News and Tribune

April 12, 2013

STAWAR: The tie that defines

Local columnist

— Spring has finally arrived and this is a time for new beginnings. For the past few weeks, I’ve been pondering a major life change. 

No, I’m not changing jobs, becoming a vegan or taking up ballroom dancing. I have, however, been considering wearing a bow tie. 

I actually wore one during two other periods in my life. Between the ages of 4 and 6, it appears that my mother made me wear frequently one of those tiny narrow clip-on bow ties. This is well documented in some old family Easter photographs. 

My other dalliance with bow ties was for a few months back in 1971, when it was considered the height of fashion to wear an oversized butterfly bow tie, along with an all-polyester shirt imprinted with bright intricate designs. I actually bought two ties — a maroon one and a powder blue paisley beauty. They languished at the bottom of my tie drawer for almost 30 years, patiently waiting for the revival that never came. 

I’ve worn neckties at work on and off since college. In my early 20s — when I was afraid I looked too baby-faced to have much credibility as a counselor with parents and older clients — I donned one. My bow tie interest was fired recently when I was looking at buying some new neckties and saw a few self-tie bow ties. On a lark I bought one. The neat thing about bow ties is that they look even cooler when they are untied. 

My wife Diane, who has her work cut out for her as my fashion consultant, is not too keen on bow ties. She contends that wearing them is a rather hostile gesture to others, defying convention. In addition, she thinks bow ties undermine your credibility and encourage other people to see you as some sort of a character or crank. 

A lot of people agree with her. Tucker Carlson, the bow-tie wearing political pundit formerly of MSNBC, said that the wearing of a bow tie can seem “like a middle finger protruding from your neck,” not to mention its “effete weenie factor.”

New York Times feature writer Warren St. John says that no single male fashion accessory provokes so much emotion as the bow tie. People appear to either love them or hate them. According to St. John, “The presence of a bow tie always seems to draw comment, and the phrase ‘bow tie-wearing’ in certain contexts can sound like a slur.” 

For example, I recently found the following comment regarding political columnist George Will — “The bow-tie wearing geek should stick to writing about baseball.” 

The disparaged Will displayed some self-awareness when he wrote, “It’s reasonable to suspect that someone wearing a bow tie is thinking more about clothes than is probably healthy.” 

Back in 2007, a survey revealed that men who wear bow ties are perceived as “dull,” “fusty” and “looking older than they really are.” Respondents also rated bow-tie wearers as being undesirable neighbors, colleagues or friends. 

The adjectives that surface most often when people describe bow tie wearers include: dapper, natty, preppie, intellectual, bookish, nerdy, prissy, fussy, fastidious, proper, conservative, rigid, iconoclastic, contrarian, eccentric and obstinate. 

Bow ties can distract as well as undermine confidence. Writing in The Atlantic Monthly, John D. Spooner passed on the following advice, “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.” 

John T. Malloy, author of the best-selling “Dress for Success” is even more vehement, saying, “If you wear a bow tie, you will never be taken seriously, and no one will trust you with important business. If you have a bow tie, I recommend you leave it at home.”

On the other hand, bow ties are often associated with intellectual prowess and expertise. Karen Franklin, a California forensic psychologist, believes that bow ties can help expert witnesses perform better in court. She says, “It’s just the ticket for that nerdy nod of credibility.”

Bow ties are obviously a vehicle to draw attention to yourself. They become part of the person’s signature or individual brand. I’ve been surprised how often they show up in people’s obituaries with phrases like: “his trademark bow tie,” “his signature look” and “acknowledged bow-tie aficionado”. 

The bow tie originated with Croatian mercenaries in the 17th century. They wrapped scarves around their necks to bind their shirts together and to ward off swords thrusts. The stylish French quickly adapted this custom as a fashion statement. 

In 1996, the Neckwear Association of America said that bow ties represent only about 3 percent of the 100 million ties sold annually in the United States. In accordance with prevailing trends, anywhere from 5 percent to 15 percent of tie sales in fashionable men’s shops typically are for bow ties. 

Modern bow ties comes in two basic types — the “bat wing,” a thinner bow tie often seen with formal wear, and the traditional “thistle” or “butterfly,” which is significantly fuller. Bow ties may have straight edges or be diamond tipped.

 The pages of history are full of famous bow-tie wearers including Harry Truman, Malcolm X. Abraham Lincoln, Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, C. Everett Koop, Louis Farrakhan, Paul Simon, Mo Rocca and Hoosier Orville Redenbacher, just to name a few. In his biography, presidential historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. said that he started wearing bow ties because of the many famous men that he admired who wore them, and because it “ ... requires extreme agility to spill anything on a bow tie.” 

Like most men of my generation, I grew up watching bow-tie wearers on television, such as Gary Moore, Groucho Marx, Barney Fife and Bud Collier, not to mention Boo-Boo Bear, Huckleberry Hound, Snagglepuss and of course Mickey Mouse. More recently, Waylon Smithers from “The Simpsons” and the 11th Dr. Who have encouraged the wearing of the bow. From the comics, Dagwood Bumstead and Jimmy Olsen stand out as inveterate bow-tie wearers. I, of course, am hoping to get some of that Winston Churchill gravitas, but I am much more likely to channel Peewee Hermann.

Bowties are often associated with specific professionals such as by magicians, doctors, lawyers, professors, high-school principals, English teachers, architects, waiters, politicians and, unfortunately, clowns. Dr. Berman, my heavy-set, cigar-chomping childhood pediatrician always wore a red-and-blue striped one with his white coat. Many pediatricians evidently wear bow ties so infants won’t grab them the way they do a traditional necktie. 

Some commentators believe that bow ties may appeal to some men because they reflect technical skills, since they are so difficult to tie. My father taught me how to tie a traditional necktie. I’m not sure what knot I learned, but I was never very good at it. For that reason, I never untie my ties. I just loosen them, remove them and stick them in a drawer. 

I was intimidated by my new bow tie, even though it is tied much like a common shoelace. You Tube is filled to the gills with videos willing to teach you how to tie a bow tie. After watching several and practicing a few days, I sort of got the knack. 

Diane, my reluctant consultant, is still leery of my proposed fashion initiative. She has established some ground rules for my bow-tie wearing. First of all, she says I can never wear my bow tie in the states of Indiana or Wisconsin, where her family lives. She seems to think that it’s OK for me to wear one when we visit our children and grandchildren, since they already think I’m a crank. I also can wear it in Illinois, where my relatives live, since presumably it doesn’t directly reflect on her.

Apparel adviser Molloy is even less tolerant and suggests getting the right accessories if you insist on wearing a bowtie — “a red nose and a beanie cap with a propeller.”


— Terry L. Stawar, Ed.D., lives in Georgetown and is the CEO of LifeSpring the local community mental health center in Jeffersonville. He can be reached at Checkout his Welcome to Planet-Terry blog and podcast at