“See the bowtie? I wear it and I don’t care. That’s why it’s cool.” ~ Steven Moffat, writer and producer, Doctor Who and Sherlock
Back in 2010, writer-producer Steven Moffat did not want his eleventh Dr. Who star, Matt Smith (who also appeared in The Crown on Netflix in 2016-17 as Prince Phillip) to wear a bow tie. But then he changed his mind and the result was that Matt Smith’s bow tie became an iconic accessory that was portrayed poignantly in Smith’s final episode. It also began a trend in young men wearing bow ties instead of neckties to work.
Bow Tie History
There is general agreement among historians that both the modern-day necktie and bow tie originated with the Croatian mercenary soldiers during Europe’s 30-Year-War. The Croatians wore a scarf that they tied to close the tops of their shirts. King Louis XIII, who had hired the soldiers, loved the look and called it La Cravate in their honor.
Over the centuries the necktie and bow tie evolved into essential accessories of the well-dressed, making their ways through various permutations of size, fabric, color, pattern, width and length. It is the necktie, however, that has become the tie of choice to wear to work in most industries and for semi-formal evening events.
But wearers of bow ties have been plentiful, running the gamut from the ridiculous, such as Groucho Marx whose bow ties were almost as famous as his eyebrows and cigar, to the sublime, such as the legendary Winston Churchill. Other famous and distinguished bow-tie aficionados of the past include Illinois Senator Paul Simon and historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., who wrote about his decision to wear a bow tie in his book, A Life in the Twentieth Century: Innocent Beginnings, 1917-1950. The historical list of bow-tie wearers also includes two U.S. Presidents, one of the best-dressed of all time, Franklin Roosevelt and one of the worst-dressed, Abraham Lincoln. Retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens has also favored a bow tie. And the late and colorful Senator from New York, Daniel Patrick Moynihan was once remembered in a speech by Hillary Clinton as someone who had “three signature items: his horn rimmed glasses, a bow tie, and a great idea.” And even the late, great Steve Jobs before he donned his black turtleneck once wore a bow tie. So while wearing a bow tie during the daytime has been associated with a bit of frivolity and quirkiness, certainly many serious — and hip — men of the past brought to it some high-profile dignity.
Night or Day?
In general, bow ties tend to be worn more at evening dinner events. Black bow ties are worn most frequently and are appropriate for semi-formal and formal evening affairs. They are worn with a dinner jacket. A white tie affair, however, is the most formal dress code for a male civilian. White tie attire will be stated on a formal invitation and requires a white bow tie and a very specific order of dress, as described in the British etiquette resource, Debrett’s. Prior to WWII, white tie was the standard formal wear for men, but today it is rarely seen except at the White House or Buckingham Palace.
Sometimes, though, during one’s day job wearing a bow tie is a practical choice. You may remember Emmy Award-winning Bill Nye the Science Guy, who has been in the news lately on the topic of climate change. Mr. Nye has been quoted regarding the reason he wears bow ties, thusly: “If you’re working with liquid nitrogen and your tie falls into it, it’s funny in a way to the audience but it’s also — pun intended — a little bit of a pain in the neck.”
Other times wearing a bow tie just doesn’t work out. TV personality Tucker Carlson began wearing bow ties in the 10th grade and wore them until a little more than a decade ago. According to a New Yorker article: “He stopped wearing a bow tie on April 11, 2006, acknowledging the change in the final minutes of the show he hosted on MSNBC. ‘I like bow ties, and I certainly spent a lot of time defending them,’ he said. ‘But, from now on, I’m going without.’ The affectation had come to define him: Carlson was primarily known—and, in no small number of television households, reviled—as the self-assured young conservative who dressed like a spelling-bee champion.”
Daytime bow ties traditionally have been fairly prolific among higher education faculty. But in academia, as in the corporate world, the trend is toward dressing down and so bow ties on professors may not be as common nowadays.
And for daytime wear, as opposed to the evening standard of black and white, bow ties know few limits. Like the necktie, the bow tie comes in various colors, fabrics, sizes and patterns. Because the necktie is a staple of formal men’s wear in the professional workplace — especially in the fields of law and finance, as well as in the executive corridors of many other industries — you will see more neckties than bow ties at the office. Yet…we might be seeing more bow ties during the daytime in certain industries as some Millennial men have been both wearing and making them.
Should You Or Shouldn’t You?
When worn during the day in the workplace, there are a few considerations. One, is your industry welcoming to individual style (arts & entertainment, academia) or is the dress code pretty cut and dried (business, law)? Will the client base feel comfortable with those who wear bow ties instead of neckties (medical, courtroom)? Do you wear a bow tie comfortably; that is, do you own the look or does it look contrived? And, it helps if you can tie a bow tie so that you feel confident in the presence of a bow-tie purist, and there are many; one just might be your new boss or client.
Finally, should you wear a bow tie to a job interview? Some studies have indicated that wearing one quirky accessory might stand you in good stead in an interview, but Charlie Davidson, considered by some to be “the arbiter of good taste for Harvard men over many years,” says, “Never wear a bow tie to an interview or a pitch for new business. People will concentrate on the tie rather than on what you are saying.”
I tend to agree that one should be tastefully dressed for an interview or any important meeting, but not in a distracting way. For that reason, dressing on the conservative side is usually my advice. That said, it’s imperative that a job candidate include dress codes and cultures in his research for interviews. After doing so, if you still feel strongly that you can rock an elegant bow-tie, then perhaps you should go for it.
Until next time,