The Art of Vintage Manliness: Ties
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A Little History
Almost everything about the modern suit can be traced back to fashions a few hundred years ago. The slits (vents) in the back of the coat were orginally made to make sitting on a horse comfortable. The buttons on the sleeves actually used to work, to make it easier to work with gloves or roll your sleeves back. (Cuff buttons still do work on fine suits or tailor-made work.) Watch a Jane Austin movie, and you’ll see how collars used to be starched standing-up with a thin scarf wrapped and tied around them, until someone noticed it was more comfortable to bend the top of the collar down over the cravat, thus freeing men to finally be able to look down. What they saw when they finally could were peasants in terrible working and social conditions, and only then could social reform begin.
The jabots and cravats of the 18th and 19th centuries evolved, by the end of the Victorian period, into the modern tie. To celebrate Oct-tie-ber, here’s a little info on how the great men of fashion, especially those of the 1930s and 1940s, got creative with their neckwear.
The Long Tie (the common tie)
When wearing the basic tie, the usual rule is you want the tip of the tie to touch the middle of your belt buckle. Like all fashion rules (and swing dance rules) you’re allowed to break it if you know why you’re breaking it (or if you have a history of being accidentaly awesome.)
For swing-era vintage lovers specifically, you should know that 1920s and 1930s ties were more about texture, simple designs and understatement. It’s in the 1940s that the colorful silk ties with wild designs became popular. Either can produce a great vintage look, but they should make sense with the rest of the outfit.
When tying a basic tie, there are dozens of obscure ways. However, four basic ones are described below. Each mainly just produces a different size, and mainly just go with what you’re feeling that day, but pay attention to how it subtly influences the shape of your face. For instance, imagine a guy with a super long face. A thin knot on a thin tie is going to produce very different results than a thick knot on a thick tie. Here’s the run-down on how to tie them, or, look below for individual videos.
The Full Windsor
Gives you a super-thick knot at the top. Here’s a video on how to tie it.
Gives you a less-bigger knot at the top. Here’s a video on how to tie it.
Probably the most common and basic tie knot, it produces a pretty small knot compared to the Windsor. Here’s a video on how to tie it.
A rare knot that gives you pretty similar results knot-wise to the other ties, however it leaves the seam of the thin part of the tie facing the other way. A subtle little flourish.
Very few men in the 1930s would have worn a long tie without wearing a vest, coat, or sweater with it, and I think most of you will agree that a tie under a vest looks incredibly suave and put-together. When I wear a long tie without a vest, I can’t help but feel I have to do something with it to make it special, or at the very least get the damn thing out of the way. Here are some stylings great men of fashion have done with it.
The long and short of it: A lot of men automatically assume they’ve tied a tie wrong if the thin end is longer than the front end, but a lot of vintage-era men used the long, thin end of the tie to stick in their waistband. This kept the tie in place, as well as offered a little eccentric touch.
Yeah, so what?: Of course, you don’t just have to put the short end into the pants. Why not put the entire thing into the waistband? Sean Connery, Gene Kelly, and Fred Astaire did.
The Flyboy: When I worked at Johns Hopkins, I used to wear a tie most days. At one point in my younger 20s I was watching Band of Brothers or Memphis Belle or something* and realized the military men in WWII dress uniforms tucked their ties into the hole made by the top two buttons of the shirt, and I adopted this when I went out to eat during work. I liked the styling so much I would sometimes wear it that way the rest of the day. I also discovered it was a thing for other vintage men as well. Here’s Fred Astaire doing it.
The Casual Loose Knot:
Don’t like being choked by Corporate America all day? Make it your style to still wear a tie, but not tighten it, Tyrone Power-style. As much as I love ties, I don’t like having the collar fabric around my neck all day, so I often unbutton the top shirt button and hang the tie loose after work/the dance/the contest.
The Tie Belt:
Fred Astaire famously wore thin ties as belts, a fashion several claim was already a fashion of the day that he just brought into the limelight (though it’s totally possible he invented such a styling himself, after all, he was a creative and eccentric dresser). I like this fashion and think it’s great in contests, assuming your pants fit well and the tie is not meant to hold them up but merely give them a slight squeeze. I almost always use this fashion when I travel so I don’t have to take off my belt at airports. However, I think there are a few tricks with the tie belt in order to pull it off: first, I think you have to be a little ecentric in other areas of your fashion as well. For instance, Fred would often wear it with casual attire and a neckerchief scarf, giving himself a whimsical and loose-use-of-fabric style overall. On top of this, he had his pants shorter than most men of the day to show off his entire foot when dancing, as well as show off his colorful socks, reinforcing the whimsical use of fabric theme. Also, I think tie-belts, if you’re going to tuck your shirt in and thus bring them to a highlight in your outfits, really work best with high-wasted pleated pants and dropped “Hollywood” belt loops. Those factors give it a “cinching” look at the thinnest part of the waist, and it really optimizes the tie belt’s natty, in my opinion.
[Updated] Tie bars, chains and pins are all ways to keep your tie in place. And it doesn’t even have to serve that purpose. Here’s Gary Cooper using a tie pin to push his tie knot out.
[Updated] Another way men get their ties out of the way for eating (or establishing a “get shit done” attitude to all those around him) is by tossing the tie over the right shoulder. The only problem is that the tie falls back into place if you turn to the left. If anyone knows of a vintage well-dressed man that does this, please let me know. Until then, we’ll have to go with this Benjamin Bixby model.
The Bow Tie
A quick note: If you want to recreate vintage styling in the ways of men, you should learn to tie a bow tie. (What are you, a farmer?) It can be tricky wrapping your head around it at first, but it really is only slightly harder than tying your shoes once you get the hang of it. What the instructions above don’t tell you is the crucial fact that, just like in tying your shoe laces, you have to hold onto each of the 4 wings of the bowtie when tightening so you don’t undo your 1 to 37 minutes of work. It’s by pulling on the loops that you tighten the knot. Fake bow ties have a place, and in my opinion that place is on six-year-old southern WASPs.
Bow ties don’t have a lot of different knots, but they more than make up for the loss with shapes. I recently found a website called The Cordial Churchman that has incredible bow ties, and they make each of their bow ties in five different shapes.
Cross-Patterning Bow Ties
Though there aren’t a lot of styles you can do with a bow tie, aside from that untied, long-day-at-the-Academy-Awards look, or the shirtless chip’n'dale look, there is one thing you can do if you have the right bow tie. Bow ties with a different pattern on the back than on the front can be tied, if my math is correct, 1,253 different ways.
Neckerchiefs, scarves, ascots
If you’re celebrating Oct-tie-ber, please take at least a day or two to honor the incredible styling of vintage neckerchiefs. After all, most people wear ties all year long; who wears a neckerchief in the real world, un-ironically, these days?
Are easy as hell to tie, and a great way to go casual. (Both “ascot” and “cravat” are more or less interchangeable in common language these days.) Take your neckerchief or scarf (if it’s in square shape, fold the edges in along a diagonal so it becomes scarf-shaped), put it around your neck, twist the ends once, pull tight (so far, it’s simply the first step of tying your shoes), then flatten out the top end so it cascades down over the top of the neckerchief like a waterfall (a waterfall that goes down your shirt). Stuff the ends into the neckline of your shirt/smoking jacket/velvet man corset. Or, if that doesn’t make sense, see instructions here. Also, here are a few more options: Thanks, “Dogpossum”.
Take your neckerchief around your neck and either tie a simple square knot or tie it with a four-in-hand. Either is vintage. (If it’s a bandana-style square, just fold the edges along a diagonal so you have a scarf-like piece of fabric.)
I think Fred Astaire would agree when I tell you this: a tie is never just a tie.
[This post was updated and expanded May 3, 2012]
* — You will never, ever, ever get me to admit it was Pearl Harbor, so don’t even try.