Perhaps the most ubiquitous staple of professional menswear today is the necktie. Though many today dismiss ties as an unnecessary piece of cloth that serves antiquated social convention, the neck tie originally had a very specific function. Though Roman and Chinese soldiers wore similar scarves around their necks, most credit the Croatian army of the 30 Years’ War with the invention.
For these soldiers, the tie served two purposes: first, as a replacement for the button in closing the collar in an adjustable way in the heat of battle; second, as a colorful and easily visible way of indicating one’s military rank. Though the practical use of the tie is made redundant by the top-buttons on most dress shirts, the tie still plays its signaling role to this day. The French picked up the fashion, calling them “Cravates” after the Croations (Hrvatski, Cro(v)ate). In the court of Louis XV, courtiers of high rank would don ties so complicatedly knotted that they employed special attendants to help tie them. The French also simplified and commercialized the tie as it became a fashion staple by the mid 1800s, as shown in this advertisement displaying different varieties:
The British continued the military use of the tie as different regiments with unique stripe patterns made their own neck ties. These became so popular that American clothier Brooks Brothers adopted the pattern and popularized the repp tie (reversing the direction of the diagonal stripes to avoid confusion with the real things).
The tie’s balance of conservative subtlety and bold self-expression has made it popular as a social signal today. Though not as often indicating military rank, crested ties are still a popular indicators for membership to many clubs, schools, and communities. The crested tie also works well as a medium for advertising (see Brooks Brothers’ golden fleece): like the club or school insignia, the brand is clear, but subtle, without overtaking the rest of the wearer’s outfit.
The tie second half of the twentieth century pushed the envelope: established as a staple in professional, formal, and social arenas, ties found a more casual calling. Abstract art, cartoons, and seasonal fun designs found their ways onto these “traditional” pieces of silk.
Manufacturers experimented with cotton, linen, madras, seersucker, and even denim aside from the traditional silk and wool. Women begun to wear ties on their necks—often in an imitation of school uniforms or their professional male counterparts, but today the tie is still starting to find its way into women’s unironic wardrobes as well. Ties began to be worn on the waist as belts or even stitched into purses and quilts.
Trends have preferred fat, skinny, thick-knotted, or tightly wound ties over the years. From its military origins to its modern twists (pun intended) the neck tie has persisted as a staple of a man’s wardrobe. As a tie-lover myself, I still tend to stand up a bit straighter every time I tie on one.