Read an Excerpt
A Brief History of Tie Knots
If we, the Brits, cannot claim to have invented the modern tie, no other nation can either. We do not have to trace ... its origins from the satin or velvet ribbon which held in place the lace jabot, to the loose neckcloth named after the battle of Steenkerk (3 August 1692), to Lord Guildford's lawn, to Beau Brummell's cravats, to Comte d'Orsay's pale-blue satin, to the sober black of Mr. Casaubon and all the Victorian gentry. The cravat, of course, disappeared with the frock and morning tail coat. The tie, as we know, came to stay with the lounge suit.
Sir Hardy Amies The Englishman's Suit
Evidence of the earliest known knotted neckcloth lies in the tomb of China's first emperor, Qin Shih-huang-di (259-221 bc). In an elaborate underground mausoleum, an army of 7,500 sculptured terracotta soldiers sports knotted neckerchiefs. The discovery of the scarved army in 1974 was remarkable since not a single neckcloth could be found again in the subsequent numerous Chinese paintings and statues up to the seventeenth century, when European style began to be influential.
It had long been believed that Roman soldiers were the first to wear neckcloths. The marble Column of Trajan, erected in Rome by Emperor Traianus in ad 113, portrays some 2,500 carved figures, many depicted with neckcloths. Among the ancient neckerchiefs are ties apparently knotted in bows and early versions of what would, seventeen centuries later, become the standard knot for long ties: the four-in-hand. The pseudonymous book The Art of Tying the Cravat (1828) explained that the ancients 'defended [the throat] from the cold by means of a woollenor silken cloth, called in Rome focalium, a term which is evidently derived from fauces (the throat)'. But the treatise goes on to assert that a Roman considered it undignified to cover his throat except 'by hand, or occasionally wrapping the toga around it'. Indeed, Horace relates that neckcloths were thought to connote effeminacy and poor health. Perhaps this helps explain why neckwear is rarely found on Roman civilians and is instead restricted to military contexts where men had to endure harsh weather.
Apart from cases of necessity, ancient necks were largely undecorated, and this sobriety continued throughout the first 15 centuries ad. Then, without warning but in stages, the neck became the focus of sartorial attention. In England the plain shirt collar, tied together with string, grew into a small frill under Henry VIII, eventually forming a ruff. The ruffs grew bigger and more lavish, but were suddenly decapitated with their royal patron Charles I with the defeat of the Royalists in the English Civil War. Not until the resurrection of the monarchy in 1660 did knotted neckcloths appear.
Croats in Cravats
It is commonly believed that the cravat, the modern tie's direct ancestor, originated during the Thirty Years' War (1618-1648). In his campaign against the Habsburg empire, King Louis XIII of France enlisted a regiment of Croatian cavalry. These mercenaries wore knotted neckcloths, and the new style was soon adopted by the French soldiers fighting alongside them. The cravat, as it came to be known, was ornamental but practical. Unlike the ruff collars in use at the time, which had to be laundered, starched and pressed, the new cravats required little maintenance and allowed freedom of movement.
The fashion was soon brought home to France, where it was adopted by dandies and members of the court. With the restoration of the English monarchy, Charles II returned to England to reclaim his throne after nine years in exile at the French court of Louis XIV. With him he brought the cravat which, within a decade, had become a familiar style in England and the American colonies.
The Oxford English Dictionary maintains that 'cravat' was derived from Croat, but evidence suggests otherwise: the word was used in France in the fourteenth century and Italy in the sixteenth century. The French writer Eustache Deschamps (c. 1340-1407), for instance, used the phrase faites restraindre sa cravate (pull his cravat tighter) in one of his ballads. Nonetheless, while the origin of the word may be unclear, there is little doubt that the modern cravat evolved from the mercenaries' neckwear.
These early cravats comprised a strip of fabric, made either of costly lace, or of muslin or cambric bordered with lace on both ends. They were wrapped once or twice around the neck and knotted or fastened in the front, leaving the two ends hanging freely. In the Academy of Armoury and Blazon (1688), Randle Holme described them as 'nothing else but a long Towel put about the Collar, and so tyed before with a Bow Knott'. The bow was in fact one of several knots used to tie cravats; the neckcloths were also tied with a slip knot or held together with a piece of ribbon. 'This procedure is easy to describe but not so easy to execute; a certain dexterity was required to achieve a satisfactory result,' writes Francüois Chaille in The Book of Ties. The subtlety of arrangement was not a result of a complicated knot; inspection reveals that the slip knot was nothing more than a half-hitch, which is no more difficult to tie than the basic four-in-hand used today.
By the end of the seventeenth century, the cravat had become firmly established as a necessary accessory throughout Europe and the American colonies. Chaille suggests that the marked increase in the use of cravats may have resulted in part from a generally colder climate between 1645 and 1715. The so-called 'Little Ice Age' was thought to be caused by a drop in solar activity known as the 'Maunder minimum', after the astrophysicist Edward Maunder. Given the ancient use of the knotted neckcloth as a practical garment, this is not implausible.
A new and unusual manner of tying the cravat, said to have originated at the Battle of Steenkerk in Flanders 1692, was adopted by the English in the 1690s. The Steenkerk, as it became known, consisted of a long, scarf-like cravat with ends of fringe or lace. It was loosely knotted and its ends were twisted together, with one of them placed through a buttonhole on the left side of the jacket. The style quickly gained popularity: 'I hope your Lordship is pleas'd with your Steenkerk,' wrote the playwright Sir John Vanbrugh in The Relapse in 1697. 'In love with it, stab my vitals!' The Steenkerk remained fashionable in Europe until the 1720s, but continued to be popular in America throughout most of the eighteenth century.