No one wears ties anymore. Even fewer people wear bow ties. They're really freaking hard to tie, for one. And the resulting aesthetic is, shall we say, unusual.
But when Brad Goreski, fashion stylist to celebrities and designer Kate Spade, chose his outfits for the Fall and Winter 2012 fashion shows this past week in New York, he typically went with a bow tie. In the photo below at the Levi's show he snuggles up to DJ Harley Viera Newton, model Jessica White and socialite Birdie Bell in the front row.
Bill Nye the Science Guy, on the other hand, is more often flanked by beakers than fashionable women, but he owns 150 bow ties. Many historical figures and politicians, including Winston Churchill, favored the bow tie. Louis Farrakhan, the leader of the Nation of Islam, loves a bow tie. The womanising Chuck Bass can frequently be spied in one one on Gossip Girl. And then there's bow-tie-wearing Andre 3000, that dandy of rap music. They may be in the minority, but the list of celebrities, politicians and fashion icons (Karl Lagerfeld) goes on.
I can't tell you how much I would love to get all of these guys in the same room to discuss bow ties over a whiskey. We've got macho, nerdy, liberal, conservative, gay, straight, white, black and if we kept looking I'm sure we'd find everything in between. The bow tie might be the one and only thing these guys have in common.
With the sartorial choice, though, comes the reasons behind it. And when it came to that conversation, they might have more in common than anyone could imagine.
One theory expressed by Warren St. John in a 2005 New York Times was that wearing a bow tie is "a way of broadcasting an aggressive lack of concern for what other people think." But isn't it just the opposite? You don a bow tie precisely because it sends a message. Like geeky glasses, a bow tie is "in your face." If you didn't want to communicate something with your neckwear, you would go tie-less or perhaps wear a conventional necktie.
The intended content of the message is likely different a version of the same story for most wearers. In the past, we stereotyped wearers as effeminate, weak, dorky. Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt, who in solidarity against Hitler wore bow ties, were certainly exceptions. They paved the way for style icons like Brad Goreski and Andree 3000, who have stoked the geek/hipster/fashion (pick one or all of the above) set's a bow-tie-wearing binge. Again, like with geeky glasses, the intellectual association is appealing. These folks want to be (or at least want to seem to be) interesting and smart.
But the bow-tie is also a nod to an old-timey aesthetic with a hint of mischief. It conjures Charlie-Chaplin-esque ideas of dreamers and risk-takers. The BBC calls Winston Churchill "an eccentric of traditional type," which sounds just about right even for a hipster bow-tie wearer today. Also from the BBC, a Dr. Who episode in 2010 sparked a "Bow ties are cool" craze. It's not an accessory for he faint of heart, or for the severely serious (unless you're George Will).
Even women are getting bow-tie fever. Carlina Harris, an associate fashion editor for an app called Poshmark, says ties are her signature. To her, bow ties in particular make the wearer seem "confident, preppy, and maybe even have a flair for another time period—almost like a throw back to the '30s." She likes the subtly sexy and "in control" vibe that comes with dressing androgynously. It all makes sense when you learn that Harris' interests go far beyond fashion: she studied aviation and worked at NASA for five years as a lead base operations dispatcher.
If all this has you wanting to give the bow-tie look a try, please don't buy a clip-on for beginners. If you're not going to tie your bow tie, it's best not bother with one at all.
Uniform is a weekly column exploring the relationship between geeks, fashion and fashionable geeks.