In the world of menswear, few items strike fear into the hearts of casual wearers as the bow tie. The vast majority of men have grown up with the long tie and the prospect of learning a new knot on a shorter tie can seem like a recipe for public embarrassment. Yet for some, the bow tie makes a particular statement and has a particular use.

Nowadays, bow ties are a common sight on designer tuxedos and have had their place as the default choice in a tuxedo shirt’s collar since the late 1800s, but the bow tie stretches much further back in time.

 

History

The first bow ties were not worn for balls, galas or other formal events, but for war. The earliest versions of the bow tie was worn by Croatian mercenaries in the 1600s. Their neckties had more in common with the modern cravat than the modern bow tie (cravat is french for Croat or Croatian), but was the genesis of the idea. The Croatian mercenaries used the tie to hold their shirt together at the collar. Because of its short length it wouldn’t get caught in the brush or grabbed onto by the enemy.

The French adopted the necktie worn by the mercenaries and, in making the tie even shorter, created the modern bowtie in the early 18th century. Scholars debate whether the bow tie led to the four-in-hand necktie or whether they were both born at the same time, but all agree that the cravat came first.

 

Modern Meanings

The bow tie is a necessity for black tie and white tie dress; it is also commonplace on tuxedos in most settings. Though generally avoided by those who wear a suit to their daily career, there are several professions in which a bow tie is extremely common. Doctors in rural areas, pediatricians, classical musicians, architects, university professors and attorneys all wear the tie with regularity.

Outside of the tuxedo, a bow tie is an aggressive sartorial statement. Because the bow tie is so rare in men’s business dress, wearing one is a clear message that the wearer does not adhere to the norms of professional attire.

Whether you’re putting the final touch on your next formal outfit or planning to buck the norm in your suit, buying a bow tie for your ensemble can certainly have its effect.