The History of Neckwear
From a simple scarf to an intricate Ascot, the story of men’s neckwear has a long history...
Around 8,000 warriors make up the terracotta army that protects the tomb of China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang. Neckcloths adorn many of the sculptures, showing that neckwear has been worn for both protective and symbolic reasons for millennia. Ancient neckcloths are also depicted on Trajan's Column, which was finished in 113CE, around the necks of Roman soldiers.
The item that defines the Tudor wardrobe more than any other is the cartwheel ruff. A symbol of wealth and status, the ruff was incredibly labour intensive as the expensive lace had to be re-starched and reset with heating irons on each wearing. As a symbol of excess, the Puritan pamphleteer Philip Stubbes decried ‘great and monstrous ruffs’ in 1583.
The birth of the cravat
The cravat in style and etymology is thought to originate from the Thirty Years’ War when Croatian cavalry units were engaged by the Imperial Army of the Holy Roman Empire. Coming into contact with French soldiers, their distinctive style of neckwear caught on. This dashing early cravat can be seen in a portrait of the Croatian poet Ivan Gundulic from around 1622.
As the ruff fell out of favour, a wide, flat collar known as a falling band became popular. This evolved into bands, oblong pieces of cloth that survive today in ecclesiastic, legal and academic dress. The diarist Samuel Pepys wrote in October 1662, ‘Got me ready in the morning and put on my first new laceband; and so neat it is, that I am resolved my great expense shall be lacebands’.
The late 17th century saw lace cravats reach such outrageous proportions that one playwright labelled them ‘slabbering bibs’. One notable style was the Steinkirk cravat, which was left untied and drawn through a buttonhole on the coat. Named after the 1692 Battle of Steenkerque, it was said to have been improvised by soldiers on the battlefield who had no time to tie it.
Louis XIV’s jabot
The Sun King Louis XIV was a force to be contended with in the history of fashion, power and style. His championing of the fashion industry ensured that France became the arbiter of style and taste that it remains today. Louis’s lace jabot, along with other Sun King trademarks such as red high heels, can be seen in a majestic portrait of him by Hyacinthe Rigaud.
The 1818 satirical publication Neckclothitania was published in the wake of Beau Brummell’s obsession with the cravat. Brummell led a new breed of sartorially conscious young men known as the Dandies. Crowds of men would arrive at his London residence each morning to watch him dress, and Brummell could easily go through a number of cravats before achieving the desired effect.
The club tie
Ties have long been used to signify social status through membership to a particular group, whether
it’s a school, university, a military regiment or a club. As legend has it, the first club tie came about via the rowing team of Exeter College, Oxford, when the competitors took off the striped bands from their hats and fastened them around their necks.
‘A well-tied tie is the first serious step in life,’ was one of the memorable lines from Oscar Wilde’s A Woman of No Importance that premiered in 1893. In the second half of the 19th century the Ascot tie began to take prominence, named for its association with the races at Ascot. The wide tie, often fastened with a pin, is still worn for formal weddings.
The modern necktie
The American tailor Jesse Langsdorf made history in 1924 when he created what is essentially the modern necktie we see worn today. From Nassau, New York, Langsdorf stitched the tie together from three bias-cut pieces of fabric, thereby eliminating wrinkles and creating an item that remains a key element of smart men’s wardrobes even now.
Amelia Earhart wore numerous ties and scarves as part of her predilection for practical male flight garb. Her preference for masculine styles led to censure in the press. To combat this, she put her name to a clothing collection that offered sportswear for active living. The line was short-lived, but Earhart remains firmly entrenched as a fashion icon.
Men’s Dress Reform
In the late 1920s, a concern with the hygiene of clothing led to the formation of the Men’s Dress Reform Party. The collar and tie were seen as especially reprehensible on health grounds, a claim that had been backed up in the 1917 publication, Dangers in Neckwear. Luckily for neckwear enthusiasts, the movement died out before World War Two.
Urban legend tells us that the Windsor knot originated with the Duke of Windsor, the former King Edward VIII, who abdicated in 1936. But the Duke ended this rumour, writing, ‘The so-called “Windsor knot” was adopted in America… but in fact I was in no way responsible’. The Duke liked a broad fabric that gave the illusion of his four-in-hand being a full Windsor knot.
The white tie, tails and top hat that Marlene Dietrich wears in her first cabaret number in the film Morocco influenced her entire career. The outfit transgressed the rules of what was appropriate for her gender at the time, leading some to call her ‘the best dressed man in Hollywood’. Formal menswear for women was debuted by Yves Saint Laurent in 1966, inspired in part by Dietrich.
The 1930s was the decade that saw Hollywood become a major player in the style stakes. Fred Astaire’s style mixed American casual wear with British tailoring and he regularly topped ‘best dressed’ lists. His white tie look for Top Hat was by Savile Row tailor Kilgour & French, yet he was also known for certain improvised idiosyncrasies, such as wearing a tie or scarf in place of a belt.
Signalling cultural capital as well as economic, neckties have at times functioned as wearable canvases. Silk neck ties with designs by Pablo Picasso feature in the collections of both the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the V&A. This relationship went even further in the 1970s, and a whole exhibition was devoted to ties on Madison Avenue.
An evolution of the tied cravat, the bow tie is now synonymous with the formal dressing of ‘black tie’ or ‘white tie’. Black tie is the less formal version, while white tie with a tailcoat and detachable wing collar is, according to Debrett’s, ‘the most formal of dress codes’. Due to Winston Churchill’s predilection for a polka dot bow tie, it became a symbol of the British stiff upper lip.
Known as ‘nudies’, painted mid-century ties featuring naked or semi-clothed women are now collectors’ items. Originally, however, there was less enthusiasm. The Sydney Morning Herald reported in 1951 that a Brisbane men’s outfitters was fined £20 for a window display that featured ties emblazoned with painted semi-nude women.
In 1954, Victor Emanuel Cedarstaff filed a patent for a sliding necktie that we know as a bolo or bootlace tie. Associated with Western wear in the United States, it was designated the official neckwear of Arizona in 1971, of New Mexico in 1987 and the official tie of Texas in 2007. It has featured in modern classic American movies from Pretty in Pink (1986) to Pulp Fiction (1994).
Very wide ties were first worn in the 1940s and 1950s, but really made their mark from the 1960s during the ‘peacock revolution’ that saw menswear embrace colour and exaggeration. The ‘kipper’ tie was developed in 1966 by designer Michael Fish, who worked at Turnbull & Asser and later had his own boutique. He claimed the term ‘kipper’ was a pun on his name.
Skinny rock chic
When Hedi Slimane took the helm at Dior Homme, he took British musicians such as Pete Doherty as his muse and often cast members of London-based indie bands in his Paris catwalk shows. His signature skinny suit also heralded the return of the ultra-skinny tie to the catwalk, infusing neckwear with rock star credentials.
Today tie rules are more relaxed, and even institutions such as the Houses of Parliament have broken with convention in allowing MPs to abandon their neckwear. Yet with smart and dapper young men such as Tom Hiddleston and Eddie Redmayne regularly topping the best-dressed lists, the tie is still a marker of timeless elegance and style.