The History of the Bow Tie: Mercenaries, Churchill, and Bond, James Bond

Photo by Wojtek Mich on Unsplash

In high school, my archaeology teacher wore a bow tie. Seniors could elect to take an archaeology class, which held the allure of the occasional field trip to an old homestead near school where students could dig around for broken pottery and dishes. But the real motivation for many of the seniors was the fact that the teacher, Mr. Randall, was near retirement. Most of his lessons involved watching VHS tapes of ancient civilizations that a good portion of class slept through.

Question: Do you know what other archaeology instructor also wore a bow tie?

Answer: Indiana Jones.

Professor Jones was far more to my liking. (No one sleeping in class here!) He made archaeology come alive. And that bow tie sealed the look. That bow tie was the perfect spot of character and intelligence, and of convention just waiting to be upended.

he bow tie traces its origin to the Thirty Years’ War of the early 17th century. Croatian mercenaries used a knotted scarf around their neck to hold closed the opening of their shirts. French soldiers modified the style, wearing a short, wide strip of fabric tucked into an open shirt. The style was noticed and adopted by the French upper class as they saw it on French soldiers returning from war. And so was born the cravat (derived from the French for “Croat”). French fashion held prominence in the 18th and 19th century and the cravat gained in popularity. Over time this cravat evolved into the bow tie and necktie we know today.

A well-dressed man in the 19th century was likely to be seen in a bow tie, especially if he was a politician or an academic. Presidents Lincoln, McKinley and Grant were frequently pictured in bow ties. So too were Karl Marx and Thomas Edison.

During the Victorian era in Great Britain (1837–1901), dinner jackets and matching attire, including a white bow tie, came into style. The dinner jacket dates back to 1865 and was worn by the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII). The first mention of the tuxedo dinner jacket comes in 1888, named after Tuxedo Park, a wealthy enclave in upstate New York. The tuxedo, accompanied by the bow tie, would set the stage for more formal menswear in the twentieth century.

he early 1900s saw the bow tie take on more character and expression as performers moved from vaudeville to the silent screen. Bow ties were the common attire worn by Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel (when in character as Laurel and Hardy). Groucho Marx would come to wear a bow tie as would radio host Fred Allen.

In addition, bow ties became the choice of the stylish entertainer. Fred Astaire danced flawlessly across the screen in his white bow tie. In an early example of stylish androgyny, Marlene Dietrich looked stunning in her top hat and bow tie.

As World War II spread across Europe and as America entered the conflict in the Pacific, the times called for strong, resolute leadership. Roosevelt and Churchill needed to be strategic, brave, and bold, while at the same time engendering the trust of an anxious nation. While FDR sometimes wore a bow tie, it is Churchill who truly embraced the look.

Seeking to inspire confidence during very sobering times, Churchill took great care in what he wore. Most commonly he was seen wearing a navy blue bow tie with white polka dots. This bow tie became very popular and was marketed as the Blenheim.

merging from the War, America was ready to take things a little less seriously. Enter the Rat Pack — and the oh so cool bow tie. In the early days the group that came to be known as the Rat Pack met in the home of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Early membership shifted a bit but eventually settled down to include Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford, and Joey Bishop. On stage, in movies, and on the Las Vegas strip, these A-listers and their bow ties personified cool.

As the Rat Pack was taking shape, down in Jamaica a novelist named Ian Fleming was inventing a British Secret Service agent known as 007. When James Bond hit the movie screens in the early sixties, it is Sean Connery who brought the character to life. To many fans, Connery is the quintessential Bond. Debonair, and impeccably dressed in his bow tie and tuxedo, Connery owned the outfit and the role.

With none of the cool but all of the fun, cartoon characters also donned bow ties. Dating back to the 1920s and 1930s, Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Porky Pig sported bow ties. Dagwood Bumstead, the husband in the long-running Blondie comic strip, was known for his bow tie. By the mid-twentieth century a number of Dr. Seuss characters appeared wearing bow ties, most notably the Cat in the Hat in his red bow tie.

So what happened in the subsequent decades to turn the bow tie into a sign of the nerd? Why did Pee Wee Herman gravitate to the bow tie to accent his outfit? In other words, how did the bow tie lose its cool?

The bow tie had its heyday in the 1940s and 1950s. By the 1960s, with the rise of the hippie counterculture and the anti-Vietnam War protests, contempt for the establishment was tangible. The bow tie represented the old guard, convention, and rules.

The bow tie eventually became a symbol of the socially awkward, the geek. This was true on television and in Hollywood movies. It was bold for a man to wear a bow tie and usually it signaled either the fashionably inadequate or the independent thinker who couldn’t care less.

But all is not lost. There are still celebrities that push the fashion envelope. Oscar winner Jared Leto added some style in his white jacket with a red bow tie at the 2014 Academy Awards. And singers from Andre 3000 to Janelle Monae have donned a bow tie.

here is not much need in today’s Zoom meeting world for a bow tie. But this will not always be the case. We’ll go out and the bow tie will find its next generation of followers. And until then, who says a bow tie couldn’t add a little pizzazz to your next Zoom call?

Mary O’Connell is a professional with 25+ years of work experience in public and private companies, for-profits and not-for-profits, global and domestic.

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