Noticing the tie that binds

THE BALTIMORE SUN

So what do Abraham Lincoln, Stan Laurel, Harry Truman, Frank Sinatra, Karl Marx, Steve Jobs, Winston Churchill, Donald Duck, Mark Twain, Frederick Rasmussen, Manet's "Olympia," Minister Louis Farrakhan and virtually the entire male membership of the Nation of Islam have in common?

Well, of course, they all wear (or wore) bow ties.

Olympia's admittedly is only a bit of string but then again that's about all she wears except for a bracelet, a pair of bedroom slippers and a hibiscus bloom in her hair.

Farrakhan and his followers mostly wear narrow straight-edge bow ties, usually red or black, although the minister often wears the more assertive butterfly style.

Marx's beard often obscured his.

Churchill, Great Britain's World War II prime minister, invariably wore the traditional butterfly in a conservative white polka dot on a navy background, befitting his Conservative politics.

Duck favored an uninhibited red.

"The bow tie wearer wants to be a little bit different," says Kirk E. Hinckley, president of the international Bow Tie Club catalog. "They want to be distinct. They're proud of their difference. And they're showing it through their bow tie.

"The type of individual who wears the bow tie is a very autonomous person," Hinckley says, "a doctor, a lawyer, a professor."

A duck.

"They work in very horizontally integrated businesses, I guess you would call it," says Hinckley, who not only sports a bow tie, but also an MBA from the University of Baltimore. "They can show their autonomy. They can show their independence. Car salesmen: I've got a couple of Jaguar salesmen who like to wear them."

Pediatricians love bow ties, he says. They don't get in the way and babies can't play with them.

"Architects love bowties," says the 33-year-old Hinckley. "They want to look structurally different.

A friendly crowd

The Bow Tie Club, he says, derives from the camaraderie shared by bow tie wearers: "It's a club where all you have to do to be a member is wear a bow tie."

The "club" is actually a commercial venture launched by Hinckley, who got the idea while working in the shirt and tie departments at Brooks Brothers, Joseph Bank and Nordstrom. He found bow ties seemed an afterthought.

"We were treating the bow tie wearer as a second-class citizen," he says.

Which is definitely not how bow tie wearers think of themselves.

"You look at bow tie wearers," he says, "you know that person has confidence and control of their life. ... It shows they have control of what they wear. They can be a little bit different and be independent. They have some power at work, or some autonomy.

"But the best thing about the bow tie is that you know immediately who the person is: It's the bow tie man."

A convert

Hinckley was born in California and lived in Scotland until he was in the fifth grade. His father worked for Westinghouse Corp.

The family moved to Maryland; he attended Catonsville High School then graduated from the University of Indiana in 1988; he earned his MBA in 1991.

He converted to bow ties about three years ago when he launched his bow tie business.

With his fiancee, Corinne Hsu, he cuts ties from silk imported from Como, Italy, and the interfacing that gives them body, from a kind of polyester material. They send the lot off to Baltimore seamstresses."[The bow ties come] back in finished form," says Hinkley, who now lives in Silver Spring. The couple ships the finished ties to customers in all 50 states and abroad to about 20 countries. He figures they sell 3,000 to 4,000 ties a year.

His pink elephant tie is a hit among Republicans, and he's working up a donkey tie for Democrats in time for the election season.

Hinkley advertises his current collection, which may run to 165 patterns, in the New Yorker, Smithsonian, Johns Hopkins Magazine and especially Civilization, the magazine of the Library of Congress, which brings the best response. Bow tie wearers are nothing if not civilized.

A bond

An example of the inveterate bow tie wearer is Gilbert Sandler, the seasoned chronicler of Baltimore's urban foibles and folkways.

"We who wear them are kind of a fraternity, like freemasons, we understand one another," Sandler says. "We share a common understanding and we wave to one another like truck drivers on the road, so to speak, like old Mustang owners. We know.

"It has to do with the feeling that you want to strike a pose, of sorts, to confront the conventional with a kind of smile, a touch of the quixotic. There's a certain joi de vivre about a bow tie."

He's eating a turkey burger in Werner's, the Redwood Street restaurant and the perfect place to discuss the somewhat retro bow tie.

"In these days of casual dress you see people with no ties, much less bow ties," he says. "When I get on the light rail, as is my wont, I am not only the only person with a bow tie, I am the only person with a tie. Look around you! Look around you! Do you see another tie?"

Maybe a half dozen among the eaters in this lunchtime hangout of bankers and brokers and their tribesmen and women wear any form of neckwear.

"To come downtown with no tie insults the integrity of Baltimore's downtown."

Sandler falls into the older, traditionalist group of bow tie wearers as described by Hinckley.

"I have two distinct age groups," the entrepreneur says. "It seems like the 30 to 40 [age] group and the older group, 50 to 90, I guess you could say.

"The older, more traditional bow tie wearer wears them because they used to be very, very popular back in the '40s and '50s, you know back years ago."

And Hinckley detects a new group of bow tie wearers. He concedes it's never going to be a huge percentage of the population.

"So in terms of people saying, well are bow ties dying off? Absolutely not, absolutely not, they never will. There will always be new people who want something different in men's clothing because there's so little out there in terms of what is different.

"In men's clothing we all wear the same thing: a navy suit, a gray suit, white shirt, blue shirt," says Hinckley. "There's almost no way to show your personality. Some men have gone down the avenue of Mickey Mouse ties. The bow tie is a nice conservative way to show your distinction."

Neil Grauer, the author, caricaturist and publicist for the Johns Hopkins School of Professional Studies in Business and Education, falls into Hinckley's newer category of bow tie wearers.

He confesses to being a "switch-hitter," people who wear both bow ties and four-in-hand ties. Still, he's all but exclusively seen in bow ties these days.

"Why?" he says, asking the essayist's eternal rhetorical question. "It's hard to say. I guess it's a person's preference in whether one is considered natty or nerdy."

Truman wore a bow tie on the day he was sworn in as president. But he was an ex-haberdasher and he thought they were natty and they are."

Grauer ties his own ties, of course. Hinckley sells pre-tied and clip-on ties as well as the traditional tie-your-own.

"I don't wear [clip-ons] myself," he says, a bit defensively. "To each his own. It's still a bow tie and to me that's better than a regular tie."

Sandler is deeply affronted if you even suggest he might wear a clip-on tie. He considers himself the fastest bow tier in the East. He unties and reties his tie at Werner's in 28 seconds.

"I'm slipping," he says. "I usually do it in 21 seconds."

"I would not wear a clip-on," he says. "It's cheating. I think if you're going to wear a bow tie, you ought to at least learn to tie it yourself. And it's not very difficult. I tie them better without looking in a mirror than with."

He recalls Humphrey Bogart's movie "Deadline U.S.A.," in which Bogart plays a crusading newspaper editor in a bow tie.

"There's a wonderful scene where he's getting dressed and he just ties his bow tie and never looks in the mirror and gets it absolutely perfectly correct.

"And I have an autographed picture of Jimmy Cagney; he wore bow ties. And, of course, Churchill wore nothing but.

"Tough guys," he explains, "wear bow ties."

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