The tie has to be one of the most prosaically-named articles of clothing. It’s called a tie basically because you tie it. (Americans call it a necktie, just to eliminate any doubt as to where it should be tied.) But it wasn’t always called a tie. In fact, the name “tie” is a relatively recent coinage, which dates back to around the middle of the 19th century. Before that, it was known as a cravat, and still is in many European countries.
Men (and women) have long regarded the neck as a suitable place for adornment, although wearing something around it often served a practical purpose too. A simple cloth, loosely knotted, soaked up perspiration, while a woollen scarf protected against the cold. A leather “stock” offered protection against sword blows, while the Renaissance “ruff” provided a handy target for executioners.
The immediate ancestor of today’s tie is the cravat, which emerged in the 17th century in Croatia and was soon adopted further afield, notably by Louis XIV of France. Naturally, the king – being royal - favoured silk above the traditional cotton and thus was born an article of clothing that symbolised the wearer’s status like no other.
The tie – and how it is tied – can still tell you a lot about its owner. Obviously, there are school ties, university ties, regimental ties, club ties, and corporate ties that immediately identify you as one of a group. In fact, “the old school tie” is a phrase that has come to epitomise cronyism, and you can’t say the same of socks. But in an age in which anyone can purchase an Old Etonian tie (or a fairish approximation) on eBay, the true differentiators have become the material, the weave, the manufacture and, of course, the way the tie is tied.
Let’s start with the material. The fifties and sixties saw a boom in polyester that is still with us today. Polyester does have considerable advantages: it’s cheap, easy to clean, and keeps its shape (more or less). But it is not exactly environmentally friendly and it always looks like…well, polyester. For a little more money, you can have a tie made from a natural fabric such as silk, cotton, wool or even linen. And then you not only have a tie, but a style statement.
The material and the weave are inextricably interlinked. For example, Shantung silk will produce a pleasingly rough finish, which does not need further embellishment. The same can be said of wool and linen. Fine silk is an ideal medium for printing but also for creating Jacquard weaves. After your second Negroni, you may be forgiven for no longer knowing exactly what Jacquard is, but to refresh your memory, it simply means that the design is actually woven into the fabric, rather than being printed onto it.
Most important of all is the manufacture. Ties can be produced by the thousand on automated machinery, but a tie that will last a lifetime, always keep its shape, and give untold pleasure to the wearer is invariably hand-made. Such a tie tells people exactly who you are, on a far more personal level than old school ties will ever do.
Lastly, the way the tie is tied is something that is personal to you. There are many different styles: four-in-hand (the oldest), half-Windsor, Windsor, Kelvin, Prince Albert, Pratt, Eldredge, Van Wijk, Trinity, Murrell and Balthus, to name but a few. If it is properly done, no one will know the difference. If poorly done, it will look a mess.
Oh, and by the way, the cravat is still alive and well, inside a shirt somewhere in Las Vegas.