The History of the Necktie
If you need proof that men enjoy the details of dressing fashionably just as much as women, look no further than the history of the men’s necktie. The necktie serves no purpose today but to ornament a man and let him show off just a bit of his personal style. But for centuries it has been an essential piece of the wealthy and trendsetting man’s wardrobe.
The modern western-style tie dates from the early 16th century. The boy-king Louis XIV mandated the cravat, as it was called (and is still called in French), for his court after seeing the fashion of the Croation mercenaries who assisted the French against the Hapsburg Empire. For a little while, it was actually fashionable to shove your cloth decoration sideways into your jacket between the buttonholes, in what was called the “Steinkirk” cravat. This was purportedly inspired by soldiers at the battle of Steenkerque, who hastily shoved the flapping cloth inside their jackets as they responded to an ambush.
The cravat reigned for the next hundred years. While in America it was simplified by the Puritans, in France, the cravat got ever more flamboyant. (Would you expect anything less?) The jabot—named after the neck pouch on a bird—was a small strip of cloth trimmed with lace and finished with a huge bow by the neck. It was often the most expensive item in a man’s wardrobe, and was so big that it had the effect of forcing one’s chin and nose up in the air all day. Louis XIV had a cravatier—kind of like a sommelier for neckwear—who each morning would present the king a collection of cravats for his choosing every morning.
Over in America, as the colonists threw themselves into a revolution, the cravat got longer, more ruffled, lost the bow, and was displayed by unbuttoning the first few buttons of the man’s vest. As the French assisted the Americans in overthrowing the British empire, a super-tight, black leather collar that was tied in the front appeared in a nod to French military fashion. This collar, called the stock tie, might have helped soften the blow from a saber, but was also known to occasionally cause fainting by constricting the neck. A slightly less tight version is still worn by English-style equestrians today.
After the aristocratic French regime was overthrown, this stock tie became a tasty target for those looking to guillotine the frivolous and wasteful bourgeoisie, and was quickly abandoned. The white linen cravat itself was now tied in a nice big bow at the front of the neck.
A French trendsetter known as Beau Brumell took his cravat tying especially seriously, investing hours into making the collar sit just so, as adoring young men watched for clues to his technique. He inspired an international best-selling manual called Neckclothinia. No wonder, your skill at tying a prettily ornate cravat said worlds about your social class—much like today, choosing the perfect silk tie can do the same. This perfectly white, linen cravat was so tight, high, and stiff, it almost functioned like a neck brace.
From there, the cravat gave way to the three styles we know today: the bow tie, the necktie, and the ascot. The bow tie, at the time, was a simple and easy version favored by the working class in the industrial revolution, since it was harder to get it caught in a machine. Oddly enough, it was around this time that the bow tie also became an essential part of the tuxedo for men.
The ascot got its name from the Ascot racecourse in England, where men would wear this loose silk cloth during the daytime, held in place with stickpins. This was also around the same the time when men in England started wearing patterns on their tie to signify their affiliation with clubs and universities. But while the repeating Harvard or Oxford motif on neckties is still in favor, the cravat fell out of fashion in the midcentury for all but the most formal British event, and certain men looking to make a bold sartorial statement.
The long and thin necktie owes its popularity to the ease of tying this thin strip of silk cloth in many variations: the four-in-hand (named after the knot used to tie four coach horses together), the Windsor, the Half-Windsor, etc. At first, the tie was short, tucking neatly into men’s waistcoats. Because they were cut so that the grain of the fabric was straight down, they were a challenge to knot, so men used pins, bars and clips to hold the knot in place.
In 1924, New Yorker Jesse Langsdorf patented the design we use today: a bias cut over a stiff wool lining. This design was easier to knot, stayed in place, and sprang back into a nice shape after you took it off.
As “sportswear” became popular and vests grew out of fashion, ties became longer and more distinctive in design. During WWII, ties were often made of rayon and hand-painted with whimsical designs, like naked women. They also grew in width and flamboyance until the 1950s, when conservative dress became popular. Ties became skinny and black, and lengthened as the waistline of men’s pants migrated downward. When the 1970’s came along, big, flamboyant ties became popular again.
The 1980s is when we first saw the popularity of regimented stripes and repeating block patterns on both bow ties and neckties. And that seemed to settle it. Thirty years later, men still wear a standard, 57-inch tie that only vary slightly in width from season to season.
Alden Wicker is the founder of Ecocult, a blog devoted to the NYC sustainability scene. Her work has appeared on Huffington Post, Refinery29, EcoSalon, Greatist, Narrative.ly, xo Jane, Forbes and Elephant Journal.