Men's Fashion

Return of the beau tie

Smart and quirky, there’s an irresistible brio about a bow tie, says Jonathan Futrell.

December 12 2009
Jonathan Futrell

If proof were needed of the way in which men’s style is immune to the whimsy of fashion pundits, the renaissance of the bow tie is it.

What began as a rumour some 18 months ago, and was denied by the more prosaic forecasters, is now a fact: the bow tie, that most idiosyncratic item of male neckwear, is back where it belongs.

Confined for a couple of decades to a twilight world of ballrooms and casinos, the 21st-century butterfly knot has found itself adapting to life as daywear. Sales of bow ties are up across the board – from Turnbull & Asser, where there is a 30 per cent increase from this time last year, to eBay, which is awash with them. Other traditional houses – Gieves & Hawkes, Hackett and Thomas Pink – all report increased sales, too. But when Paul Smith, the grand master of English tailoring with a twist, comes out strong with striped, knitted silk ties in sombre black, brown, purple and burgundy (£70 each), you know bow ties have arrived. Young, fresh and surprisingly “normal”, they looked great on his catwalk teamed with beanie hats, jeans and knitwear.

Time-honoured bow tie wearers to reference are a mixed bunch, who share an irresistible brio. From the old guard, Karl and Groucho Marx, Sirs Winston Churchill and Robin Day, and James Bond creator Ian Fleming, through to stars Humphrey Bogart, Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jnr (who is reputed to have owned more than 300 bow ties), and to thoroughly modern men such as Apple’s Steve Jobs and David Hockney.

A good place to start a bow-tie rehabilitation is Ralph Lauren, where the silk bows come in four colours (£70) and, accompanied by tweedy jackets, define the label’s New England appeal. Then to Brioni, which has plumped for 100 per cent cashmere bow ties (£120) that exude a Clark Kent wholesomeness. Bucking the casual trend is Thomas Pink, which didn’t do bows five years ago and now has nine smart styles in a variety of colours (£30).

Turnbull & Asser’s buyer Charles O’Reilley is a man who can tie the perfect bow in less time than it takes most men to tie their laces, and he isn’t surprised at their appeal. “The bow tie used to be sign of rebellion in the 1800s, so it’s not surprising that we’re selling a lot to younger people.” Behind him sits a bow tie carousel loaded with 100 styles and colours – polka dot, paisley, velvet and Jacquard (£30-£35).

Moments later, as if to endorse the theory that bow ties are the skinny cardigan of 2009, I almost bump into a rangy 20-something gent in London’s smart Burlington Arcade. He is resplendent in his satin-piped, two-piece grey suit with a mustard shirt and a gold bow tie; think David Bowie and Bryan Ferry circa 1972.

Should we really be that surprised? After all, real men don’t do radical fashion. The boundaries of the male mode were mapped out more than a century ago. Chaps tend to manoeuvre within an acknowledged sartorial framework, with items like bow ties drifting in and out over time.

OK, so bow ties will never become mainstream. They’re too quirky, too eccentric for that. But, like trousers with turn-ups and double-breasted jackets, which were also no-no’s for many years, they’ve woven themselves back into the fabric of male style. For one thing, bow ties are so damnably practical. It’s why university professors, heart surgeons, orchestral musicians and trenchermen with a penchant for soup of the day have worn them for generations.

The other style bonus is that they have to be worn with the shirt collar buttoned up. Bow ties don’t do unkempt, unless you’re going for the 007 “ready-for-bed” look with a couple of martini glasses clinking in one hand and a bottle of iced Stoli in the other.

Hackett’s spotty silk (£35) and tartan (£35) bow ties now comprise part of the key looks in the label’s new-season catalogue. “People used to really stare at me as though I was sporting pink hair when I wore one,” says Jeremy Hackett. “But now everybody seems to be wearing them and I don’t get a second glance. I might even stop wearing mine now.”

There aren’t many bow tie do’s and don’ts; only that it must be real, and under no circumstances one of those clip-on jobbies. And a bow “spread” of 3in is about right. Anything larger than this and you’ll look clownish.

“It’s all part of the Duke of Windsor thing,” says Gieves & Hawkes’ head of design, Frederik Willem. “The chic country look.” In the 15 months since moving to the Savile Row emporium from Pringle of Scotland, Willem has quadrupled the company’s bow tie range. From just the classic black tie there is now a choice of 25 styles in three sizes – small thin, classic medium and large (£20-£49) – all taken from vintage patterns. “Our staff are wearing them in the store and customers are saying that they really like that,” says Willem. “Dressing up is back and what we’re finding is men, especially slightly younger ones, are ready to try them.”

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