Oh, the necktie. Why do we wear them? What are they even for? You can think through it any which way, but the fact remains; outside of fashionable expression, there is actually zero functional purposes to the necktie. But that wasn’t the case for its original inspiration.
We can trace the history of the necktie (and its brother, the bow tie) back to 17th century Croatia. During the Prussian wars, Croatian mercenaries used scarves tied around their necks to hold together the opening of their shirts. That was functional. However, the Croats’ scarf-tied-around-the-neck idea was quickly adopted by the French upper class and given the name “cravat” (French for “Croat”).
At that time, France was a leader in fashion, and the popularity of the cravat spread wildly throughout the 18th and 19th centuries -- for fashion, not function. But fashion isn’t bad, and creative expression isn’t wrong. Quite the opposite, actually. Truly, if anyone needs proof that men can enjoy the details of personal style as much as women, look no further than the history of the necktie (and its persistence today).
Throughout the 18th century, as the cravat grew in popularity, in France the style became increasingly flamboyant, while in America, the cravat grew more simplified (thank you, Puritans).
The French developed an offshoot of the cravat called the jabot (named after a bird’s neck pouch), which was a lace-trimmed strip of cloth finished with a big bow at the neck. Often the most expensive item in an aristocrat’s wardrobe, it was so large, it had the effect of tipping a man’s chin (and nose) up all day. (We’ll call it irony, and leave it at that.)
Meanwhile, in the throes of the Revolutionary War, American cravats grew longer and lost the bow. Instead, they gained more ruffles and were displayed when opening the top few buttons of a man’s vest. The Americans also introduced a more conservative offshoot of the cravat in the form of a “stock tie.” This was a tight, black leather collar tied in the front, resembling French military fashion. It’s believed to have been a nod to the French military and their assistance in overthrowing Britain. While the stock tie may have lessened a blow to the neck (function was back!), it just as often caused fainting due to its constricting tightness (nevermind). Interestingly, a (less tight) version is still worn by modern-day English-style equestrians.
Back to France, fashion trendsetter Beau Brummell reintroduced and even elevated, the social significance of the classic white linen cravat. The cravat eventually fell out of style, however, except for only the most formal events. It is here we reach the point in the history of the necktie resembling neckwear we see today: the ascot, the bow tie, and the necktie.
The ascot was named for the English racecourse of the same name, where men would wear loose cloth made of silk, holding it in place with stick pins. The bow tie has had its own evolutions as well. (You can refer to this post for specifics on the history of the bow tie.)
The necktie was largely popular due to the ease of tying the long strip of silk cloth into simple variations of knots, most commonly, the Windsor, the Half-Windsor, and the four-in-hand. This was also the time when men began wearing patterns on their ties to signify their affiliation with clubs and universities. Early on, neckties were shorter and tucked easily into a man’s vest. But, as vests fell out of fashion, ties became longer.
During the 1920s, neckties came in a wide variety of styles and colors. They were primarily thin, and the quality of the man was often judged by the quality of his silk necktie. Hand-painted designs started taking off in the 1930s, and the width began to increase.
The 1940s saw neckties grow wider and fairly short—even stopping above the belt line, which was already high at the time. Neckties grew in flamboyance and width right up until the 1950s when more conservative dress became popular again. At that point, neckties narrowed, and solid colors reigned. By the 60s, the skinny tie was “in” (along with skinny suits).
Next came the decade of the 1970s, and with it, the return of big, flamboyant neckties with crazy patterns and extreme widths reminiscent of the 1940s. (These were longer than the 40s ties, however, as the 1970s also brought us low rider pants.)
Up next: the 1980s, and believe it or not, they brought us more than hair bands. While this decade isn’t known for its great fashion, it does stand out as the “anything goes” decade of neckwear. Ultra-wide ties held their ground and skinny ties saw a resurgence as well. The 90s proceeded to bring uniformity back to the scene. Neckties returned to a more “normal” width but retained the popular bold patterns—floral and paisley, in particular.
On into the 2000s and today, neckties can again be found in all manner of fabrics, patterns, and styles. But unlike the “lack” of fashion characterized by the 80s, our current place in the history of the necktie boasts a strong sense of fashion, carrying on the legacy of the necktie. What it continues to lack in function, it more than makes up for in its individual expression of a man’s personal style, taste, and interests.