I recently purchased my first bow tie on the recommendation of a friend who informed me of an excellent mid grey wool bow tie from M.J. Bale’s Birkenhead Point outlet store. Woven in Italy by the four century old fabric mill, Vitale Barberis Canonico, and made from Australian Merino wool, the bow tie’s provenance and agrarian appearance was something which I found agreeable.
The fact that this is only my first bow tie might come as a surprise to some but I actually find bow ties to be strange, intimidating little things. Let me explain.
Bow ties are extremely difficult accessories to wear, as they are among some of the most semantically complex accessories one can own, ranking alongside novelty jewellery, man purses and small children. Additionally I have no idea how to tie them up (bow ties, not small children).
According to Rob Shields, professor of sociology and art design at the University of Alberta, the bow tie is an extremely difficult accessory to wear as “wearing a bow tie is to be dressed in a mantle of contradictory signification: it is to locate oneself at an unstable nexus”. This, he explains, is because the bow tie is an article of clothing that is unstably coded with associations with both the ‘uniform’ of servants, and the ‘costume’ of aristocrats and intellectuals, which has resulted in unclear, even contradictory, semantic meanings. Though this gives the bow tie its “je nais quoi”, it can become problematic if its semantic complexity is not grasped by the wearer.
For example, notice how the bow tie does not harmonise with the rest of the ensemble and actually competes with the other elements because of its ‘unstable coding’. Instead of lending ceremony to the ensemble and transforming it into something “classy”- as one might find with a black bow tie worn with a dinner suit- the bow tie here appears ostentatious and has the effect of making the wearer appear too self conscious about his dress.
Additionally there is the issue of the pre-tied knot and knot semantics to consider as “there is no point in sporting a bow tie unless you plan on tying it yourself; place a mathematically perfect, pre-tied bow under your chin and you forsake all individuality” to quote menswear writer, Alan Flusser. Consequently, wearing a symmetrically perfect bow tie does not actually help to express the wearer’s individuality but actually serves to undermine it (the effect is similar to a casual tie worn with a Windsor knot as opposed to a four-in-hand knot).
To observe a bow tie worn properly, Winston Churchill is a perfect case study.
Note the excellent juxtaposition between the heroic masculinity of the 3 piece suit – emphasised by the broad notch lapels, flannels and bold chalkstripe – and the modified-butterfly shaped bow-tie. Churchill’s bow tie here is not jarring but additive: the severe masculine ensemble (the absence of a pocket square is a master touch) engages in a dialogue with the frivolity of the bow tie to create a look of vigorous virility, similar to the effect of a light pink shirt worn with a charcoal pin-stripe suit.
Secondly, notice the way in which Churchill’s butterfly-shape bow tie has been tied. Compared to the pre-tied bow tie, the appearance of the loops and imperfections in the knot gives Churchill a sense of aplomb and individuality (to find an exquisite replica of the piece I highly recommend Le Noeud Papillon‘s Churchill Bow tie).
Though I am not confident as to whether I would be able to execute a bow tie as well as Churchill does here, I cannot eliminate the possibility that one day I won’t be as equally taken by bow ties as I am today about my tweeded silks, calf-skin brogues and Irish linens. People change and so do their tastes. After all, I am a strange guy and bow ties are strange little things.