An old classic revisited. Available on www.lenoeudpapillon.com
By William Lyons
In the archives of Turnbull & Asser, the U.K. shirt maker and tailor known for dressing everyone from the Prince of Wales to a slew of James Bond actors, is a burgundy-colored bow tie. Made of satin, it once belonged to Sammy Davis Jr.—a sartorial keepsake from the Rat Pack era, when wearing a bow tie was the last word in Hollywood style.
"I suppose we really ought to put it on display," says Charles O'Reilly, the buyer for Turnbull & Asser who is responsible for purchasing the retailer's stock of brightly colored silks. Not that the tailor is short of neckwear; leafing through a tie rack replete with dozens of styles, Mr. O'Reilly picks out a royal-blue polka-dot number familiar to many as the preferred choice of Sir Winston Churchill. Due to a number of handwritten requests from customers over the past two years, the London-based tailor decided to reintroduce its Churchill Spot bow-tie range this year. "It's proved hugely popular," he says, adding that sales of bow ties at the company have increased as much as 25% in the past two years. Indeed, after years spent languishing in the evening-wear department, bow ties are finding favor with a new audience—a younger generation that takes its inspiration not from Oscar Wilde or Dean Martin, but from contemporary actors like Matt Smith of "Doctor Who" and musicians such as rapper Jay-Z.
Once worn with aplomb by personalities from Groucho Marx to Humphrey Bogart and the man who created James Bond, Ian Fleming, bow ties are no longer only paired with the smart suits or velvet smoking jackets favored by Davis and Churchill, tailors say, but with more casual outfits like polo shirts, sweaters and, in some cases, vintage tweed jackets. Evidence of their rising profile in the contemporary world of fashion was seen in the spring 2012 menswear collections. Labels such as Roberto Cavalli, Gucci and Viktor & Rolf all featured them in their shows in Paris and Milan last month, while Alexander McQueen regularly includes bow ties, including a tartan design, in its collection.
"A few years ago, wearing a bow tie would have been perceived as something that was really nerdy and undesirable," says Barry Tulip, design director of Savile Row tailors Gieves & Hawkes, which has dressed Sir Noël Coward and singer Bryan Ferry. "But that is exactly why people are wearing them today, as it goes against the norm and in that sense it is very desirable. We have seen a real resurgence of bow-tie wearing driven by a younger, more popular culture."
That view is echoed by Nicholas Fugler, director of retail at Jermyn Street tailor New & Lingwood, suppliers to Eton College, the private boys' school attended by Britain's elite, including Prime Minister David Cameron. "What we find in tailoring is a desire to bring back a look that hasn't been around for a while," he says. "Historically, the grandfather would wear something, the father wouldn't, but then the grandson wants to wear what the grandfather was wearing—it's an affection for something that has gone past, that was uncool for dad to wear but is OK for the next generation.
"I would say in the last three years we have experienced a 20% increase in bow-tie sales each year," he adds. "The renaissance is accompanied by a new technology-inspired preppy look, accompanied with narrow-fitted trousers, sleeveless tank tops, checked shirts, tweed jackets and, it seems, polka-dot bow ties."
Part of the bow tie's appeal has always been its sartorial efficiency. For around £35, one can purchase a handcrafted, woven silk tie that doesn't dangle in hospital patients' faces, get caught in doorways or peppered with the remnants of lunch. Designers say they can also be immensely flattering, as a bow tie sits symmetrically on the neck, throwing attention on to a person's face.
Nicholas Atgemis, proprietor of Sydney-based bow-tie boutique Le Noeud Papillon, says the roots of the bow tie stretch back to Croatian mercenaries who used cloth to tie their shirt collars shut during the Prussian wars. In France, the aristocracy followed, wearing silk neckwear they termed cravat, from the French word for Croat. The bow tie in its present form dates back to the 19th century. In his book "Gentlemen: A Timeless Fashion," Bernhard Roetzel says bow ties descended from the neckcloth—a square cloth folded into a triangle and then tied into a bow, which men wore until the late 19th century. The present shape hasn't changed much since 1870.
"At the beginning of the 20th century, there were a lot of bow ties being worn by storekeepers and just everyday people," says Mr. Atgemis. "Slowly that dropped off. Then, for a long time it was reserved for people in the medical profession, intelligentsia and musicians. As time progressed further, little hubs of bow-tie-wearing places emerged, such as the southern states of America, where they continued to be worn for a long, long time.
"From the 1960s onward, people stopped tying them and began to buy pre-tied ones. But now I find people want to tie their own bow ties again, as there is something very nonchalant and also idiosyncratic about tying your own, as everyone gets a slightly different knot at the end of it."
At its simplest, tying a bow tie is creating a knot—as straightforward as tying your shoelaces, except that the ribbon is round your neck and you cannot see it. But once mastered, designers say that tying a bow tie can be as quick and easy as a necktie.
Creating the perfect look requires looping the silk around your neck, leaving the longer end on your right-hand side. With a few swift moves, the longer end should be crossed over the shorter side, flipped underneath and then threaded through to the center. The shorter end should be folded horizontally, while the longer end is placed over the top before pulling it through the loop at the back, thus creating the distinctive knot. Various pulling and shuffling creates the knot to the desired style.
To a certain degree, the size of the knot depends on the style of the bow tie. Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack favored a slim batwing look, compared with a wide batwing—what some designers refer to as the Charvet cut, after the exclusive French outfitters. The style favored by U.S. President Abraham Lincoln was a diamond point, while actor Cary Grant preferred a straight edge.
For those who cannot tie their own bow ties, there are plenty of clip-on or ready-tied versions on the market, including those made from satin and velvet. Although it is deemed the ultimate in panache to wear a tie that one has tied oneself, Mr. Fugler at New & Lingwood says there are no steadfast rules. "I know of people that buy two bow ties—a ready-tied version and a loose one which they keep in their pocket. At that point in the evening where everyone is a bit more relaxed, they nip out and put the loose one through the collar at the back so it is hanging loosely from either side of their open neck, which is the old Bond look, creating that after-hours, evening chic. But I don't think people should worry too much. If you are tying it yourself, make sure it is a little disheveled to personalize the look."
For some, bow ties may never move from evening wear to day wear, but tailors say the recent boom has had a trickle-down effect, fueling sales of traditional menswear styles, such as the polka-dot pattern.
"I don't think you have to be brave at all to wear a bold, spotty-colored bow-tie," says Mr. Atgemis. "That was, after all, Winston Churchill's trademark. The image of Churchill is synonymous with a navy-blue polka-dot bow tie and he is someone who most of us consider a man who was respectful of tradition but in terms of fashion was also out there all the time."
Write to William Lyons at email@example.com