Recently Guy Ritchie, one of my favorite directors, went onto the podcast the Joe Rogan Experience to publicize his new film. During their discussion of film-making, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, and their shared affection for custom knives, Rogan started ribbing his guest about his choice to wear a suit. He was particularly amused by the fact that Ritchie chose to wear a pocket square, and Ritchie’s response completely made me rethink the pocket square and suits themselves.
Ritchie made it clear that he chose to wear that pocket square because he chose to wear a suit. Too often we are forced into suits for work, for weddings, for funerals, and for so many occasions where we would rather wear our own clothing. Ritchie felt that wearing the pocket square was his way of taking ownership of the suit. By sticking that little piece of silk in his pocket he made it clear to everyone that this suit no one forced him to wear this suit. I love that, and I think it relates to my own, less profound choice, the bowtie.
The bowtie first came into men’s fashion through Croatian mercenaries in the 17th century. Seriously. These soldiers needed a way to keep the collars of their collars together and began tying a scarf underneath the collars of their shirts. This soon began to be adopted by French aristocrats and became known by a perversion of the word Croat, cravat. Exactly how these neck-ornaments spawned the wide array of current ties is not known, but obviously they have since become a staple of men’s fashion. Today the bowtie is synonymous with classical musicians, fussy professors, your grandfather, and Bill Nye the Science Guy.
I first discovered the bowtie as many geeky teenagers did in 2011, when Matt Smith stumbled out of a big blue box and began his four-year tenure as Dr. Who on BBC. This part has been passed on from actor to actor for over fifty years, and each one puts his (perhaps someday her?) unique stamp on the role. The Doctor is a ridiculous character, and his sometimes over-the-top behavior is usually accompanied by a very distinctive look. I often tell my friends that you can tell that a new Doctor has found his footing when the costume department finally figures out how to style him. In Matt Smith’s case, after falling in love with the Classic Who stories of the Second Doctor, he decided that he wanted to adopt the bowtie. At the end of his first episode Smith’s Doctor explained to his companion Amy Pond, “Yes, I wear a bowtie now. Bowtie’s are cool.” I was sold.
My oldest brother was also one of the reasons that I chose to start wearing bowties. He is a passionate believer in them himself, and insisted that we all wear them at his wedding. I stuck with a clip-on, but I certainly did appreciate the choice. My brother actually gave me my first real bowtie for Christmas one year and left me to figure out how to tie it. Discussing it with me later that day he adjusted his own bow and said, knowingly, “Ladies love them too.” I have not found this to be the case, but I did appreciate the gift.
I think that people shy away from bowties for two reasons: they don’t know how to tie them, and the ties seem old fashioned.
The first concern is valid, and you can find any number of good tutorials online about how to tie a bowtie. I strongly recommend the one put together by the Art of Manliness, as it is very clear and has a good graphic. (I also support pretty much everything that that website does.) It took me forever to actually learn how to tie the tie, and in my experience it just takes a lot of practice. People often say that it is like tying your shoes… but I still use the tried and true “Bunny Ears,” technique for those. So I’m not the best person to ask about that.
However, with regards to the second issue, I think that that is actually the main appeal of the bowtie. Wearing a bowtie is a choice, and a statement of sorts. At almost any occasion, you will not be required to wear a bowtie. If you do, most of the time you can get a clip-on to do the job. When you choose to wear a bowtie you make the decision to be different than most of the people who will be at this event. I often second-guess myself when I’m putting on the tie, because I worry that I’ll be mocked for my choice of neck-wear. But I always choose to wear it anyway, because I really don’t care what they think. I like it, and that’s all that matters.
While doing a little bit of reading on this subject, I found an excellent article by Warren St. John of the New York Times that discusses this particular piece of clothing. Although I felt that he tied (ha) it too much to intellectualism, I wanted to end on a quote that perfectly sums up my feelings about the subject.
“To its devotees the bow tie suggests iconoclasm of an Old World sort, a fusty adherence to a contrarian point of view. The bow tie hints at intellectualism, real or feigned, and sometimes suggests technical acumen, perhaps because it is so hard to tie. Bow ties are worn by magicians, country doctors, lawyers and professors and by people hoping to look like the above. But perhaps most of all, wearing a bow tie is a way of broadcasting an aggressive lack of concern for what other people think.”
And, moreover, they’re just cool.