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The History of the Necktie
Image credit: Maddie San Martin

It’s Been Around for a Long Time

Neckties are a staple fashion accessory in the 21st century. But when and how did ties become an integral part of formal dress for men? The history of the necktie goes back a lot further than you might think! Many of the terracotta sculptures of Chinese soldiers from the 2nd century B.C.E. feature a carefully tied neck cloth. Since the item is only shown on select soldiers, historians think that the cloth was an honorary badge used to denote exemplary performance. In ancient Rome, a band of linen called a “sudarium” was worn around the neck (or sometimes tied around the waist) of most men. Military genius Emperor Trajan’s soldiers are depicted wearing them on a pillar, leading historians to believe that the sudarium had its roots in military attire. In ancient Egypt, cloths adorned with precious stones were worn around the necks of some Pharaohs. Certain members of tribes in Oceania wore neck adornments as well.

It Has Its Roots in Military Dress

While neck cloths and adornments were worn in ancient cultures across the world, what we think of as the modern necktie didn’t come into existence until the 17th century. During the Thirty Years War, French King Louis XIII hired Croatian mercenaries to help aid his cause. The Croatian mercenaries all wore colorful neckerchiefs as an official part of their uniforms. The front-line soldiers’ neckerchiefs were made from common materials, while the officers wore neckerchiefs made from muslin or silk. The neckerchiefs were knotted around the soldiers’ necks and used to hold up their capes; the ends of the cloths were either arranged in a bow, finished with a tuft or tassel, or left hanging loosely. King Louis XIII liked the look of these neckerchiefs so much that he required the item be worn during all royal events. The French first called the accessory a “croate,” after the Croatian soldiers, but it was soon corrupted to “la cravate” or “cravatte” – cravat in English. The cravat caught on in England after Charles II reclaimed the throne, and there are reports of German soldiers adopting the Croatian mercenaries’ neckties as a style accessory as well. Over the course of the next century, the cravat caught on in Germany, France, and throughout the English colonies.

It Was a Gentlemen’s Accessory

The cravat quickly became a style accessory for gentlemen and was associated with power, wealth, and elegance. A group of young British gentlemen who called themselves the Macaronis helped popularize the cravat in the 1760s. In the early 1800s, Napoleon wore one during the Battle of Waterloo. And in Regency England, a young dandy named Beau Brummell helped to solidify the importance of how a cravat was tied; the young fashion icon wore a complicated cravat knot that appeared effortless but was actually incredibly intricate and took hours to get correct. However, his style was financially accessible to both middle-class and upper-class gentlemen, so it caught on quickly. As the use of precise cravat knots spread, the notion that a well-tied knot was the mark of a true gentlemen arose; in fact, we still consider sharp dress the mark of a man of taste today! (Incidentally, Brummell also started the trend of wearing black evening wear, another trend that still endures today.) Soon there were so many complicated ways to tie a cravat that in 1818, a pamphlet called Neckclothitania was published to help men learn about all the different options. Some of the popular knots covered in the instructional booklet included: The Mathematical, The American, The Irish, and The Mail Coach. Interestingly, the booklet was the first printed material to use the word “tie” to refer to a neckcloth as opposed to “cravat.” By 1840, the term “tie” had almost entirely replaced the word “cravat” in popular usage.

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Until the 1860s, the tie was a handmade product fashioned from high-quality materials such as muslin, white lace, or linen. It also had to be laundered and pressed often by servants and was (generally) only worn by gentlemen. However, during the late 1800s, men became increasingly aware of how they looked while out in public and the tie provided a way to take pride in their appearance. More and more men in the middle class began to dress above their current station as part of their upwardly mobile goals. The invention of the sewing machine and industrialization made ties even more accessible, since they were no longer handmade items but were instead mass produced.

Its Famous Knot Was Invented in the 1800s

Increased availability coupled with its continued popularity among London’s most influential young gentlemen ensured the tie’s enduring place in men’s fashion. In fact, the Four-in-Hand Knot, which remains one of the most well-known tie knots today, was actually created all the way back in the late 1800s! Since the knot resembled the way a driver would tie his reigns to direct a carriage pulled by four horses, the name was a natural fit. There’s also a theory that the knot is named after London’s famous gentlemen’s carriage-driving club, the Four in Hand, who helped popularize the new knot. In addition to the Four-in-Hand knot, another neck accessory, the ascot, also became popular around this same time (it is named for the Royal Ascot horse race). The well-known bow tie also emerged as a fashion favorite during this period, although it was first invented at the beginning of the 18th century.

It Was Modernized in the 1920s

In the 1920s, a New York tie maker named Jesse Langsdorf came up with a new way of cutting the fabric when creating a tie. He cut the fabric on an angle and then sewed it in three segments. Unlike older versions of the necktie, Langsdorf’s innovation allowed a tie to spring back to its original shape after being worn. This made tie wearing even more accessible for men from all walks of life. And indeed, the popularity of Langsdorf's necktie endured; it is the version that men still wear today!

It Gained Variety in the 20th Century

After Langsdorf’s innovation, the basic construction of the tie did not change, but the accessory still underwent many different style periods throughout the 1900s. In 1936, the Duke of Windsor famously created the Windsor knot, which is still worn by many men today. Ties in bright colors and patterns were introduced after the end of World War II and remain popular today as well. In the 1950s, the skinny tie was introduced to the public. Legend has it that the style was invented because tie makers were running short on fabric, but whether or not this explanation is true, it’s certain that the skinnier style complemented the well-tailored suits favored by men in the 1950s. In the 1970s, extra-large ties called kipper ties became popular, as they complemented the dominant style of men’s suits at the time.

It Has an Enduring Legacy

The tie remains as popular as ever in the 21st century. Men commonly wear them to job interviews, at the office, and for important events. Just like in the 19th century, it is thought that wearing a tie may help men from all walks of life convey a sense of professionalism and power. But its modern popularity also has to do with self-expression. As society moved through the close of the 19th century and into the early 20th century, men’s fashion became less extravagant, leaving the tie as one of the only elements of fashion through which men could express their personality. In the 21st century, the tie continues function as a way for men to express themselves through their sartorial choices. Today, ties are available in a variety of widths, lengths, materials, colors, and patterns, so men can choose whatever combination best complements their style and personality.

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