The History of the Tie - Father's Week on BTR


Wide short tie with print, 1953, part of the post-War “Bold Look”.

photo from WikiMedia Commons

Father’s day has come and gone, and you, like everyone, bought your father another tie.  Or maybe you didn’t buy him one, but you thought about it.  The ubiquitous tie, that most cliched father’s day gift, has become synonymous with lazy gift-giving.  The history of this Platonic ideal of boredom, however, is written in the blood of Chinese warriors and Croatian mercenaries, and is quite interesting indeed.

The first example of wearing cloth around the neck dates to the time of Shih Huang Ti, the first emperor of China, in the year 221 BC.  He oversaw massive public projects, including the creation of a national road system, a version of the Great Wall of China, and a giant mausoleum to house his terracotta army, which is where we come in.  The terracotta army is comprised of life-size statues meant to help the emperor rule in the after-life.  Each figure wore a silk cord to signify his elite status.

From there we jump forward one hundred years to Roman times, where orators wore cloth around their neck to keep their vocal chords warm.  Think Pavaratti, but instead of singing opera the speaker may have been railing against Mark Antony.  Neck coverings also show up on the column built by the great emperor Trajan to commemorate his victory in the Dacian wars.  Soldiers depicted on the column wear three different types of neck covering, including one that resembles the kind of bandana sported by bandits in the wild west.  Historians believe that most soldiers didn’t wear this kind of accessory, and that in fact men who covered their necks were considered feminine.  But, like in Shih Huang Ti’s terracotta army, the greatest warriors deserved some kind of decoration – the theory being that the greatest warriors were projected from being thought of as effeminate.

What we consider the modern tie has its origins in France during the 30 years war.  Croatian mercenaries sported neckerchiefs tied in a knot, which captivated the imagination of Parisians in the late 17th Century.  King Louis XIV himself adopted the look, helping to popularize it.  The word for this accessory was “cravat,” thought to be a combination of the Croatian word for Croats, Hrvati, and the French word, Croates.

The Industrial Revolution allowed for the massive creation and distribution of ties.  They were now easy to put on, and could last an entire workday.  In 1926, the biggest tie news since the 30 year war hit:

[in] 1926 …  a New York tie maker, Jesse Langsdorf came up with a method of cutting the fabric on the bias and sewing it in three segments. This technique improved elasticity and facilitated the fabric’s return to its original shape. Since that time, most men have worn the “Langsdorf” tie.

During the Second World War, men wore their pants around their belly buttons, so tie were tied much shorter than they are today.  Ties were also much fatter, though in the early 1960s they slimmed down to about 1 in in width.  By the 70s, ties had gotten wide again, sometimes as wide as 4½ inches.

Today, skinny ties, popularized in part by shows like Mad Men, are still widely available.  Try looking for a 4 and a half inch tie at a department store, and you’re likely to come up short.  So the next time you give your dad a tie, tell him he looks like a celebrated Roman warrior, or a captain of the industrial revolution.  Just don’t give him a short fat one unless he wears his pants at his armpits.

Written by: John Knefel