It is to Honore de Balzac that we owe the truism "le cravate c'est l'homme meme."
Balzac spoke the truth. A consummate dandy and legendary practitioner of the art of tying the cravat, Balzac is generally believed to be the author of the first book on men's fashion called "The Art of Tying the Cravat." The book credits "H. Le BLanc" with the authorship, but few argue that Balzac was the man behind the pen, or feather, as it were.
The necktie as we know it descended from the "focalis" worn by Roman Legionaires dating back to the first century AD. This neckwear precursor was worn by the Roman soldiers as a way of protecting their throats from the cold. Much later, this purely functional neck cloth evolved into what was called a "neckerchief." Usually made of linen or silk, the cloth was wrapped around the neck until layered just so.
By the nineteenth century, every school, sporting team, men's club and regiment in England had its own distinctive neckwear pattern designed, usually a coat of arms motif or a combination of colored stripes. Most of these neckwear designs are an integral part of England's fashion history. P.L. Sells & Co., perhaps the largest tie manufacturer in Britain, stocks more than 10,500 of these individual designs on file, any one of which may be made up when required.
The dapper Duke of Windsor, just after World War I, popularized the maroon and navy stripes of the Brigade of Guards, favoring it over all the other ties in his substantial neckwear wardrobe. Since anything the dapper Duke wore would spawn legions of imitators, he also must be held responsible for eroding the hegemony of the striped repp tie. Elsewhere in England, members of the Garrick Club are still distinguishable by their bright salmon and cucumber striped neckwear, rare as these color combinations are.
While the tie most assuredly remains a staple of proper gentlemen's dress, its exclusive fraternal associations with the military, sporting organizations, private universities and select gentlemen's clubs have all but disappeared, even in England. Indeed, the state of neckwear in the twenty first century reveals less about the man and more about the woman in his life, fortunately or unfortunately.
There are those would challenge the above theory, maintaining that a man's tie is still a joyous communicator of self-expression, the last bastion of exclusive male finery, a classic and glorious example of the peacock male. But how does one argue against the fact that today, nearly 60% of all ties sold are bought by women?
Understandably, most women prefer their men to look well-dressed. Yet precisely because women expect their men to be properly dressed, and men in turn often tend to focus on things other than their wardrobe, the choosing of a tie often rests with a woman. And inevitably, that choice is made with a feminine eye. Hence, the tie selected cravat is often too colorful, too creative or too sentimental. It is no coincidence that as masculine influences on neckwear design diminishes, the feminine influences (small animal prints, huge flower motifs, offbeat, overpowering colors) become more pronounced.
Unfortunately, this trend is likely to continue into the future, since many neckwear manufacturers these days are designing their tie lines to appeal more directly to the purchaser rather than the wearer. Further, these tie companies have begun to advertise their merchandise in women's fashion magazines.
The proliferation of these gaudy, often overly designed splashes of silk have had a restraining influence on other areas of men's wear design. Patterned shirts and suits must be quieted down when it is matched with a tie whose pattern recalls a wallpaper print or curtain fabric. Yet it is characteristic of men's fashion that every trend toward excess in turn originates a reactionary move back toward classicism and tradition. In the last season or two, I've noticed a return to simple, elegant designs in neckwear such as solid satins and grenadines, understated polka dots, small geometrics, woven checks, regimental and repp stripes and rich paisleys, all patterns I endorse completely.
Another casualty of designing and marketing neckwear to women is the lack of quality we've begun to notice in the construction of these ties. Women's wear is legendary for putting pattern and design above quality. Few women care about a garment's construction, so long as the color and pattern pleases them. This mentality has infiltrated neckwear to the point where most designer ties today are completely machine made, with lightweight, inferior silk and substandard interlinings.
Simply stated, the best possible tie is one that is made by hand. They are easily recognized by the single slip stitch or length of silk thread dangling under the fold behind the wide end of the tie. This is a telltale sign that the tie fabric has been hand sewn to the interlining. This construction gives the tie more resilience and enables it to knot (and unknot, an important factor) better.
Generally, the fabric, tipping and interlining are cut and sewn on the bias, a process that uses a generous amount of fabric but allows for the best possible drape and least chance for unraveling.
Another way of determining quality construction in a tie is to turn it over and inspect the hand-sewn seam in back. On a quality tie, it should be straight and even. At the bottom of the wide end, a "full margin," or one-quarter inch of tie fabric, should be seen between the tipping and the tie edge. Better neckwear is also hand-pressed with steam so that the edges are softly rolled rather than hard or overly creased as with machine-made ties.
At the bottoms of both the wide and narrow ends of the back of the tie, double "bar tacks" of silk thread anchor each seam. The best neckwear will also feature a hand-sewn, self-fabric "keeper" or loop to conveniently house the narrow end of the tie and keep it in place. Lesser ties use their label to serve as a "keeper" of sorts.
Another mark of better ties are linings that are compatible, weight for weight, with that of the tie fabric, which will ensure proper drape once knotted and worn. A heavy lining, used with a lightweight silk such as crepe de Chine, for example, would inhibit the tie's ability to drape and knot correctly.
Color alone does not lend variety to a necktie; too many men limit themselves to basic cloths such as silk foulards. They should understand that on those certain occasions that call for a handsome sports jacket paired with pleated flannel trousers, a rich ancient madder silk paisley tie or one made of cashmere is altogether appropriate.
At the risk of being dubbed a male chauvinist, I firmly believe that the knot of a gentleman's tie is too crucial a matter to be entrusted to the fairer sex. Every man should be able to expertly tie his own tie, even if his tie knotting knowledge extends only to the simple and basic four-in-hand. In my view, allowing a woman to fasten one's tie is hardly an act of gallantry but rather a sign of weakness. We would all do well to remember Oscar Wilde's prophetic admonition: "A well-tied tie is a man's first serious step in life."
No truer words were ever spoken.