At a recent formal event, well formal for the south west anyway, I was asked if neckties have ever served a function other than decoration. We pondered, postulated, and pontificated for a while and the best we could come up with was that neckties are used to hide buttons. I was unsatisfied with that answer and decided to do some research. It turns out neckties have a much longer history than I had imagined, and they have never served a function other than decoration. Neckties are ancient bling, nothing more. They do have an interesting history, so if you have the time, keep reading.
The modern necktie is said to have originated in Croatia in the early 1600’s as a simple piece of fabric tied about the neck, called a cravat. This fashion trend was picked up by the Parisians during the thirty years war and delivered to Europe where neck fabrics became all the rage, culminating in those poofy lacy things we see in Victorian art.
The earliest evidence of neckties predates the Thirty Years War by some 1800 years. China’s first emperor, Shih Huang Ti, was buried in 210 B.C. and he wanted to take his army with him to protect himself in the afterlife. His advisers convinced him to take life size replicas instead of slaughtering the army, so 7,5000 life size terracotta replicas of the famed Chinese army were created and buried with him. There are entire legions of officers, archers, horsemen, and soldiers all carved in exquisite detail. Each figure varies in details like hair, armor, facial expression and weaponry, but one trait is common amongst them; a necktie. Each warrior is carved with a pieceof cloth tied around his neck. There is a certain amount of mystery about this, because other historical records make no mention of the Chinese army wearing neckties. Some historians believe that it is an honor bestowed on his soldiers by Shih Huang Ti, because silk cloths were a great luxury at the time.
Another early example of neckties that predate the ‘modern necktie’ of Croatia can be found on Trajan’s column in Rome. It’s a decoration celebrating the Roman emperor Trajan’s victory in the Dacian Wars and was erected in 113 A.D.. There are 2,500 figured carved into this column and include people wearing three different styles of necktie, including one that looks much like the cowboy bandanna worn by early American settlers.
The modern necktie traces it’s history back to the early 1630’s when a large number of Croatian mercenaries came to Paris in support of King Louis XIV and Cardinal Richelieu of Three Musketeers fame. The french were instantly enamored by their outfits because of the unusual scarves tied about their necks, ranging from coarse material for the common soldier to fine silk for officers. They called these scarves cravats, though the origin of the word is up for debate. The most widely held opinion is that it is a corruption of “Croat.” One thing is certain, the military and courtiers immediately began copying the Croatians style.
Over the next 10 years, cravats spread across Europe and into the English colonies as well. Cravats styles were limited only be the imagination, including tasseled strings, scarves, bows of ribbon, lace, embroidered linen and ruffled collars. This trend continued with a variety of style changes including the steinkirk, a loosely wrapped scarf tie worn with dangling ends tucked or pinned to the breast, the stock, a ridged military neck piece worn tight around the neck to increase blood flow to the head, the bandanna, a square cloth tied in the back, and the bolo, a piece of string held closed by a decorative component worn close about the neck.
At the height of their popularity in the early 18th century, there were dozens of acceptable ties worn for high fashion on a variety of materials. Men from every walk of life and every tier of society included some form of neck covering in their daily dress. Mr. H. Le Blanc Esq. wrote a book in 1828 titled The Art of Tying the Cravat which included 16 lessons on tying 32 varieties of cravats. It also contained etiquette like this: “The grossest insult that can be offered to a man is to seize him by the cravat; in this place blood only can wash out the stain upon the honor of either party.”
The necktie as we know it today was introduced during the industrial revolution, and has kept it’s basic three piece tapered construction throughout many style changes. Modern tie variants include the 4 inch fat tie, the 1 inch skinny tie, the striped Ivy League tie and the bold colors of the corporate power tie. Whether you regard you necktie as the height of fashion, or a small noose, know that it has stood for conformity, individuality, and vanity through the ages, but never functionality. And remember to never touch another man’s tie.
I leave you with this fantastic quote from famed fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld, “If a person steps on your cravat, you are to blame because you were kneeling.” Ponder that as you don your corporate power tie, punk skinny tie, cowboy bandanna, western bolo tie, or whatever else you choose to wear around your neck.