Bow Ties

Some rules of thumb for the neck

Everyone has an opinion about bow ties. I have a young friend in the television business in New York whose job does not require him to dress for work in the conventional sense; he can wear jeans and T-shirts to produce the promotional spots for his cable channel. But once a week he wears a suit, a fine shirt, and a bow tie. He is more than six feet tall and in the past three years has gone from shoulder-length hair to a shaved head. The only constant in his appearance is a bow tie, once a week. "I hate the grunge look," I tell him. "Why don't you wear a bow tie every day?"

"A bow tie is like a wrapped gift," he tells me. "If I wore one every day, it wouldn't be a treat."

bow-purp picture

I own 147 bow ties. Most of them I bought myself. Some of them have been given to me by friends. Often these gift ties have little lights in them, connected to batteries that fit in a shirt pocket, and the lights spell out messages like HAPPY FOURTH OF JULY and REDSOX IN 1999. Or they are decorated with feathers or designed to spin around like windmills. Until my junior year in college I wore bow ties only to high school proms. These bow ties were always the clip-on variety. Early in my junior year in college a roommate and I were invited to a black-tie dinner. My roommate had grown up in New York City, had gone to boarding schools, and had attended numerous coming-out parties on Long Island, in Connecticut, and in the city. When he saw me clipping on my black bow tie, he grabbed it from my hand, threw it on the floor, and jumped up and down on it until the clips were broken. "Never," he cried, "wear a clip-on bow tie. Never admit you even know anyone who does." My roommate was sartorially intimidating. He wore straw boaters in the spring. He wore white-linen suits to class. When he didn't wear braces to hold up his pants, he pulled a silk tie around his waist and knotted it like a belt, just like Fred Astaire. Being a successful roommate is like being a successful husband or wife: it's a careful dance. He didn't want to teach me how to tie a bow tie. He wanted to tie it for me, whenever I was forced into a formal situation. My job was to get him through exams. His only advice for me when we parted was "Remember, tying a bow tie is like tying your shoes in the dark while drunk."

I actually learned to tie a bow tie from a friend of my parents', a friend my father dismissed as someone who "thinks he's Peter Pan." Mike, my parents' friend, lived in New York. He had gone to Harvard, class of 1928, and spent his working life in the retail business as an executive, starting in handbags. My junior year in college I used to escape from my family during vacations and stay with Mike and his wife, who always welcomed young people. Mike wrote poetry. He took Chinese-cooking courses at a time when Chinese restaurants specialized in egg foo young and brown sauces. He specially painted a wall of his apartment on which he projected films of the sea crashing against rocks, so that he could "hold nature to my bosom." He owned a negative-ion machine, which he would turn on when he retired for the night in a pessimistic mood; it would pump out enough good vibrations during his sleep to allow him to awake an optimist. "A bow tie is like the ideal life," Mike told me. "You have to play with it, tweak it, to get it right. Even then, of course, it's always a bit askew. But it should be." He stood next to me in front of his full-length closet mirror and walked me through the steps: "Let the ends hang down, left side longer than right. Left hand over right hand, make a knot, form a bow with the front piece, flip over the back half, search for the little hole . . . and pull the end through. Now you fiddle and diddle and decide who you are in the bow-tie spectrum."

"What do you mean?" I asked Mike, as he undid my tie and signaled me to try it.

"Well," he said, "the little-polka-dot people are generally lawyers, professors, or doctors. Stripes are what these same lawyers, professors, or doctors wear on weekends--more informal. A tie with a single stripe and little figures like animals represents a club--golfing, social, or professional--to which the wearer belongs. You will be expected to know this and not to inquire as to what these little figures mean."

I know that bow-tie people tend to appear cocksure of themselves--people like Professor I. B. Cohen, of Harvard; Archibald Cox, of the Watergate hearings; Louis Farrakhan. They are also often short men, like Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Senator Paul Simon. Mike at the time told me to be careful of short men who are cocksure of themselves. Luckily, I suppose, they often wear bow ties--the dead giveaway.

I practiced my tie-tying back in Boston, thrilled that I could master the art without having to give extra points to my old roommate.

One of my other roommates that junior year was James MacArthur, Helen Hayes's son, a man who later played the role of Dano on television's Hawaii Five-O. His mother was about to open in a play on Broadway, Time Remembered, by Jean Anouilh. Her co-stars were Susan Strasberg, the daughter of the director Lee Strasberg, and a young Welshman starting his American career, Richard Burton. The play was having tryouts in Boston, and MacArthur's roommates were invited to opening night and to the cast party afterward, at the Ritz. I wore my club bow tie, the kind you are not supposed to ask about. At the cast party I haunted Susan Strasberg, knowing that she had to fall for a Harvard junior with just the right hint of insouciance at his neck. The more I chased her, the more she chased Richard Burton, escaping me constantly by jumping onto his lap and burying her head in his neck. Burton was drunk, and talking about how he was responsible for the discovery of Dylan Thomas. I kept trying to butt in to their conversation. At one point Strasberg excused herself to go to the ladies' room. Burton looked at me as if I were an annoying undergraduate. He pointed a finger at me--or, rather, at my bow tie. "Which are you?" he said, in that incredible voice. "A waiter or a clown?" I flushed my bow tie down the Ritz toilet system and into Boston Harbor, and I heard Helen Hayes tell her son, as I was leaving the party, "He seems like such a nice young man . . . so neatly dressed."

Bow ties have been around for more than 300 years, their origin traceable, as one story goes, to the court of Louis XIV of France in the 1600s. The King noticed a company of Croatian soldiers who wore white silk kerchiefs around their necks. The King apparently loved the look, and appeared at court shortly thereafter with the white kerchief plus some lace and embroidery to heighten the effect, along with a small bow in front to finish it off.

Originally the Croats had wrapped their necks as a charm to guard the area against sword swipes. "Cravat" comes from the French cravates, which referred to the Croatian soldiers. Cravats had grown larger and more elaborate by the eighteenth century. Necks were swathed in material that came as high as, and even obscured, the chin and part of the mouth. Stocks--starched-fabric cylinders like neck braces--were fitted around the necks of fashionable gentlemen of these times. These were surrounded in turn by silk or linen cravats, held in place by white or black bows. Like women's hemlines, the bows went up and down according to current fashion, tied sometimes near the chin, sometimes below the Adam's apple. Abraham Lincoln wore black bow ties with his collars turned down; English dandies wore smaller bow ties with stiff winged collars pointed up. But bows really flourished in the last decades of the nineteenth century. Women in the shirtwaist period, early in this century, wore smaller, neater bows, tied perfectly like shoelaces with ends symmetrical. At various stages since the 1930s bow ties have been so small that they seemed fashioned for dolls or so outrageously large (during the 1960s) that they seemed grotesque. Alan Flusser, an authority on men's clothing, wrote in 1985, "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." These rules, like those for almost everything else in life, were made to be broken.

Charlie Davidson has been running the Andover Shop, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, like a private club for more than forty years. He taught me that buttons are not enough on the cuffs of men's suit jackets: they must be accompanied by proper buttonholes--buttonholes that work.

Charlie is famous for refusing to sell to people who wander into his little shop and don't measure up under his quick assessment of their taste. In the mid-1970s a wealthy businessman came into the store. He had been referred to Charlie. The man ordered three suits, custom made. Charlie took the order and told the customer they would be ready in "about a month." After five weeks the customer, whose last name was Zachary, called to inquire after his suits.

"Not quite yet," Charlie said.

Another two weeks went by, and Zachary was put off again. Charlie had not made the suits. "He'll get the message," Charlie told me. "I am not sure I like the cut of his jib."

Four weeks more, and Zachary called, irate. "What the hell do you do over there?" he asked. "Make the clothes alphabetically?" After hearing this line, Charlie made the suits. Zachary had passed the test.

Charlie, the arbiter of good taste for Harvard men over many years, does not trust people who wear bow ties. He says, "George Frazier, the writer who really popularized the term 'duende' [extraordinary sense of style], never wore a bow tie. He thought it was a contrived thing, that it made you look like a dandy. Bobby Short, to whom I've sold clothes for years, wears a bow tie only to work. Cary Grant and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. never wore them, and they were the best-dressed men of their era." I was surprised that Charlie felt this way about bow ties, since he was the one who told me over the years not only about real buttonholes on jackets but also that a true gentleman never wears cologne. He stubs out his cigarette with his toe, not his heel. He has a Dopp kit made of silk, not leather. He stirs his drinks with his finger. Hundreds of Harvard men have taken these and other Charleyisms to heart.

"Give me your rules for the bow tie," I asked.

"First of all," Charlie said, "when people ask me if I'm married, I always say, 'Yes, but I'm not a fanatic about it.' So here's Number One: Do not wear bows all the time. Keep the viewer off balance. Wear them once in a while, the way you might eat liver.

"Number Two: Never wear a bow tie to an interview or a pitch for new business. People will concentrate on the tie rather than on what you are saying.

"Number Three: In the men's-clothing business ten percent of tie sales were in bows . . . forever. Today it's fifteen percent or twenty percent, which is unprecedented. This tells me that there is such ambiguity of roles today that men are desperate to assert something.

"Number Four: You would be amazed at the practical reasons people wear bows. Doctors have always worn them, because patients can't reach up and yank on them the way they could with the four-in-hands. Certain men wear them in the summer because they eat more salads. Dressing can splash on long ties.

"Number Five: Men who wear bow ties care more about themselves than they do about you."

I continue to wear my bow ties, despite the facts that I'm not short, I'm not a doctor, and I do care about other people. I am an incurable romantic, however. I have run with the bulls in Pamplona, and I make sure my bow ties, in Italian silk, come from Carrot & Gibbs, in Boulder, Colorado. Mike, my New York mentor, used to quote from Conrad Aiken. "The lines always spoke to me of bows," Mike told me, "so that's how I think of them." On appropriate occasions I recite them as well:

Stars in the purple dusk above the rooftops
    Pale in a saffron mist and seem to die,
And I myself on a swiftly tilting planet
    Stand before a glass and tie my tie.