Are neckties still relevant? Undressing the past and present of the smartwear staple

Once the symbol of smart attire, the classic necktie signifies something new to the modern dresser

Actor Desi Arnaz, pictured here in 1955, looking through his collection of neckties. Getty Images
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In an era where comfort reigns supreme and sartorial boundaries blur, the classic necktie finds itself at a crossroads.

“I do believe that there is still a place for the tie in men’s wardrobes,” says Gary Sweeney, brand and style director at Ascots and Chapels. Yet, as fashion trends lean towards relaxed attire and pandemic-informed casualness, the once-ubiquitous necktie struggles to assert its relevance. However, beneath its surface lies a rich tapestry of history and tradition, rendering it far more than a mere accessory.

Royal ties as the cravat is born

Tracing its origins back to 17th-century France, the necktie emerged as a practical adornment, born from the ingenuity of Croatian soldiers during the Thirty Years’ War who were hired by the French. Its inception was humble, serving as a functional element of their uniforms that held together the tops of jackets. Its fate, however, took a regal turn when young King Louis XIV, captivated by its elegance, adopted the style at the young age of seven. Thus began the introduction of “la cravate”, as it was affectionately named in homage to its Croatian roots, as it ascended into the realms of aristocracy and prestige.

The king made the accessory mandatory for royal gatherings, elevating the simple cloth to a higher status. It soon became a trend that spread across Europe, with men and women wearing a neatly tied piece of material around their necks.

When a group of young English soldiers, known as the macaronis, returned from Europe to their homeland in the late 18th century, cravats gained popularity once again, this time in the UK.

Ties had become a symbol of social status, signifying a man’s position in society. The way a tie was fastened could also signify a particular circumstance or class. In 1818, a style manual called Neckclothitania was published, detailing the popular ways to wear a necktie, and when and where different knots were appropriate. This resulted in more intricate methods of fastening a tie, marking a man’s elegance and wealth.

Black ties take favour as the neckwear shapeshifted

Around this time, the use of the word cravat started to decline, with tie or stock becoming the more common term and black stocks eclipsing the white cravat as the most popular form. Throughout history, the tie has witnessed many transformations, each reflecting the zeitgeist of its time, but in Britain, it was the Industrial Revolution that reshaped its image. Factory workers were looking for comfortable neckwear that was easy to fasten, and fabrics became more readily available and cost-efficient to produce. Ties were soon adapted to be long, thin and easy to knot. They became widely worn by the upper and working classes.

The long, angled tie can be traced back to New York tie maker Jesse Langford, who, in 1922, patented an entirely new way of making the tie by cutting the fabric at an angle and sewing it in three segments. It was named the Langford tie and featured improved elasticity, meaning that it would return to its original shape after use.

The Ascot tie was named after the racecourse in Berkshire, England, where a formal morning necktie was mandatory. It was worn at dinners and events surrounding the races and soon became popular across the UK. Ascot ties had wide flaps that were crossed and pinned together on the chest.

Art Deco staple to 1990s style, nailing the look across the decades

In the 1940s, the Art Deco movement adopted the tie as part of its staple look. Influenced by bold and geometric shapes, the style saw men wearing ties of short length and wide breadth. Heading into the 1950s, styles became longer and skinnier – reaching widths as low as four cm – until a wide-tie resurgence hit in the 1960s.

Designed in 1966, the wider kipper tie was adopted by the younger generation as a style statement. Frequently seen in vibrant colours and prints inspired by pop art, the kipper measured approximately 15cm across. A decade later, in the 1970s, ties stayed wide but became more understated in their designs and were sold along with shirts in complementary colours.

In the 1980s and 1990s, ties shifted to become business attire, with the accessory a staple for many corporate workplaces. They varied in width from four to nine cm and came in a range of colours, from subtle to playful novelty designs. At the height of their popularity, in the 1990s, 110 million ties were sold annually in the US.

The great decline as dress codes ease

At the start of the 21st century, ties were still a strong staple in men’s wardrobes, but there was a clear decline in popularity. Once a hallmark of formality, the garment faced dwindling demand in an era defined by fluidity and individuality. “Ties have taken a backseat over the past few years, and workplace dress codes and menswear trends have changed and evolved, and typically those who would have worn a tie on a day-to-day basis for work aren’t necessarily required to do so now,” Sweeney tells The National.

Today, men are opting for more casual approaches to their style, and in situations where a tie might once have been expected, it is no longer the case. “Certain occasions, weddings, a day at the races or the polo, or a finer affair would still require a tie. There are some beautiful silk ties available, and when fastened correctly with a nice dimple under the knot, they can look very smart and add a certain level of refinery and elegance to a man’s outfit,” says Sweeney.

“A tie no longer holds the same value that it once did, but I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing. I think now ties can be used more for a sartorial statement rather than a professional one.”

The tie’s allure now lies not in adherence to tradition but in its capacity for reinvention. This is reflected by fashion brands who pick and choose when to add ties to their collections. Giorgio Armani, for example, brought back the classic cravat for the autumn/winter 2024 men’s collection, while Louis Vuitton’s spring/ summer 2024 offering features the classic tie paired with an eye-catching printed suit. Brands such as Loewe embrace experimentation, blurring the lines between tie and scarf.

As we navigate this sartorial landscape, it’s evident that the tie’s significance has transcended its functional origins. In their numerous shapes and forms, ties remain an essential part of the male wardrobe for professional and formal events. They are consistently turned to as an item that elevates a look, as an expression of both personality and ceremony.

Updated: May 20, 2024, 4:04 PM