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A defence of the everyday bow tie

From Madison Avenue in Manhattan to Jesse Tyler Ferguson of 'Modern Family' using bow ties to raise charity money, here's the rise, fall and plateauing of bow ties

Reversible bow ties from Brooks Brothers.
Reversible bow ties from Brooks Brothers.

To knot together a tidy truth about neckwear—there are three types of bow-tie guys in this world: The absolutists, who proudly wear nothing but bow ties; the innocents, who know not how to tie one; and the dabblers, some of whom are out to play now.

These dabblers sport bow ties at horse races, springtime outdoor weddings, garden parties, and other festive occasions, where they contribute to the atmosphere with these antique decorations.

In Manhattan, they are a male rite of the springtime street scene. It is a natural law: In some neighbourhoods, the month of May brings out playboys idling in convertible Jaguars. In others, bow ties migrate on to collars like a kaleidoscope of butterflies. But you always see them worn with pride—strong pride, because the bow tie arouses strong feelings.

Why is the bow tie such a polarizing piece of cloth? My theory is that it reveals all-male neckwear—even the cravat of choice for Croatian mercenaries in the 1600s—to be ornamental ribbons.

Reversible bow ties from Brooks Brothers.

My choicest bow-tie district in Manhattan is Madison Avenue in the 40s, with its foot traffic to and from Grand Central, Brooks Brothers, and many financial and legal institutions. Recently, on a warm afternoon, I spotted a couple of Madras bow ties worn with nifty seersucker jackets, a couple of striped ones paired with blue blazers, and a polka-dotted blue one matched with a good, dark suit in the Winston Churchill style.

I was taking all this in while walking to The Tie Bar (a Chicago-based retailer), which had opened a six-month pop-up on Madison Avenue, to meet chief executive officer Allyson Lewis. She reported that the bow-tie business, after years of robust growth, “has plateaued". Five or 10 years ago, when pro-athletes were normalizing the bow tie at post-game interviews and Mad Men’s Bertram Cooper was giving them a dapper boost, a lot more men began dabbling. As Lewis said, “Guys were like, ‘It’s ok! A bow tie doesn’t have to be professorial!’" Having expanded its niche, it is now settled in.

ALSO READ: What the bow tie brings to men’s style

But not all is quiet on the bow-tie front. These ornamental ribbons have taken on a new, symbolic life. Organizations that include the BowTie Foundation and celebrities such as Modern Family star Jesse Tyler Ferguson encourage wearing and buying them for socially conscious purposes through the Tie the Knot foundation (founded by Ferguson, it sells limited-edition bow ties, the proceeds of which go to organizations supporting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, or LGBTQ, rights and marriage equality). These organizations support causes to which I would gladly donate. Still, I wonder: How much money do I need to pledge to get them to leave bow ties out of it? Their good intentions may reshape the garment’s meaning in the direction of kitsch, pushing it towards the stunt-y neckwear equivalent of Movember, an annual event held every November, where participating men grow moustaches to raise money for charity.

That’s the potential future. For now, take a look at the state of things on the bow-tie plateau. Clothiers keep supplying traditional absolutists with traditional styles: The bow tie is the official sponsor of black-tie events, after all. Tradition weighs heavy.

Batwing-shaped bow ties from Drake’s.

And the bow-tie innocents? This is a special time of year for them, too. The manager of a made-to-measure suit-maker recently told me he has been organizing “bow-tie lessons for groomsmen"—once fitted, the guys learn how to tie one, first practising on their thighs. Meanwhile, more dandyish dabblers are getting a bit wild with pattern and form.

New York-based brand Alexander Olch makes stubby ones with colours and textures that range from frisky to freaky. London-based handcrafted bow-tie maker Drake’s is playing nicely with flashy paisley. American men’s clothing brand Brooks Brothers is experimenting with reversible numbers that offer a two-for-the-price-of-one deal—stripes on one side, flowers or plaid on the other. And because, with an extra flip of the silk, you can halfway un-reverse the tie to expose clashing patterns, it’s technically a three-in-one deal. But only one in a million guys can pull off that extra twist.

Batwing-shaped bow ties from Drake’s.

One last reminder: Even though the field of pre-tied, high-end bow ties is expanding constantly—including new options from such brands that should know better, like Tom Ford International LLC, Alexander McQueen, Dolce & Gabbana—you’re still selling off a little bit of your soul when you buy one. Fendi has some nerve, pushing a $395 (around Rs25,000) pre-tied mink-and-silk number. It looks like a giant caterpillar, which is the upside: Wear it, and you’ll be tickled into joining in the laughter of everyone looking at you. Bloomberg

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