Let’s Tie One On
By Patrick F. Cannon
I started wearing a necktie every working day in May of 1973; and donned the last one – save for weddings, funerals and television appearances – in August of 2001, when I retired from work that actually paid me money. That’s nearly 40 years and hundreds of ties of varying widths and lengths. Most were conservative – no fish or naked ladies for me. On a typical day, I would have perhaps 25 to choose from. I even had a motorized gadget that went round and round until that day’s tie appeared. I now own four ties (I think).
I’m ashamed to say – considering my reputation as an historian of repute – that until today I never wondered about the history of this male adornment. I was astonished to find that these fashion accessories are a relatively recent phenomenon. I guess it never occurred to me to wonder why one never sees neckties in paintings of historical figures like Julius Caesar. Jesus Christ, Richard the Lion Hearted or the Venerable Bede. Strangely enough, they only began appearing in France (of course) during the Thirty Years War (1618-1648).
It seems that Croatian mercenaries serving the French king were seen wearing small, knotted neckerchiefs around their necks. Even then, many Croatians had to leave the country to make a living. As a result of a later emigration, I had a Croatian uncle, John Ratesic, who was born in this country, but only wore a tie when he had to. His sons weren’t as lucky, becoming teachers and administrators. It was only after they retired that teachers became indistinguishable from hippies and other layabouts.
The young Louis XIV, fashion forward even at the age of seven, noticed the jaunty Croats and soon began emulating their neckwear. Through some strange melding of the Croatian and French languages, the French ended up with the word cravat. For experienced linguists like me, it makes perfect sense as a combination of the Croatian “Hrvati” and the French “Croates.” By the way, the late actor and acrobat Nick Cravat had no relation to the neckwear, or to Louis XIV for that matter.
Once men started to wear fabrics in various forms around their necks, it was Katie bar the door. Although you likely don’t give a fig, here are some of the more common versions. Still to be seen today, the “Stock” was originally a piece of stiff leather worn under the chin and tied in the back. It encouraged soldiers to maintain a proper posture by preventing them from slouching. It gave rise to the expression “pain in the neck.” Off duty soldiers often looked like they had just been hanged by the neck until almost dead. A version of the stock is still in use by the military, although now made of soft cloth, much to the dismay of drill sergeants.
Somewhat similar is the “Ascot,” a more complicated version of the Stock. It is, of course, named after the famous British horse-race course of the same name. Its use was once mandatory if one was privileged to be in the Royal Enclosure during the Annual Royal Meeting at Ascot in June. The Ascot tie was part of what we call “Morning Clothes,” which includes a cutaway coat and stripped pants for the gents and extravagant hats for the ladies. The day’s festivities traditionally begin when the Queen ( or King on the rare occasions when there is one) enters the course in a horse-drawn carriage. One shudders to think what Queen Victoria might have done if she spied someone wearing a four-in-hand. I went to Ascot at a later meeting, but was only required to wear a jacket and regular tie.
Most of we commoners wear the familiar long tie, knotted in various ways, including the Windsor, named after its most famous devotee, the short-lived King Edward VIII, who abandoned his throne in 1936 when told he would be required to wear the Ascot tie instead of his beloved Windsor. By the way, the English take their ties more seriously than we careless Americans. Military units, private clubs and some schools have their unique ties. For example, if you attended the public school, Eton (which is actually a private school, but let’s not go into that now), you would be intitled to wear its black and white striped tie, thus being instantly recognized as an “Old Etonian.” By the way, you’re an “Old” Etonian even if you’re not strictly speaking, old.
Famous English regiments also have distinctive striped ties. I once owned the tie of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. I shudder to think of what might have happened to me had I worn it in Edinburgh! As a former member of the US Army Signal Corps, I would be able to wear its tie, which has embroidered crossed semaphore flags on an orange background. Alas, orange is not my best color.
Current ties come in various lengths. The late, largely unlamented former president favored a very long tie, which extended as far down as his crotch. This may have been symbolic, but one can’t be sure.
Copyright 2021, Patrick F. Cannon