The History of the Tie
I met a man who attended a religious congregation where “Sunday best” was the generally accepted dress. This included a tie. This man never wore one; when I asked why, he proceeded to tell me that the tie was a French invention and that because the French had opposed recent American foreign policy, he was protesting. He refused to wear a tie. This man had likely passed fifty and was still single.
Now, while I’m not making any comment on how those facts interrelate—and I certainly won’t take a stance on politics when I’m just writing about ties—his comment piqued my curiosity. Was the tie really a French invention? What was the history of the tie? I began to investigate.
My discovery was that while the tie began its evolution in France, the French were not the source of the fashion. During the Thirty Years’ War, the French employed mercenaries—good military practice—and began to pick up on some of their fashion trends. Specifically, one group of missionaries wore neckerchiefs, knotted loosely around their necks. Likely, these served a practical purpose. Soldiering is sweaty work. When the Parisians saw this fashion statement, however, they were swift to embrace it and soon men and women across the continent were wearing pieces of fabric tied casually about their necks. So it is that without the French engaging in some aggressive foreign policy, the history of the tie would have stagnated. Neckties would have never come into being—or, if they had, they would not have passed through fashion-conscious France. Where were the mercenaries from? Croatia. Would France ever have looked to Croatia for neckwear in any other situation? Not likely.
While it is humorous that the history of the tie began with a sweaty rag, it is true that the French liked the style more than the smell. Soon evolved the cravat, a precursor to the tie. Various combinations of lace, knots, tucks into buttonholes, and leaps across oceans in various colors, shapes, and sizes, led to the point that the history of the tie eventually began to be a history of something noticeable as a necktie. In the midst of all of this, a book entitled Neckclothitania was published. It held instructions on the appropriate tying of the cravat and is apparently the first book to use “tie” as a word associated with neckwear. Still, these cravats looked like men wore doilies around their necks.
Eventually, the necktie began to develop in its own right, starting out during the industrial revolution as a sturdy way for workers and bosses to keep their fashion up. Often these early ties were shorter and wider than generally worn today. Having seen some of these styles that persist among novelty ties and the occasional disco-era neckwear, I can only make one comment. It looks like a bib.
Between bibs and doilies, though, a New York tie maker named Jesse Langsdorf developed a way of cutting the fabric on the bias and sewing it in such a way as to keep the tie more pliable through repeated tying and untying. Wildly colorful and patterned ties began to seep in, and by the 1950’s, the mix of novelty and conservative ties had become pretty well spread. Around the ‘60’s and ‘70’s is when ties began to slowly return to a more normal width of 2-3 inches, but when the ‘80’s hit, there was again a dip into odd tie widths as the one inch tie became extremely popular. Conservative tie widths have so far won out—same for patterns and colors—but fashion sense in all aspects of thinner, wider, and more colorful and wildly patterned ties still exist as viable ways to make a statement.
So the French didn't really invent the tie. They invented the cravat, which they stole from the Croatians, anyway. While the gentleman I met was partly right in his assertion, fashion is such that his lack of tie looked more sloppy than rebellious. If I wanted a tie-centered protest, I'm sure that I could find the tie to do the trick.