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The Elegant History of the Bow Tie

Posted 21.02.17  - Heritage

While it's usually the princess gowns of Hollywood's leading ladies that catch the glint of the flashbulbs on the red carpet during awards season, it's worth sparing a thought for the gentlemen who – from BAFTAs to the Academy Awards – don their finest in what's an increasingly old-school way to dress for formal occasions. That is, a full evening tuxedo with the finishing flourish of a handsome, ceremonial bow tie.

The evolution of this humble piece of cloth has seen it evolve from the dress of Downton-style lords of the manor (and their fully liveried staff) to Hoxton hipster accessory, from stiff and monochrome to riotously coloured, quirkily shaped and worn with the most informal of get-ups. Like many wardrobe staples, it has militaristic beginnings, evolving as part of the Croatian army's official attire during the 17th century, then just a strip of scarf designed to hold the shirt collars together. It was swiftly adopted by the dandies of France, the French term cravat soon gaining common use.

The bow tie has militaristic beginnings, evolving as part of the Croatian army's official attire during the 17th century.

To an Englishman, the bow tie is Churchill giving his V for victory sign, it's Connery's Bond (who was a fan of Turnbull & Asser), Fred Astaire whirling through an MGM set with Ginger Rogers. It recalls the golden age of Hollywood; Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief, Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca, Frank Sinatra in his youth. Today, Hollywood's leading men play by a different set of style rules, but the bow tie has played alongside them – Jared Leto energised a white jacket with a bold ruby red bow tie when picking up the Best Supporting Actor Oscar in 2014, while Robert Downey Jr attended the 2010 Academy Awards in a daring turquoise version, completing his suit with trainers.

The rules of evening dress today call for an ‘anything goes' approach, from tuxedos worn sans shirt with a gauzy T-shirt (or, if you're Lewis Hamilton, without anything at all) to soft-structure pyjama shirts, casual jackets and a general relaxing of the silhouette. This all means that the donning of full black tie is now a very conscious decision, and one that requires a certain degree of ceremony, with the accessory acting as the ultimate signifier that your look is defiantly set for 'evening mode'. It negates the loosening of the collar (until the wee small hours at least, when it can look raffish and devilish undone) and calls for the stiff, starched properness of a bib-fronted shirt.

Modern renderings of the bow tie have once more turned it into something of a scene-stealer for the man who wants to evoke a certain matinee idol suave. Turnbull & Asser's roster of bow ties come in the standard monochrome so favoured by Bond in his many incarnations, alongside others that are richly patterned and decorative, whether in plush velvet or splashy paisley. Gentlemen, get ready for your close up.

Shop all bow ties


Main photo: Peter Dawson

Stephen Doig - Men’s Style Editor at The Telegraph

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