were silky pre-tied formals. Let’s get this out of the way. Most men can not tie a bow tie. It is easy, but most will never learn. (I will never forget my best friend showing up at my front door in the rain, unannounced, with tie in hand and his date, a first date, in the car waiting.) You can spot a pre-tied bow a football field away and they are not cool. Through luck and good fortune I stumbled into Ben Silver in Charleston– I thought I was in heaven. Ben Silver had a large table stocked with hundreds of repp striped bows. Each one had a story: military regimental stripes, old English boy clubs, and collegiate colors. To say the least, I was finally there, but my seventeen year old budget wasn’t ready to stock my closet. Here and there I would fine a bow tie. I stumbled into Alexander Julian’s store in Chapel Hill and picked up a few, then a dark old men’s store with a blind tailor that smoked amongst the merchandise in Abingdon, Virginia, I bought every one I saw on the off chance Brooks Brothers or J. Crew or the like had them out. Eventually, I could go to nearly any occasion in a bow tie. Flash forward to today, I can’t walk through the accessory section without passing over a rack of bows; anywhere. Interestingly enough, I live in a rather simple city. When the department store in my home town stocked up on hundreds of great bow ties, they did what department stores do at the end of a season, they put them on sale (guess no one was a taker but me). After years of searching, I did what any man denied would do and indiscriminately wrapped my arms around the whole lot with a big hug, with little regard for the multiples or styles I wouldn’t wear and placed them on the check-out counter. Today it just isn’t that hard to find a bow tie. Absent the possibility of a sale that can’t be passed over or that they fall out of favor again, I doubt I would ever buy 50+ ties at once.

Bow TieSo here is the lesson from that massive bag of bow ties I brought home. First and foremost, when I looked at the first tie I knew that it was my kind of tie. Not all bow ties are the same. Some are too wide and some are too narrow, some are too long and others too short. Some are a smooth silk, others a finely corrugated silk weave. Some are printed, having motifs printed on them. Some are not silk, but cotton. Asked for the perfect tie, I would say that the cut is in the form of a modest butterfly. It would have a texture in the silk that keeps it stiff and dimpled and unlikely to unfurl. It would never have a motif printed onto it. Some repeating motifs sewn into the fabric are okay, I guess, but I can never go wrong with a diagonal repp. When I looked into that rack of ties marked $34 and then 1/2 off, that is what I found, a big load of my style. So I hugged all of them over to the clerk at the register like a parent hoarding cabbage patch kids in 1982 . Interestingly, when I went home and inspected them, all the markings inside the length: the sizing band, the label that said All-Silk, everything less the brand name that would be hidden in my collar, was identical to the ties I had grown accustomed to paying sixty-five bucks for at the time. I had to share this story, not as a demonstration of how I am a hoarder or spend-thrift, but rather to show that once you find a tie that is uniquely yours, you will stick with it. Another thing I learned from the tie hugging adventure was that if you find a tie that you know is timeless and that you are going to wear over and over that you should buy multiples. Perhaps one of the most timeless bow ties is a navy with white polka dots sewn into it, The Winston Churchill. I’ve bought just about as many of those as I have bought copies of Back-in-Black (wax to cassette to CD to MP3). You see bow ties are disposable. As long as men grow facial hair, bow ties will get picked and fuzzy in the edges. (A great trick is singeing the frayed strands with a lighter.)

I would be remised not to mention how to tie a bow tie, so I stand remised. Type it into Google images, I’m sure that can help you out. Or find a good woman, they can always help– but don’t let them make it too perfect!

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