You can’t wear it without feeling a bit like James Bond or, in the worst of cases, being mistaken for a professor of Romance languages or for an art critic. It’s a bow tie, an accessory that never as today can represent the tastes of the wearer. Here’s why you need to choose it well and know how to wear it.
An increasingly democratic accessory
Although it’s been used since the seventeenth century (but some go so far as to hypothesize it was even used in ancient Egypt…) and for decades has been a staple in the wardrobe of the style-conscious man, at the beginning of the twentieth century the bow tie didn’t go by that name. It was only after the enormous success of Madame Butterfly, performed in 1904 at the Scala in Milan, and to the incredible fame that the opera also gave to the “zoomorphic” knot, which baptized it “butterfly”, in Italian “farfallino” and in French “papillon” (the English, however, prefer to call it a bow tie).
The first to consider the bow tie a “formal” garment was the American entrepreneur Pierre Lorillard. A racing thoroughbred breeder, in 1886 Lorillard wore it at a dance together with a prototype of what is now known by English speakers as the tuxedo, from the name of the Lorillard family estate in Tuxedo Park. The tuxedo and black bow tie immediately formed the uniform of the American upper middle class and the bow tie began to be called “black tie”, taking the place of the old-fashioned tailcoat with white bow tie as the formal suit.
Today the bow tie is a much more democratic accessory: it is not worn only by the super-accessorized spies like 007 or time travelers on the small screen like Doctor Who, but also in real life, by a science guy like Bill Nye, a meteorologist like Luca Mercalli, an art expert like Philippe Daverio. Worn by them, the butterfly knot brings to mind a brilliant and dapper intellectual. Fred Astaire and Frank Sinatra, Charlie Chaplin and Hercule Poirot, not to mention Ray Charles, wouldn’t have been the same without the bow tie. And on each of them the bow tie has taken on a different and personal sense. That’s why, if we opt for the bow tie, we must also choose it carefully.
A matter of knots
What do we want to communicate with a knot around our neck? When Marlene Dietrich and Katharine Hepburn wore men’s garments for the first time, they chose that which was considered the clothing of powerful men: tailored suits, top hats, buttoned shirts and obviously, the bow tie, and they die it to show they were emancipated women. The same reasoning was to lead Karl Lagerfeld to create a line of women’s bow ties fifty years later.
The choice of bow tie must always be well thought out. If we are invited to an event where the dress code speaks of “black tie”, we know that a tuxedo must be worn and there’s no tuxedo without a bow tie.
Okay, but how to choose the knot? We have different possibilities. The classic bow tie is knotted manually: you need to be able to tie the knot and luckily life-saving tutorials can be found on YouTube. Imperfection is not banned, on the contrary a slightly asymmetric knot with one of the two ends larger than the other indicates that the knot was tied by hand and that we are not using a pre-knotted bow tie or – even worse – a clip..
In 007: Casino Royale, Daniel Craig is a young Bond, rough around the edges, who has just got his license to kill. On the poster, Bond wears a tuxedo and has a bow tie open because he has just been revived with a defibrillator after almost being killed. The open bow tie and the way he holds his body alone reveal everything about this person: it’s difficult to imagine Bond with a pre-knotted bow tie and an adjustable strap. Of course, we can resort to this if we have little time (or if we don’t know how to tie the knot); but let’s not dream of using it with the tuxedo: certain things must remain “classic”. The bow tie that is already knotted and with a clip is instead suitable for more casual situations, perhaps favoring a pattern, to wear with irony and in informal situations.
Between butterflies and batwings
There are different styles of bow ties. The most traditional is the “little butterfly”, that with the butterfly shape, that works well both with square and softer faces. Then there is a larger version that of the British Big Butterfly: it’s the type used by Winston Churchill (a traditional one would have been lost on him, given his size). It generally comes in more particular patterns, but with a solid colored fabric, and it’s perfect for extremely formal occasions complete with an elegant tuxedo.
The Batwing is instead a stiffer, narrower, and thinner bow tie. It takes its name from Batman’s plane because it has almost the same shape. Extremely elegant, it’s perfect for a trendy look, but can also be used in formal events. Watch out for the Godfather effect: choosing one that is too thin will make us look like Marlon Brando in the role of Vito Corleone.
The Diamond Tip bow tie has recently taken hold. It’s very modern: the square ends make it chicer than others. Daniel Craig on the poster of the upcoming 007: No Time to Die wears a bow tie of this type on a dark tuxedo: very British, very cool, very Bond.
The Rounded Club type bow tie is the most particular of all and is exactly the opposite of the Diamond Tip: thin but with rounded edges. It has a unique style that doesn’t make it the right choice for a cocktail, but its relaxed style is well suited to all casual situations, perhaps with a bright pattern on a monochromatic outfit. It’s always advisable to avoid excesses, if you don’t want to look too much like Austin Powers.
In general, as is the case for the tie, there is also no golden rule for the bow tie: the type of knot, the shape, the pattern, must adapt to the physique and to the face of the wearer. Aside from the situations in which the bow tie is a must – a gala, cocktail, opening night at La Scala, or red carpet (those who can) – the decision to wear a bow tie and the choice of the most suitable one is now more than ever a question of sensitivity and taste.