Bow Ties 101: An Introduction to Bow Ties
Confidence and sophistication — the man in a bow tie radiates both.
Unless of course he has chosen the wrong bow tie, or worn a bow tie with the wrong ensemble. In that case, the bow tie renders his entire costume pagliaccio.
Such mistakes are avoidable, however, and the proposition a bow tie makes to a man is a simple one: Are you going for Bond, James Bond or Laugh, clown, laugh?
The question matters, because – sooner or later – every thinking man discovers for himself that wearing the right bow tie is the nicest thing he can do for his shirt, suit, and style. When one’s ensemble features or is constructed around a well-chosen bow tie, there’s no sharper way to step-out. Sometimes a bow tie is de rigueur, but a bow tie is always a bold and emboldening selection. We hope our guide will leave you shaken and stirred about the bow tie, and keen to begin experimenting — or perhaps adding to your collection.
Where Did the Bow Tie Originate?
The bow tie has Croatian roots reaching at least as far back as the 17th century. Croatian mercenaries used a type of neckwear (similar to a short scarf) to hold together the collars of their shirts. This article was known as a Hvrat, which is Croatian for “Croatian” (or, Croat). Cravate – which is French for Croat – eventually became cravate, whence cravat. The short scarf of the Cravates was assimilated by the French upper-sets, to whom Europeans of the period looked as arbiters of fashion. In due course, the many types of cravat out there evolved into the predecessors of the men’s neckwear we know today: bow ties and neckties. The former emerged as an essential part of formal attire, and by the 1900s a bow tie was a staple item in the Everyman’s wardrobe. In the decades subsequent to the end of World War II, the bow tie became less common; but even when popularity ebbed it remained (and does still remain) a fixture of formal attire.
Although it never vanished completely from menswear, the bow tie has once again begun to reassert itself as a staple. We are happy to say that an ever-growing number of style-conscious men are now comfortable incorporating bow ties into their day-to-day outfits, and no longer view the bow tie as the preserve of the quirky, the comic, or the contrived. This is a point that we believe deserves emphasis. A man should feel as comfortable switching between neckties and bow ties as he would between monk-straps and lace-ups or between belts and braces.
What’s the Difference Between Self-Tie, Pre-Tied & Clip-On Bow Ties?
The Self-Tie Bow Tie
Bow ties proper are of course “self-tie” bow ties. They have become known also as “freestyle” bow ties, but this we think is only a clever way of raising the status of other bow ties. “Self-tie” means exactly what you think: you tie the bow yourself.
And herein lies 90% of its charm. Once tied, the bow’s natural lines, shape, and slight asymmetry bring to the shirt (and to a man’s upper-half) elements that cannot be matched by a pre-tied bow, or a necktie. The ineluctable imprecision of the (self-tied) bow tie may be the counterpoint to the immaculacy of an ensemble, or it may be of a piece with the managed carelessness of one.
Learning to tie one properly is no great affair, but it does require some patience and a bit of practice. Opinion is divided as to whether wearing an untied bow tie around one’s collar is debonaire or a silly affectation. We say: if you’ve loosened the knot at day’s end – or: if the bow has been tugged-free by someone planning on unwrapping you like a present – then the untied and free-hanging bow tie it is an outstanding look. To perch an untied bow tie on one’s nape and dangle it from the collar – absent any intention of tying it – is de trop.
The Pre-Tied Bow Tie
The pre-tied bow tie is a neat, preternaturally symmetrical bow attached to an adjustable band. It is easy to size-to-fit, and painless to put-on. Pre-tied bow ties look pre-tied, and lack the character as a self-tie. The pre-tied bow tie is suitable for children, and for those who lack or no longer have the dexterity to tie or adjust for themselves a self-tie. We do not recommend the pre-tied bow tie as a “starter” bow tie. A style-conscious and nuance-sensitive man will detect that the look of his pre-tied bow tie is somehow off, and that his appearance with it on is less impressive than he imagined.
The Clip-On Bow Tie
This is a pre-tied bow attached to a metal clasp which hooks or clips directly onto the collar of a shirt. Clip-on bow ties are suitable for young children only. Period.
Sizing Your Bow Tie
A bow tie is, with limited exception, a one-size-fits-all affair. With a little trial and error, any adjustable bow tie can be made to fit the neck of the average adult male. The band/neck strap of a bow tie typically has either an adjustable slider, or a hook-and-holes arrangement with pre-marked measurements. Bow ties can generally accommodate collar sizes between 14.5 inches to 17.5 inches. If your bow tie has the hook-and-hole adjustment system, match the sizing to the size of the collar of the shirt you will be wearing. If your bow tie has a sliding-adjustment system, we recommend the following. With upturned collar wrap the tie around the collar band as if you are preparing to tie it (see below). At the topmost button of your shirt, cross the two ends of the tie — just as if you were going to tie it in a simple overhand knot. The length of each of the tie’s end bits should appear long enough to execute a bow but should not seem too long. How long is “too long”? It is difficult to say, but the distance between the crisscrossed part of the tie (at the top button) and the start of your bow tie’s flared part should not be more than three fingers’ width. Adjustment is inevitable, and practice is necessary.
How to Tie a Bow Tie
Learning how to tie a bow tie is regarded by some as a rite of passage on the journey to becoming a true gentleman. Tying a bow can be difficult the first few times and takes practice to master. Ties.com has made the job a little easier with this easy to follow bow tie infographic.
Five Bow Tie Shapes You Should Know
The modern butterfly, also known as the thistle shape, is the style of bow tie with which most people are familiar. This butterfly is appropriate for virtually every occasion and is perhaps the best style to acquire first if you are beginning to experiment with bow ties. We believe that every man’s tie collection should have at least one butterfly bow tie.
The Big Butterfly
The big butterfly is larger and has a more relaxed silhouette than the butterfly. It is sometimes worn with formalwear, and is perhaps best-suited to fancy-dress occasions. The style is very appropriate for larger and/or taller men. Absent a suitable context, or on a smaller man, the big butterfly can look comic. It is a grandiose tie, and should therefore be worn grandly.
The batwing shape, also known as a straight or slim bow tie, is the smallest in height. Untied, this style looks like a long rectangle strip with flat ends. Batwing bow ties are typically less than two inches in width. Tied well, they provide a clean, symmetrical look. Some regard it as less formal than the butterfly, but it is a classic shape and remains acceptable for black tie events. Be sure not to tie it too long, or it will look like you are wearing a propeller.
The Diamond Point
The diamond tip bow tie has pointed ends, and when tied is delightfully asymmetrical. It is one of our favorite styles.
The Rounded Club
These days the rounded club bow is the rara avis of the bow ties. Arguably the least formal of the lot, this is the tie for a Sunday run in the Mitsuoka Himiko, a picnic by the lake, or a spot of angling on the Tay. We like this style, and like it best in cotton and rougher textiles.
When is a Bow Tie the Right Tie?
A bow tie is rarely the wrong tie to wear — provided you have chosen the right one for your ensemble, the ensemble is occasion-appropriate, you have tied your tie well, and you wear it with ease and nonchalance.
Weddings apart, one of the most common places to see a bow tie in action is a formal engagement — the black tie only event for which few of us have regular invites to. This dress code for these is relatively straightforward and unambiguous: dinner jacket (tuxedo) and a black bow tie, preferably in silk. Wearing a self-tie bow tie to these is important: a pre-tied bow tie looks pre-tied, and diminishes both you and your ensemble. A white tie event is yet a further notch up — perhaps the ne plus ultra of formal. Known sometimes as “full dress,” white tie is the most formal of all dress codes. As the name suggests, a white bow tie (always a self-tie) is absolutely necessary. This is not the time to experiment with colors. See our complete breakdown of the formal dress codes.
Notwithstanding the fact that the very phrase semi-formal is vexing, any affair so-billed is a wonderful occasion for experimentation with bow ties. We do not recommend taking too much license with your ensemble: it is better, we think, to lean towards formal than list towards semi. By all means enjoy your options with respect to bow tie styles, materials, and textures; but your aim is to remain aligned with a dress code, so do resist the temptation to get too creative.
“Casual” dress codes (and the absence of a dress code) liberates you to rewrite the rules, if you wish to do so. First-time bow tie wearers may incline towards supporting accessories like braces (suspenders,) printed socks, and bright shoelaces. We recommend not getting carried away, or going in period-costume — unless that’s your thing.
Choosing your ensemble is only half the battle. The best thing you can wear with your bow tie is confidence. Too often, bow ties will wear the man, instead of the other way around.
This version edited by Eve Waites and updated July 26, 2017.