From Congress to Clowns

The bow tie could easily be dubbed the ‘black sheep’ of the Cravat family. Its origins are none glamorous and it is rarely embraced, typically turned against and most often forgotten. It is noticed in only its fleeting moments of sheik or dreadfully offensive shock. Its history originating in utility and birthed from a distinguished sect was turned against with the advent of visual media. The bow tie was first seen in the 17th Century when Croatian mercenaries went to support King Louis in France (Pohl). To keep their shirts closed and to protect themselves from the elements they tied a loosely fit tie around their necks (Pohl).

There is debate over whether the intention was strictly utilitarian; as long, lace neckwear was already a fashion in France there was likely some influence. King Louis quickly adopted the tie for fashion. He named it “La Cravat” and made it the required attire for upper class formal gatherings (Pohl). It continued its European trend and was brought along with colonization to America. The earliest bow ties were white and were worn for fashion and social class distinction. It remained in use during the 18th and 19th century, but was mainly isolated to politicians, lawyers and scholars as very formal and professional attire.

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Abraham Lincoln and many of our early presidents were often photographed wearing the bow tie reinforcing its representation of being a distinguished accessory. The first major shift in accepted bow tie use coincided with the changes in political ideology. A young America, wanting to distance itself from European classism removed the bow tie from accepted fashion practice. Outside of the very formal ‘black tie affair’ it was rarely seen. The general opinion of the bow tie changed as well, as it began to carry with it an air of pretense or snobbery. Warren St. John, a writer for the New York Times, describes this shift in thinking,

To its devotees the bow tie suggests iconoclasm of an Old World sort, a fusty adherence to a contrarian point of view. The bow tie hints at intellectualism, real or feigned, and sometimes suggests technical acumen, perhaps because it is so hard to tie. Bow ties are worn by magicians, country doctors, lawyers and professors and by people hoping to look like the above. But perhaps most of all, wearing a bow tie is a way of broadcasting an aggressive lack of concern for what other people think (St. John). This idea changed in an important way in the 20th century.

After decades of a clear break from European influence the bow tie made a come back, but in an interesting way. It was still fashionably outcast outside of formalwear, but it became an icon for individualism. “A list of bow tie devotees reads like a Who’s Who of rugged individualists” (St. John). Interestingly this new trend coincides with the advent and surge in visual media, via film, news real, magazine and eventually television. “Men’s clothier Jack Freedman told the New York Times that wearing a bow tie ‘is a statement maker’ that identifies a person as an individual because ‘it’s not generally in fashion’” (St. John).

The bow tie would never be ‘generally in fashion’ even with visual access, but media helped to mold new thinking about it as a symbol and defined opinions of those who wore it. Its casual use was adopted by outspoken and prominent politicians, comedians, broadcasters, and many animated figures. The influence from Hollywood and T. V. media would create an impression that would stick. In T. V. and film comedians and animated characters personas who wore bow ties were portrayed as goofy, awkward, quirky or nerdy creating a stereotype that modern bow tie wearers can’t quite shake.

Characters such as Jerry Lewis’ Nutty Professor and Paul Reubens’ Pee Wee Herman have helped perpetuate it. It is possible that Hollywood as an institution and ‘protector of class’ may have created these characterizations in rebellion to the adoption of the bow tie by mainstream individuals. Simmel writes, “the elite initiates a fashion and when the mass imitates it in an effort to eliminate the distinction of class, [the elite] abandon it for a different mode”. Acting on the elites behalf, visual media created and exposed these clownish views to turn the style ‘off’, to make it un-fashionable, so it could resume class distinction (541).