by Alan Flusser
"A well-tied tie is the
first serious step in life"
- Oscar Wilde
The history of neckties dates back a mere hundred years or so, for they came into existence as the direct result of a war. In 1660, in celebration of its hard-fought victory over Turkey, a crack regiment from Croatia (then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire), visited Paris. There, the soldiers were presented as glorious heroes to Louis XIV, a monarch well known for his eye toward personal adornment. It so happened that the officers of this regiment were wearing brightly colored handkerchiefs fashioned of silk around their necks. These neck cloths, which probably descended from the Roman fascalia worn by orators to warm the vocal chords, struck the fancy of the king, and he soon made them an insignia of royalty as he created a regiment of Royal Cravattes. The word "cravat," incidentally, is derived from the word "Croat."
It wasn't long before this new style crossed the channel to England. Soon no gentleman would have considered himself well-dressed without sporting some sort of cloth around his neck--the more decorative, the better. At times, cravats were worn so high that a man could not move his head without turning his whole body. There were even reports of cravats worn so thick that they stopped sword thrusts. The various styles knew no bounds, as cravats of tasseled strings, plaid scarves, tufts and bows of ribbon, lace, and embroidered linen all had their staunch adherents. Nearly one hundred different knots were recognized, and as a certain M. Le Blanc, who instructed men in the fine and sometimes complex art of tying a tie, noted, "The grossest insult that can be offered to a man comme il faut is to seize him by the cravat; in this place blood only can wash out the stain upon the honor of either party."
In this country, ties were also an integral part of a man's wardrobe. However, until the time of the Civil War, most ties were imported from the Continent. Gradually, though, the industry gained ground, to the point that at the beginning of the twentieth century, American neckwear finally began to rival that of Europe, despite the fact that European fabrics were still being heavily imported.
In the 1960s, in the midst of the Peacock Revolution, there was a definite lapse in the inclination of men to wear ties, as a result of the rebellion against both tradition and the formality of dress. But by the mid-1970s, this trend had reversed itself to the point where now, in the 1980s, the sale of neckwear is probably as strong if not stronger than it has ever been.
How to account for the continued popularity of neckties? For years, fashion historians and sociologists predicted their demise--the one element of a man's attire with no obvious function. Perhaps they are merely part of an inherited tradition. As long as world and business leaders continue to wear ties, the young executives will follow suit and ties will remain a key to the boardroom. On the other hand, there does seem to be some aesthetic value in wearing a tie. In addition to covering the buttons of the shirt and giving emphasis to the verticality of a man's body (in much the same way that the buttons on a military uniform do), it adds a sense of luxury and richness, color and texture, to the austerity of the dress shirt and business suit.
Perhaps no other item of a man's wardrobe has altered its shape so often as the tie. It seems that the first question fashion writers always ask is, "Will men's ties be wider or narrower this year?"
In the late 1960s and early 70s, ties grew to five inches in width. At the time, the rationale was that these wide ties were in proportion to the wider jacket lapels and longer shirt collars. This was the correct approach, since these elements should always be in balance. But once these exaggerated proportions were discarded, fat ties became another victim of fashion.
The proper width of a tie, and one that will never be out of style, is 3 1/4 inches (2 3/4 to 3 1/2 inches are also acceptable). As long as the proportions of men's clothing remain true to a man's body shape, this width will set the proper balance. Though many of the neckties sold today are cut in these widths, the section of the tie where the knot is made has remained thick--a holdover from the fat, napkinlike ties of the 1960s. This makes tying a small, elegant knot more difficult. Yet the relationship of a tie's knot to the shirt collar is an important consideration. If the relationship is proper, the knot will never be so large that it spreads the collar or forces it open, nor will it be so small that it will become lost in the collar.
Standard neckties come in lengths anywhere from 52 to 58 inches long. Taller men, or those who use a Windsor knot, may require a longer tie, which can be special-ordered. After being tied, the tips of the necktie should be long enough to reach the waistband of the trousers. (The ends of the tie should either be equal, or the smaller one just a fraction shorter.)
After you've confirmed the appropriateness of a tie's shape, next feel the fabric. If it's made of silk and it feels rough to the touch, then the silk is of an inferior quality. Silk that is not supple is very much like hair that's been dyed too often. It's brittle and its ends will fray easily. If care hasn't been taken in the inspection of ties, you may find misweaves and puckers.
All fine ties are cut on the bias, which means they have been cut across the fabric. This allows them to fall straight after the knot has been tied, without curling. A simple test consists of holding a tie across you hand. If it begins to twirl in the air, it was probably not cut on the bias and it should not be purchased.
Quality neckties want you to see everything: they have nothing to hide. Originally, neckties were cut from a single large square of silk, which was then folded seven times in order to give the tie a rich fullness. Today the price of silk and the lack of skilled artisans prohibits this form of manufacture. Ties now derive their body and fullness by means of an additional inner lining.
Besides giving body to the tie, the lining helps the tie hold its shape. The finest-quality ties today are lined with 100 percent wool and are generally made only in Europe. Most other quality ties use a wool mixture. The finer the tie, the higher the wool content. You can actually check. Fine linings are marked with a series of gold bars which are visible if you open up the back of the tie. The more bars, the heavier the lining. Many people assume that a quality tie must be thick, as this would suggest that the silk is heavy and therefore expensive. In fact, in most cases it is simply the insertion of a heavier lining that gives the tie this bulk. Be sure, then, that the bulk of the tie that you're feeling is the silk outer fabric and not the lining.
After you've examined the lining, take a look at the tie just above the spot where the two sides come together to form an inverted V. In most quality ties, you will find a stitch joining the back flaps. This is called the bar tack, and it helps maintain the shape of the tie.
Now, if you can, open up the tie as far as possible and look for a loose black thread. This thread is called the slip stitch and was invented by a man named Joss Langsdorf in the 1920s to give added resilience to the tie. The fact that the tie can move along this thread means that it won't rip when it's being wrapped tightly around your neck, and that it will, when removed, return to its original shape. Pull the slip stitch, and the tie should gather. If you can do this, you've found a quality, handmade tie.
Finally, take the tie in your hand and run your finger down its length. You should find three separate pieces of fabric stitched together, not two, as in most commercial ties. This construction is used to help the tie conform easily to the neck.