A Tradition Hangs On


You can always tell with Dad; he's not much of an actor. So, what happened after he fumbled the top off a shallow, oblong box this morning and pulled out -- "Oh, sweetie! What a surprise!" -- a pink necktie? Either his eyes went all twinkly, or the corners of his smile became momentarily stiff.

Experts say chances are about 50-50 -- call it an even ... er ... tie -- that your gift will find its way to the back of Dad's closet, never to be seen again. With these sorts of odds, it's a wonder that neckwear is still so persistently popular at Father's Day.

Yet, according to statistics from the Men's Dress Furnishing Association (MDFA) in New York City, of the 90 million neckties sold each year in America, an estimated 15 percent are given as presents on the third Sunday of June. For this seasonal spike in sales, we can thank Sonora Smart Dodd, who wasn't involved with haberdashery, but had everything to do with the creation of Father's Day.

Dodd's brainstorm came while listening to a Mother's Day sermon in 1909. Her father, William Smart, a farmer and Civil War veteran, was a widower who raised six children alone in rural Washington state. To honor his selflessness, Sonora organized the first Father's Day celebration in Spokane, Wash., on June 19, 1910. As this commemorative holiday gradually began to gain popularity nationwide -- President Calvin Coolidge was an early enthusiast -- there were no bigger supporters than manufacturers of men's neckties.

"The neckwear association was very active in promoting Father's Day as a gift-giving occasion. They were one of the first groups to do so," explained Gerald Anderson, MDFA president.

"Back in the 1920s, though, there weren't as many gift options for men. Ties were a logical choice as it's a highly personal item, yet there's no size question involved with the purchase. This tradition continues today."

An explanation, of course, that raises another question: How did men find themselves twisting a noose of cloth around their necks in the first place?

A tie timeline

While fashion historians find it relatively easy to trace the evolution of a caveman's loincloth into a pair of pants, the tie's creation is still rather a puzzle. Debate simmers around several different, though not mutually exclusive, explanations.

Some believe the neckerchief was first adopted to warm a man's vocal cords so he could more easily speak. Another school of thought holds that no sooner did Adam don his fig leaf, than men felt the need to display their sexual prowess with a conspicuous substitute elsewhere on their body. Yes, it's the infamous "tie as phallic symbol" theory and a snicker, if you can't resist, for those men who wear bow ties.

Still others insist that draped necks have a military genesis and were created to lessen irritation caused by wearing body armor. Partisans of this view point to Trajan's column in Rome, which has bas-relief figures of 2nd century Roman soldiers wearing kerchiefs under their breast plates, or the 7,500 scarved terra-cotta warriors, unearthed in 1974, but buried in the third century B.C., along with the first Chinese emperor, Ch'in Shi Huang-ti.

As for the invention of more modern neckties, nearly all costume encyclopedias attribute this to the Croats of Eastern Europe.

During the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), nearly 6,000 Croatian troops arrived in Paris in 1635 to lend their support to King Louis XIII and Cardinal Richelieu. These mercenaries sported distinctive neckerchiefs -- a style previously unknown in the West. While French officers at this point were wearing elaborate lace collars that needed to be carefully starched, the Croatian scarf's practicality -- loosely tied and left to flop about as it may -- was immediately evident. Indeed, the French word for tie, cravate, or cravat, is most likely a corruption of "Croat."

This new fad for cravats was quickly linked to an item also then in vogue, the wig. In the court of Louis XIV, you see, big hair was required to flatter big egos. These luxuriant tresses cascading about shoulders, however, left little room for starched collars. Another reason for the adoption of a central, draped tie.

"You know the French. They take appearances very seriously," said Ann Buermann Wass, who has a doctorate in costume and textile history from the University of Maryland and is the staff historian at Riversdale House Museum, a former Calvert family mansion in Prince George's County. "The cravat was soon accepted at the French court, and then came to England with Charles II after the Puritan Revolution."

While menswear in the 18th century went quite wild with color and ostentation -- in England, gentlemen who'd adopted sartorial styles they'd seen on Italian grand tours were derided as "Macaronis"; in France, richly-dressed men were known as incroyables (incredibles) -- by the beginning of the 19th century, fashions became more somber. George Bryan "Beau" Brummel exemplified a new trend of subdued elegance in dress, and was the first to affect a shirt collar folded down over the cravat.

"As men's suiting became duller, a tie was one of the few places where men could still sport some color," Wass explained.

Since then, the tie has languished, essentially unchanged for nearly two centuries. To be sure, it's gotten fatter, thinner, bulkier, wispier, and been made out of everything from cotton, silk and velvet, to mesh, burlap and leather.

But, as it's held mostly steady at a width of 3 1/2 inches, when was the last time you gave even a second's thought to neckwear?

Probably when we all heard far too much about how Bill Clinton wore a yellow tie given to him by Monica Lewinsky.

Getting brighter

All this, though, may be about to change. When you enter Samuel Parker Clothier in Mt. Washington Mill, owner Kenneth Himmelstein is only too pleased to show you the more than 300 neckties he's displayed on an immense oval oak table. All are neatly arranged in categories -- stripes, foulards, jacquards, Macclesfields -- but what really "pops," as Himmelstein put it, are the new colors.

"We are coming out of a ridiculously long, chilly winter, when all was gray and dreary," he said. "Now? Nothing dresses you up more than a bright tie. Summer pastels are flying off the table. Orange is hot, as are pink and green. It's huge!"

In other words, the somber "Regis Philbin" look that held sway for the past few years -- dark shirts worn with dark ties -- is officially dead.

In its place are vibrant shirt and ties, some even showing pattern-on-pattern combinations. This, traditionally, has been a retail "no-no" as most men are thought incapable of accessorizing anything other than a solid or striped shirt.

Pink is also selling well at Banana Republic, said Joanna Buchanan, the company's design director of accessories, as are ties that appear to be one solid shade, but attain more "color depth" because they are actually designed in miniature checks.

Buchanan predicts that ties may become thinner in the fall, though, as men's suiting is becoming narrower in silhouette. "The overall look is slimmer -- leg cut, lapel size, the fit of the jacket. It's a more modern look, and as your eye gets used to this, the tie becomes slimmer, too."

That ties may shrink does not signal the seismic shift it may once have, for fashion is more multi-dimensional now that it was, say, 20 years ago. Just as all women do not rush to buy a particular skirt length anymore -- mini, midi, maxi: they're all being worn -- so men are not as cowed by a particular look in neckwear.

"The new generation doesn't worry so much about making a fashion mistake. They have shrugged off old rules," MDFA's Anderson said. "Once it was considered wrong to wear a striped tie with a striped shirt. This is no longer the case; in fact, I'd guess nine out of 10 consumers don't even know this was ever a rule."

Anderson also cites a rise of the so-called "metrosexual" man, who's influenced by television shows like Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. This male consumer is more confident of his taste and prefers to shop for and dress himself. Whereas 10 years ago, 80 percent of all men's neckties in America were purchased by women, this number is now down to 50 percent.

Listen to Jay Fisher, deputy director for curatorial affairs at the Baltimore Museum of Art. "I'm a little suspicious of the gift-giving thing. A tie is something you need to choose yourself because it makes everything else you're wearing work," he said. "I love the way the French use scarves as accent colors against a neutral costume. I believe in dressing with restraint, in clothes that are well-made and styled, but aren't loud, so they can be a backdrop for a tie."

Men are willing to take risks with a tie, concurred Banana Republic's Buchanan, because "a tie is a conservative way of being flamboyant," she said.

Buchanan suggests most women try to loosen up their men's wardrobe, not tone it down -- a wish that has new perils. When giving a tie to the man in their life, women may now want to tread lightly. Go with what he's got, she advises, and then gently nudge. If he likes stripes, buy a stripe of a subtly different color. Stretch him, but don't try to remake him. And, if you're lucky, he might decide to think pink, and wear his new Father's Day tie to work tomorrow. Then again, he may not.

As he leaves the house, however, be mindful of Roman warriors of old, those Chinese soldiers of Ch'in Shi Huang-ti, or the Croatian mercenaries. It's still a jungle out there and, like all these brave men before him, Dad is flying the colors high as he marches forth. Why does he wear one tie and not another? As it was, it ever shall be: a mystery.

Putting one on

Before you tie one on, know what you're looking for. Listed below are the most popular styles in men's neckwear.

Rep, Old School, Old Boy: Striped ties, a style thought to derive either from uniforms worn by the British military (the Royal Rifle Corps, for instance, sported green and scarlet striped ties), or members of the Exeter College rowing team at Oxford University who removed striped bands from their rowing hats and tied them around their necks. It's by far the most popular kind of tie, as even "fashion-challenged" men find it relatively easy to coordinate the stripe's color to their shirts. American ties, by the way, have stripes in the direction, whereas European stripes are the other way around ( / ).

Foulard: Originally, the term referred to ties made of soft, lightweight silk cloth. Lately, it means any tie with a small-scale, block-printed repeat (i.e. non-woven). Popular styles are fields of fleurs-de-lis, small paisleys, ovals or squares. The famous Hermes ties are almost all foulards.

Jacquard: Named for Joseph Jacquard, a French weaver in the early 1800s who invented a way to control interlocking threads (i.e. the warp and weft) on a silk loom to create all-over woven patterns such as trailing ivy or leaves. Jacquard ties are sometimes woven of a single color, while this lustrous weaving technique gives it a subtly visible design.

Macclesfield: Macclesfield was a textile mill town near London, known for processing raw silk imported from the Orient. Its weavers were celebrated for creating small, regularly repeating patterns of geometric shapes -- most often circles. Today, a Macclesfield tie is one that has any tightly organized design with a pleasing complexity like that of marquetry on a wooden floor.

Bolo: Forget it. Other than Ronald Reagan and Roy Rogers, no man has ever looked good in one. A bolo is a long strand of leather or string that is looped over the neck once, its two dangling ends then affixed in place with a silver or turquoise sliding device. In 1971, it was named the official state tie of Arizona.

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