Man smoking cigar wearing a bow tie

In Defense of the Bow Tie Made for more than white-tie weddings and penguins

For some people, the bow tie is in the same category as the novelty tie, or what’s worse the gimmicky tie. But the bow tie is neither.

Don’t think of this tie as a bow affixed to the top of a man’s shirt. Think of it as a short cravat tied into a bow.

The Gestalt-shift isn’t semantic merely. What we call a “bow tie” is the descendant of a style of neckwear once worn by Croatian mercenaries for practical purposes:

it served as a fastener, keeping closed the collars of their shirts, and was more like a short scarf than foppy ornament.

The bow we know resulted from subsequent innovation (by French fashionistas) with how best to tie this short scarf.

Its prominence on the collar and being in front of both the shirt and jacket recommended it for playful experimentation.

Knot and bow became flourishes, and soon form superseded function.

before the bow tie: the exaggerated bow of the cravat
The road to the contemporary bow tie passed through here: the cravat worn less like a short scarf and tied into a broad, accentuated bow.

Table of Contents

Knot What It Used To Be

It depends on who one asks, and the data are ambiguous, but it seems that the bow tie is creeping back towards becoming a staple article in a man’s tie collection.

Bow ties continue to appeal in large part to men concerned less with “the whirligig of taste” and more with self-expression, but the bow is certainly back in vogue.

When actor Matt Smith took on the role of Dr. Who, British broadsheet The Daily Telegraph reported a sudden uptick in the sale of bow ties.

We suspect the same thing happens each time a new James Bond film is released, and we predict that it will happen when Gary Oldman takes to the screen as Winston Churchill.

WE WILL WEAR THEM ON THE BEACHES: Gary Oldman as Churchill. Image: Filmslash

Iceland Navy Blue Self-tie Bow Tie

Travel to a whole other world in this silk Iceland tie. It has a navy blue background with added texture detailing that makes for a perfect well-rounded accessory.

Some say that the bow tie points backward to a time when men were better-dressed.

It is perhaps more accurate to see the bow tie as cut from the cloth of an era in which men were attentive to accepted norms for “appropriate clothing” and sensitive to the nuances of occasion.

Bow ties were more commonplace when men wore hats as a matter of course (and promptly removed them when entering most buildings) and when gentlemen wore t-shirts as undergarments only.

Gone it seems are the days when the average guy grasped intuitively the notion of situationally-appropriate apparel and role-appropriate costume.

By the time office dress codes had relaxed into virtual non-existence (and bank tellers ceased dressing like people you can trust to handle your money), the very idea of a role-appropriate costume had gone out the scuppers.

The tail of populism has been wagging the dog of propriety rather fiercely since the ’70s, and poor Fido is clearly benumbed.

The bow tie’s best chance of returning to its rightful place on the tie rack lies not with Dr. Who, Winston Churchill, James Bond, or Bill Nye. It lies with men becoming comfortable again with alternating thoughtfully but without anxiety between neckties and bow ties.

In our century, the bow tie enables a man to distinguish himself as different, but whether this is a good or bad thing depends mainly on why the man in question feels the need to distinguish himself at all.

Worn well, though, a bow tie can make a man more memorable, and suggest that he lacks neither self-possession nor confidence — two things always attractive and never out of style.

AULD SCHOOL: Few men wear a bow tie as well or consistently dress as smart as Scottish philosopher and best-selling novelist Professor Alexander McCall-Smith, whose fine bow ties (and suits, and hats) have become a part of his public image.

Houston Navy Blue Self-tie Bow Tie

Take a break from the standard striped bow tie with a variation that’s cool and colorful. The Houston Butterfly Bow Tie in navy blue is adorned with white, taupe, and maroon diagonal stripes for an interesting twist. Made of durable cotton.

It is true, too, that some men are so uniquely partial to bow ties that their bow ties have become the signature elements of their ensemble.

For such wearers the bow tie is emblematic — and that’s the way these men like it.  

For the average man, the semi-strategic use of the bow tie as a device to establish a trademark look is something of a double-edged sword.

We who regularly wear bow ties now and then wish to enjoy the bow tie option without being labeled “the bow tie guy.”  

Why? Because “the bow tie guy” is often taken as a representative of a type. A bow tie is hardly the mark of individuality if it reduces a man to a one-liner or a trope.

The Rat Pack and Other Animals

Here’s the problem. Sinatra and his entourage wore bow ties, and no 007 film is complete without James Bond swaggering into a hotel or casino with a Walther, a bow tie, and a thousand-yard stare. Very cool. 

There are also a half-dozen or more cartoon characters who wear bow ties — not so cool, and herein lies the rub. It’s one thing for people to see the bow tie as something quaint.

It’s another to see the gent who wears one as a caricature of a kind of man, or as a live-action reference to an anthropomorphic cartoon character who is a caricature of a kind of man.

It is nothing short of tragic that a man aiming for a bit of Bond or sprinkle of Old Blue Eyes risks hitting Pee Wee Herman or Mr. Peabody. 

where to wear a bow tie
ASCOTS & MASCOTS: A reimagined Snagglepuss has lost the drawstring bow and upgraded to an ascot. This particular intersection of the semiotics of style and identity politics has all the subtlety of, well, a pink mountain lion. Heavens to Murgatroyd. Image: Cartoonbrew

This situation exists because – when the bow tie went the way of spats, split-bamboo fly rods, and ashtrays in aircraft – some men adopted it just to be different.

Things are getting better, though, and no longer is the bow tie either a period-piece or a prop.

But the bow tie’s best chance of returning to its rightful place on the tie rack lies not with Dr. Who, Winston Churchill, James Bond, or Bill Nye.

It lies with men becoming comfortable again with alternating thoughtfully but without anxiety between neckties and bow ties.

This will require more men to wear the bow tie as a kind of tie and not as a quirky punctuation mark on the collar. 

Don’t Wear A Bow To Stand-out. Wear It To Be Outstanding.

It is with a friendly fraternal smile that – every year – the custodians of the official National Bow Tie Day website encourage men to mark the day by donning this especially masculine piece of sartorial history.

The fact is, discerning men eventually discover for themselves why a bow tie is at times the nicest thing they can do for their shirts, and the sharpest way to make a lasting impression. 

Where to Wear a Bow Tie

Insofar as there is a general rule about when to wear a bow tie, it is this: If the event, setting, or occasion is necktie-appropriate, then it is bow tie-appropriate.

If you are keen to find a niche environment in which to celebrate your bow tie, however, we recommend the following.


where to wear the bow tie
A classical performance deserves a classic look.

Venues for recitals, ballets, and performances of this sort do not typically have dress codes. We wish they did.

If you are going to Concert Hall – whether it’s in Aberdeen, Albany, Adelaide, or Anhui – never dress like you’re going for Jello-shots at Hooters.

Find a classical performance near you, if only to have an excuse to dress-up and show-off a bow tie.


where to wear a bow tie
Bacchus loves boughs, beaus, and bows. Celebrate the verdure of the vineyards with a green butterfly.

Since many people seem to associate bow ties with connoisseurs and scholars, it seems not merely apt but appropriate to wear a bow tie when enjoying the fruits of viniculture.


where to wear a bow tie
The chrome, vinyl, and grease are waiting for a jukebox hero.

Take your bow tie to a classic eatery. Being a bow it won’t hang into your milkshake or drift onto your hot dog, and by golly that’s just swell.


where to wear a bow tie
Be worthy of your table-setting and indulge in style.

Now and then a man should do brunch, and one should always dress for brunch.

Wearing a bow tie to a top brunch in a nice venue elevates everyone and everything. Wear one of these, and service staff might even tip you.

When Not to Wear a Bow Tie

There are better and worse ensembles for a bow tie, but there is no general rule regarding when or where not to wear a bow tie.

The question When should I not wear a bow tie? does come up, however, and so herewith is our advice:

  • If the occasion is necktie-appropriate, then it is bow tie appropriate.
  • If a necktie is too dressy or too buttoned-up for an occasion, then a bow tie might also be insufficiently informal. It is possible to understate and downplay a necktie more easily than it is a bow tie. If the event is “casual” and the operative phrase in the dress code is “don’t dress-up,” then a cotton or linen necktie with a slack knot can be part of a thoughtfully-assembled but still carefree relaxed look. Even the most laid-back bow tie will require you to have the top button of your shirt buttoned, though; and while that isn’t necessarily a “dressy” look, it is not a relaxed one.
  • If the point of a specific ad hoc dress code is to ensure uniformity or homogeneity – say, a group photo – and the dress code requires men to wear “ties,” then assume that the dress code is calling for neckties. If a bow tie would not be in keeping with the spirit of the code, then it would be inappropriate.
  • If it is expected that mourners will be in black/dark attire, then a dark bow tie might not be inappropriate.

There’s a broader point to be made, so we’re going to take a moment to explain.

If you wear a bow tie often or regularly, and are comfortable in one, then there is no reason why you cannot strictly observe mourning-etiquette and its color-code while wearing a bow tie.  

But if you do not wear a bow tie regularly, and if you would be wearing one as a novelty, then it would not be appropriate to select a bow tie to wear for a funeral or wake.

This has nothing to do with the bow tie itself, but rather with your decision to choose to wear something conspicuous to a solemn occasion.

It is not the bow that is disrespectful, but rather one’s opting to be showy when one should at such times communicate concern for others.

If you are not intuitively sure whether it is appropriate for you, then it is perhaps wisest to err on the side of caution and give the bow tie a pass. 

About National Bow Tie Day

National Bow Tie Day was launched by bow tie aficionados to celebrate an article of menswear which – until relatively recently – was a staple of every gentleman’s collection of ties, and not a curiosity or special-occasion accessory.

When things were thus, the bow tie hardly needed a commemorative event.

The annual occasion is an opportunity to experiment with confidence and impunity, and when it comes around we hope you will carpe this diem and carp about bow ties.

Chin up. Tie one on. Bow to none.

Begin your experiment or add to your collection.

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