Pulling Off the Bow Tie

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Jumping full force into my nerd status by wearing bow ties.

In my free time, I frequent Male Fashion Advice, a sub reddit for men’s style, and a question we get fairly often usually concerns bow ties.  Most of the time, it’s from an office guy who is looking to spice up his wardrobe the only way he can (since some corporate places have a strict dress code).  Other times, it’s a guy who doesn’t usually wear a suit often but they like the idea of the bow tie since it gives them “vintage/dapper” vibes.   Or they just like it and want advice on how to do it.  It’s pretty tough since, the bowtie (along with the fedora) have a bit of a pariah status in menswear.

An “eh” bow tie look.

Unfortunately, most of the responses say to ditch the bowtie.  Their concerns aren’t unwarranted though, as most guys who wear it become dubbed “that bow tie guy”; it’s especially unfavorable for office scenarios, since you are discouraged from dressing in any sort of peacocking way.   The bow tie also gives us flashes of prep or nerd  which is hard to divorce from the garment.   Bigger gentlemen are also cautioned against wearing it since it doesn’t “take up visual space” like a necktie.  Wearing a waistcoat or sweater can help with that, but not many people take that option.   It doesn’t help that the bow tie is increasingly uncommon within menswear, which means that anyone who wears one is instantly noticed by the populace, either as a “fashionista” or a vintage person.

I’m of the frame of mind that if you like something, you should wear it; just be conscious of how the world perceives you.  It’s why my “vintage style” has moved away from being period authentic into something more of a mix between 1930’s, ivy style, and contemporary classic menswear.   And even then, it’s not that I’ve abandoned vintage style! I actually feel confident in my style and happy that it incorporates everything that I like.  But that’s exactly the reason why I don’t really wear my bow ties, despite owning a few good ones.

Honestly, it was hard for me to feel confident in a bow tie. Due to all the connotations that came with it.  You guys know how I like to approach my style by balancing classic style with slouchyness and the fact remains that the bowtie isn’t slouchy.  It’s a bit dandy and a very intentional choice, which makes it hard to pull it off with ease.   That’s not to say that I didn’t like the designs of bowties, but I always wondered if I didn’t wear bowties because I didn’t have enough good ones or because I simply didn’t like them at all.   In the end, I decided to do what I do best and really thought about what intrigued me most about the bowtie and if what outfits specifically stood out as a good one to replicate and take inspiration from.

Golden Era Style

Obviously bow ties were were in vogue as early as the 1910s until the 1960’s.  What you’ll notice however, is that a lot of the patterns weren’t always the colorful preppy ones that usually adorn the necks of bow tie wearers today. It could also be author’s bias, as the pictures that I tend to gravitate toward utilize a bowtie in a geometric/foulard pattern, echoing exactly how I feel about necktie + shirt combinations.

Perhaps it’s the way that the tight patterns provide visual interest without being too loud, making it a smart match for a solid suit or in separates (for the more daring).   You’ll also notice that there aren’t many solid options (though they did exist); most of these guys liked geometrics and small scale abstract designs.  On these Golden Era guys, the bow tie looks pretty natural and sharp, without being fussy or dandy.

In terms of shape, I think it’s fair to say that diamond tipped and the standard butterfly are the way to go.   There’s nothing inherently wrong with the square end ones, but I personally don’t think they flatter the face well and aren’t as classic as the other; it definitely works if you want more of a 1950’s look though.   Overall, there’s something cool about the charm of the classic self-tied, slightly droopy bowtie.

Today

While some men choose to ditch the bowtie, others keep the past alive by rocking it today.  It’s quite clear that my contemporary inspirations also follow the same theme, with bowties that feature small geometric patterns.  Like I’ve stated before, these foulards and prints tend to be the “best” way to achieve a vintage look, even if your bowtie (or tie) isn’t necessarily old.   However, you’ll see that the most of these guys wear their bowties with solid jackets and suits; wearing too many patterns with a bowtie is one way that puts it a little overboard, in my opinion. Dark blues, browns, and greys seem to be the best to wear with it (in addition to other dark earth tones), since it will help ground the eccentricness of the bowtie.

Because it’s such an intentional look, it’s not necessarily a bad thing to lean into the vintage connotation of the piece.  Pairing it with a contrasting waistcoat or sweater gives it a “grandpa” or “professor” quality, while wearing it with a suit (sans middle layer) gives it a jaunty spring vibe.

I think that these images from Drake’s, The Armoury, and their contemporaries are sufficient inspiration on how to pull it off without any of the nerd or prep vibes.

As you may remember from our Phantom Thread article, Reynolds Woock has a penchant for geometric bow ties, though opts for more subdued outfit.

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I’m going to jump in and say that Ethan Newton again comes to the rescue, showing us that it’s perfectly fine to wear a bow tie.   Again you’ll see that geometric prints are his pattern of choice, which match perfectly against his solid outfits. I do like that he goes back and forth over wearing a waistcoat, but that’s probably attributed more to the weather.   The way he wears it makes the outfit look more rakish rather than dandy.

That’s the effect I want to go for.

This triple pattern-mixing outfit is one of my favorites from Mr. Newton.  It’s got a bit of English (due to the green houndstooth) and vintage vibes (more so than the previous looks), but it doesn’t look anachronistic or dandy.   It honestly combines the best parts of “Ethan Style”, as he wears a patterned jacket with a blue stripe shirt and foulard-ish [bow] tie.  After reflecting on these images, I knew that it was time to try out some bow tie looks for myself.

On Me

Now, I don’t really have too many bow ties because I just don’t wear them that often.  Almost all of these are vintage, though if you follow me on instagram (or are an old friend on Facebook) you’ll know that prior to getting into vintage, I had a lot of repp stripe and plaid ones from The Tie Bar that I wore with everything, from suits to just a shirt and jeans.  All of the ones I kept are all minimally patterned, which fits in with the themes we saw throughout the inspiration.  I have considered getting more, but some of the “good” patterns (ie: foulards, small abstract prints) tend to go for a lot more than a regular necktie; plus I don’t see it as worth it, as I don’t really make the choice to wear a bow tie very often.

You’ll also see that almost all of these outfits incorporate a suit rather than separates.  The suit helps ground the bowtie as I feel that most guys tend to go a little overboard when wearing one with an odd jacket. Because it takes up two pieces out of your outfit, wearing a suit removes any room for error.

Like most of the “eccentric” choices on the blog, you could argue that something normal could be used instead, like a solid knit tie or even a foulard necktie.  But we aren’t a regular style blog; we like to be just a bit more bold without being too costumey.

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This first outfit is from about a year ago, hence the rounder face and slightly different hair style.  With a grey pinstripe suit and blue micro dot tie, it definitely evokes Winston Churchill, though I’m doing it sans waistcoat.   What I liked about this outfit is that it’s still classic and conservative with a hint of playfulness.  The subtle pinstripe of the suit gets to mix slightly with the dots in the bowtie, but it’s all on a small scale; the crisp white shirt acts a buffer.  I wouldn’t do a plain suit with a plain shirt and patterned bowtie, as I think having at least two patterns in an outfit is needed to make your choices a bit more intentional.

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Now this one is just straight up dandy material.  It’s honestly a bit more colorful compared to what I’d usually do, but I think it works! Underneath my plaid sack suit, I have a club collar shirt and my Drake’s sweater vest, with the latter used to echo the colors of the bow tie. I really like when bowties are worn with club collars, since it adds more visual interest to the neck area.  The vibes are entirely more vintage, almost 1920s-1930’s inspired, due to the use of multiple patterns, the sweater vest (which is “grandpa” enough), and of course, the club collar.

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Real professor vibes with a blue tie and brown 3PC sack suit.

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This outfit, inspired by Reynolds Woodcock, is probably the best way to pull off a bow tie in the contemporary world. It’s mainly all solids, which is a departure from my usual style, but that’s what makes it a bit more elegant and wearable.  The only pattern in the outfit comes from the houndstooth bow tie, which appears solid from a distance.   If you’re afraid of the empty chest space, that’s where the DB comes in, as the overlapping fabric takes up more room than a normal SB.

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In general, a navy suit, white shirt, and grey tie can never go wrong! This is pretty much a bow tie version of my outfit at the LA Opera, which is perhaps one of my most elegant outfits (bar my tuxedo).   You could even swap the grey bowtie for my blue dot one earlier or the red one, if you’re feeling a bit frisky.

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Even though the DB + bowtie makes for a sharp look, this is how I’d want to do a bow tie outfit, at least for summer.   With my triple patch pocket SuitSupply cotton suit (which is a little too slim for my tastes, but it’s okay), red OCBD, and yellow/blue dot bow tie, it gives off a bit of a preppy vibe.   Even though the connotations are there, I think that there are a few conscious choices that prevent it from going overboard.

The first thing is the brown cotton suit.  Brown suits are inherently old school and uncommon, so wearing it signals that you’re more of a fashion oriented person than a guy trying his best to be a WASP.  The wrinkled non-chalance of the cotton also says that you’re wearing it because you’re comfortable, not necessary because you wan’t to be “dapper”.   Additionally, even though you are in a bow tie and OCBD,  you’re not wearing a navy blazer and khaki chinos, which is literally the ivy/prep/trad/WASP uniform.    
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Keen eyed menswear enthusiasts will probably notice that this outfit was inspired by this similar one from the  Drake’s Spring 2016 lookbook. You guys always know that I’m a sucker for browns, stripes, and foulards.

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Okay this one is obviously for fall, but fuck it.   I actually wore this quite recently, as it was in the low 60’s in May.   LA weather was being insane!

When I was writing this article, I realized that a lot of the suits I wore (and examples I chose) were solid.  As a tribute to the last picture by Ethan Newton, I wore a red geometric bowtie with my green fleck camoshita suit. It’s not as loud as Newton’s houndstooth jacket, but I prefer that mine is more “solid”; it makes it easier to pull off the bowtie.   With that said, the fleck still accomplishes my need for patterns in an outfit.

The entire thing is definitely vintage/professor vibes, but I actually prefer it more than the 3PC brown suit.  The green fleck suit sans waistcoat provides a more streamlined look, which almost evokes the clean approach of the navy DB, just with some extra details thrown in.

Even though the bow tie is pretty subdued for a red (it’s almost like a faded salmon), I opted for a red stripe spearpoint for my shirt choice.  Some might argue for the white shirt, like in the navy DB suit, but I like that how the stripes make the shirt/suit contrast more low key.  I believe that solid white should be reserved for more elegant and formal outfits, while stripes are for everyday attire.  The  reason why I just love stripe shirts are probably because they provide more of an avenue to pull off patterns naturally, contribute more visual interest, and are inherently more casual than solids.   Go figure.

Conclusion

Bow ties are hard to pull off; it honestly look me a little while to get confident and actually make an effort to wear them (though it’s fine, because work is hardly “the real world”).  However, I don’t think that means that you have to count them off completely.  As we’ve seen, there are plenty of examples from both the Golden Era and the contemporary menswear world that give us some great guidelines to follow.

Like with my choice in ties, I prefer that my bow ties have a geometric/foulard pattern. It still has personality, but it’s not as blatant as some of the others we normally see. With a striped shirt, I think that an outfit gets a more classic/old school look where as a plain shirt means that you can’t commit to the bowtie.  There’s obviously nothing wrong with classic repp stripe bow ties, but I think that the point is to look less preppy.   I’d would stay away from ones that are overtly colorful or even just plain (too formal IMO).

In terms of your garment choices, I think that suits in somber earth tones are the way to go. Not only does it take the guest work out of making coherent separates, but wearing a suit in general tend to tone an outfit down, making it look streamlined and grounded.  Navy, grey, and brown are no brainers, but olive seems to be a good match as well!

Overall, anyone could argue that a regular necktie would be the “normal choice”. But who wants to be normal?

Always a pleasure,

Ethan W.

@ethanmwong 

Street x Sprezza 

5 comments

  1. Cormick · June 28, 2018

    Wow, really enjoyed this article! It is an interesting conundrum that bow tie aficionados face- trying to be too dapper, preppy vs. vintage, etc. However, your throwback pics from the early half of the 1900s show just how mainstream bow ties once were. Do you think they’ll ever make a mainstream comeback or has the world just gone too casual?

    If you are into vintage bow ties, then we’ve gotta send you one of ours! All limited edition, made from upcycled Aloha shirts (so we only get 2 bow ties per shirt…seriously 2 of a kind).

    Like

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