The Bow Tie

Nothing celebrates the return of warm weather like a bow tie.
Nothing celebrates the return of warm weather like a bow tie.

With the height of spring rapidly approaching, what better time to highlight one of the all-time great WASP fashion accessories: the bow tie.

While the general theme of WASP fashion revolves around the subtle and understated, the bow tie is unique for its boldness.  Perhaps its the bow tie’s association with classic formal wear, or the stereotype of people who traditionally wear them, or maybe it’s simply the fact that they’re so difficult to tie.  Whatever the reason; when you put on a bow tie, people will notice.

The key of course is getting it right.  As a student of WASP culture, your goal is to project the kind of formal preppiness that sets you apart at a cocktail party, or an air of intellectual superiority that gives you the upper hand at a business meeting.   Get it wrong, however, and you may quickly regret all that new found attention…

But not to fear, the howtoWASP is here to help and by following a few simple rules you’ll be a bow tie pro in no time.

From the Battle Field to the Opera

In a departure from most things WASP’y, the bow tie does not trace its origins back to Great Britain, or even Western Europe for that matter.  Instead we have the Croatians to thank.

A 17th Century Croatian mercenary with "cravat"
A 17th Century Croatian mercenary with “cravat”

Back during the Prussian Wars of the 17th Century, Croatian mercenaries were hired to fight for King Louis XIII and became known for the knotted silk scarves they used to hold the top of their shirts closed.  The scarves aroused the curiosity of Parisians who began wearing the “cravats” (simply French slang for Croat at the time) themselves and a fashion legend was born.  The style caught on in France, particularly among the upper class, and became wildly popular over the course of the 18th and 19th centuries.  During that period, the cravat evolved into the modern bow tie and eventually the neck tie of today.

Of course it wasn’t long before the British, who often looked to the French as the vanguards of fashion, began to emulate the style on their own, furthering the bow tie’s popularity and world wide exposure.

However, all good things must come to an end and by the 20th century the modern neck tie began to replace the bow tie as an every day fashion accessory.  The bow tie stuck around, but became regulated to formal wear duty and as a trademark fashion accessory among a few niche segments of society (doctors, attorneys, professors, etc…)

Fortunately the bow tie is making a comeback.  Gone are the stuffy/nerdy stereotypes of the past.  Today the bow tie can be the perfect option for the fashion forward WASP who’s not afraid to stand out amongst the crowd.

The Technical Stuff:

As mentioned earlier, part of the mystique surrounding the bow tie probably comes from the fact that they’re so difficult to tie properly.  Truth be told, the knot itself isn’t all that complicated, but unlike a typical necktie (with a Full Windsor for example), a bow tie is not adjustable.  In other words, there is no margin for error.  Once it’s tied, it’s not going anywhere, so it better be done right.

That being said, let’s try and walk through the process.  Note that all directions are given relative to your own body (i.e. they will be reversed when looking in a mirror).

1) If you have an adjustable tie, be sure to set the correct neck size.  Sometimes it’s helpful to go 1/2 size larger to give you a bit more material to work with.  Drape the tie around your neck, with the left side just sightly longer than the right.  Then cross the left side over the right.

Left over right.
Left over right.

2) Take what is now the right side and pass it around the back of the knot so it hangs over the front.  Grab both ends and pull lightly to comfortably tighten the tie around your neck.

Right side back and around.  Tighten comfortably.
Right side back and around. Tighten comfortably.

3) Take the left side and fold the flap over on itself so that it forms the bow shape.  You’ll want the folded side on the right and the single end on the left.  The right side of the tie should be draped over the middle of the new bow.

The folded end is being held.
The un-folded end is being held.

4) Here’s where it starts to get tricky…  Fold the ends of the bow together in front and hold then with your hand.  You should have the right (unfolded portion) side of the tie trapped in the middle of the fold.  Then pull down slightly on untied portion to cinch the knot a bit.

Fold and hold.  This is where things get tricky.
Fold and hold. This is where things get tricky.

5) Now things get really difficult.  If you pull the pinched ends out slightly, you’ll notice a hole in the back of knot.  Take the unfolded portion of the tie and push the wide portion of the fabric back through the hole,right to left, folding it on itself on the other side.  The idea is that you want to create another bow shape, matching the bow in front (the one you created in step 3).  The only difference is this time the folded portion will be on the left and the single end on the right.  Don’t worry about getting the knot tight, proper basic form is all you need here.

Notice the hole, this is where the undone portion must be pushed through.
Half the the back bow has been pushed through. Adjust as necessary.

6) You should be left with a loose version of the final knot with one bow in front and an identical bow in back.  It takes a lot of practice to get to this point, but if you make it, you’re 95% of the way there.

If you made it this far, you're gold.
If you made it this far, you’re gold.

7) Now all that’s left is to cinch down the knot to make it look great.  Grab the back folded half of the knot in your left hand and the front folded half in your right.  Then pull the ends very slightly to begin to cinch down the knot.  If the ends are in danger of being pulled through the knot, stop and recenter the front and back, one at a time.  The knot should stay tight while you recenter the front and back bows.  Repeat the cinching procedure until the knot is tight.

Pull the double folds apart.  About 75% of the way there.
Pull the double folds apart. About 75% of the way there.

8) To finish things off, before the final cinch, take the edge of the front bow in the middle and give it a little fold forward along the top and bottom of the knot.  The ideal is to create a uniform pinch in the middle of the tie.  Think like a piece of bow tie pasta.  Once you have it, give the knot one more final pull to cinch things down for good and you’re ready to impress!

Done!  Notice the folds in the middle near the knot.
Done! Notice the folds in the middle near the knot.

The key thing to remember is that practice makes perfect and tying a bow tie will require a  lot of practice before you can get it right with any sort of regularity.  You’ll know you’ve mastered it when people ask (and they will) you if you’re wearing a pre-tied bow tie, at which point you can proudly show off your WASP’y skills by informing them otherwise.  Note: You should never wear a pre-tied bowtie…

Bond likes the "undone" bow tie look.  So should you.
Bond likes the “undone” bow tie look. So should you.

Oh, and to remove the tie, simply pull single ends of the tie (as opposed to the folded ends, which you used to tighten the knot) and you’re free.  As a bonus you can then rock the “undone bow tie look”, which is unequivocally one of the coolest looks in all of fashion, WASP or otherwise.

What to Wear:

Now that you know how to tie your bow tie, the only issue that remains is what to wear it with?  The options here are endless, but in order to avoid falling into the stereotype zone (i.e. looking like a nerd) I would suggest keeping things conservative by not wearing the bow tie without some type of formal jacket (suit, blazer, sport coat).  Remember that typically bow ties are considered one step up on the formal scale, so plan accordingly.

In terms of colors you’ll want to follow the same rules you (hopefully) use for choosing a neck tie.  In other words, contrast is good, but you’ll want to match at least one color in the tie to the color of your shirt.  Unless your shirt is white, then the sky’s the limit.     But in general, don’t be afraid to go bold.  After all, the whole point of wearing the bow tie is to stand out and be noticed.

He may be a doofus at times, but he does know how to wear a bow tie.
He may be a doofus at times, but he does know how to wear a bow tie.

Lastly a word on formal wear.  Bow ties should always be a no-brainer when it comes to putting on a tux.  The modern neck tie may be acceptable these days, but the fact of the matter is that you won’t look nearly as cool as you will with the bow tie, especially one that you’ve tied yourself!  Just be sure to keep it classic.  No colors besides black (for black tie) and a basic conservative shape is all you need.

Next Steps:

  • Go out, get a bow tie, and start practicing!  For your first tie, I would recommend something conservative that will match a wide variety of shirts.  Also you might want to avoid smaller ties, as the lesser amount of material makes them more difficult to knot properly.  Finally, you’ll definitely want to get an adjustable strap.  Need a place to start?  Like most WASP’y fashion, you can’t go wrong with Brooks Brothers.
  • If you’re having trouble mastering the typing technique, check out YouTube, which has plenty of how to videos of varying usefulness.
  • The first time you wear the bow tie, be sure to give yourself plenty of extra time to tie it.  It’s also helpful to have a backup necktie on hand just in case…

The French Cuff

A funny thing about WASP culture here in the United States is that it usually involves Americans imitating the British, who themselves are imitating the French.  In other words, when it comes down to it, WASP style is basically French style as viewed through the lens of the British.  There is perhaps no better example of this trend than the classic “French Cuff” dress shirt.

If Mr. Bond wears it, it must be WASP'y.

French Cuffs have long been a staple of the WASP wardrobe.  The reason is simple.  While the standard everyday barrel cuff certainly has its uses, when it comes to making a statement in the boardroom, or impressing at a formal evening event, the French cuff reigns supreme.  So, if you want to dress like a WASP, they need to be in your closet at home.

Admittedly French cuff shirts are more complicated than their standard barrel cuff counterparts.  You’ll find they take a little more time and effort to prepare and put on.  They require some additional specialized accessories.  And they’re not suitable for every occasion.  However don’t let any of that put you off because, when worn properly, french cuffs add a subtle touch of class and flash to your outfit that can help you stand out among the competition.

The Beginnings:

Alexandre Dumas: Literary royalty and possible father of the modern French cuff shirt.

According to popular culture the double cuff shirt first became popular in the 1840’s with the publication of Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo.  One of the book’s antagonists, Baron Danglars, is described as having extravagant adornments set on the turned back sleeves of his shirts.  French tailors of the time began making shirts imitating those turned back or “French” style cuffs, as they soon came to be known.  The trend quickly caught on among the well to do in Britain, sealing its place in WASP culture.  Since then French cuffs have remained popular the civilized world over to varying degrees ever since and have actually undergone a bit of a resurgence within the past couple years.  Even so, it’s good to remember that regardless of trends, like most classic WASP wear, they’ve never gone completely out of style and never will.

What You Need to Know:

Three Stages of the French Cuff: Unfolded, Folded, and Linked.

The good news when it comes to French Cuff shirts is “not much”.  Aside from the cuffs, they’re identical to any other  dress shirt out there.  But about those cuffs… You’ll likely notice three things right away:

  • The sleeves (the cuff portion at least) are way too long
  • There are too many (four) holes
  • There are too few (zero) buttons

What’s going on here?  Well it’s not that complicated.  Remember that French cuffs are actually turned back cuffs, in that you must fold the end of the sleeve back over on itself before it can be worn.  Once that’s accomplished you’ll find (assuming you’ve got a shirt that fits) that the sleeve is now the proper length.

How do you know where to make the fold?  Easy!  Just line up the holes, one on top of the other, and make your fold.  Bend the now doubled-back cuff over the top of your wrist and line up the two remaining holes on each end.  What you should be left with is all four holes lined up, forming a straight passage through the cuff.  Now there’s just the matter buttons, or rather, the lack of any.  But don’t worry because that brings us to…

A Word on Cufflinks:

Basic cufflink anatomy. Note the broad top, the vertical stud, and the hinged back.

In place of the buttons that normally fasten the cuffs of a shirt, french cuff shirts rely on cufflinks.  Cufflinks are at their most basic are matched pairs of fasteners, usually consisting of a broad top, a stud, and a hinged back that rotates from vertical to horizontal to lock the shirt cuff in place.

Going back to the example above, once you have your cuff folded over and aligned, take the cufflink and pass the stud completely through the hole.  Next, flip the hinged back into the horizontal position to lock the link in place.  One thing to watch is to make sure you insert the cufflink in the right direction.   the top of the cufflink should be aligned with the top of your wrist and the hinged portion with the bottom of your wrist.  With your arms at your side you’ll want the decorated portion of the cufflink facing out.

Specialty cufflinks are a great way to personalize your look. They can also serve as good conversation pieces.

Yes, it’s true that cufflinks can be a bit of a headache.  They require additional cost, extra time to put in place, and if you forget them then you’re while traveling you’re going to look silly.  However, cufflinks have some real benefits as well.

For example, they provide an outlet for creative expression, something that’s often difficult to do while wearing a suit (appropriately at least).  Are you really into sailing?  Get some nautical themed cufflinks.  Avid golfer, how about some duffer style links?  The options are essentially limitless.  Whatever your interests, chances are that someone makes a cufflink to go with it.

Then there’s the “dress to impress” factor.  Here cufflinks give you a chance to make a statement by adding a little extra flash to your ensemble.  Let’s face it, when it comes to jewelry, men (WASP’y men at least) are very limited in their options.  Basically you can wear a watch, a school ring, a wedding ring, and… that’s about it.  Cufflinks provide an additional opportunity to showcase your superior taste as a well dressed man.

Some Guidlines:

When it comes to wearing French cuffs, there’s really not too much to worry about.  Most of the time it’s simply a matter of picking the right shirt, cuff links, and getting dressed.   However here are a few of my own guidelines that might come in handy.

  • Save your French cuff shirts for the right occasions.  My general rule is that you should only wear them with a suit and tie, or with formal evening wear (black or white tie).  Sport coats and blazers are technically a no-no, but you can get away with it in some situations, as long as you’re wearing a tie.  Anything sans tie and you’ll want to leave them in the closet.  French cuffs are formal by nature and they just don’t look right with a more casual look.  Again, if you’re not wearing a tie, go with the barrel cuffs instead.
  • This shirt does not fit! Ideally you want to show about an inch of cuff. No more, no less.

    Make sure your shirts fit!  This is a good all around rule for any dress shirt, or any shirt period for that matter.  In particular here you’ll want to make sure your sleeves are the correct length.  You’re looking for something that rests just behind the base of your thumb when your arms are at your side.  Ideally you want an inch or so of cuff protruding beyond the sleeve of your suit jacket.

  • Match your cufflinks.  When matching cufflinks, the only thing I really pay attention to is making sure that the color of the metal matches the other hardware in the outfit.  For example, if I’m wearing gold colored cufflinks, I’ll also want to go with a gold colored belt buckle, shoe buckles, brace clips, and watch if possible.  Matching hardware is not critical, especially in terms of your watch (which is really a separate element in my mind), but doing so helps bring everything together.  When it comes to formal dress, it’s the details that make the difference.
  • Select your cuff links appropriately.  When it comes to the design of the cufflinks themselves, it helps to use a little common sense.  Again, cuff links provide a chance to be an individual, but like all things WASP’y subtly is key.  That being said, it’s probably best to steer clear of really obnoxious or potentially offense material, especially when in the company strangers or more casual acquaintances.
  • As a general rule, anything inspired by trucker mud-flaps is not WASP'y.

    Keep it classy.  Along those same lines, it’s generally a good idea to keep the “bling” quotient down as well.  While wearing an iced out pair of $50,000 gold and diamond cufflinks may impress some people, chances are that your average WASP is not among them.  Also, there’s something to be said for not walking down the street with a giant advertisement on your wrist that screams “Rob Me!”  Just remember that despite what “The Donald” would have you believe, expensive alone does not classy nor good taste make.

Next Steps:

  • Nothing fancy here, just go out and buy yourself a shirt with French cuffs and a pair of cuff links.  I’d recommend starting with a simple white dress shirt that can be worn with just about anything.
  • In terms of shopping you can’t go wrong with any of the standard mall department stores.  Macy’s, Lord & Taylor, and Nordstrom in particular are all good options and should have plenty of selection.  Men’s stores like Joseph A. Bank and Brooks Brothers are solid bets as well although prices may be a bit higher.
  • Cufflinks are available in department stores as well, but you may have trouble finding something you like.  I’d recommend looking online to find something unique and more inline with your own personal interests.   Specialty sites such as Just Cufflinks can show you what’s out there.