Historians attribute the first instance of neckwear to ancient China. In 1974 archeologists unearthed a massive dig of terracotta warriors buried in Qin Shih Huang, the emperor who died in 2010 BC. Before he died, he wanted his army to be buried with him, as a guardian of his soul during its transition into the afterlife. He wanted to bury his soldiers alive with him but luckily his advisors talked him into creating terra cotta replicas instead. When found by Westerns in 1974, the terra cotta warriors all wore a wrapped neck cloth. There’s no other record of anyone else in China wearing these so they’re though to be a distinct garment worn only by the Emperor’s army – and the first neckties.
They were also seen in ancient Rome in Trajan’s column from 98 to 117 AD, with thousands of soldiers wearing neckwear otherwise unseen in Italy.
However, most people attribute the modern birth of the necktie to France during the 17th century. In the midst of the 30 Year War, King Louis XIII hired Croatian mercenaries to help him fight the English. The Croats all wore a piece of cloth around their necks to help them keep their uniform jackets closed. King Louis admired the look so much that he required everyone to wear one at royal gatherings. To pay tribute to the Croats he named the neckwear “La Cravate” which is still the French word for neckties.
After the war was over in 1660, the cravat came back to England as Charles II reclaimed the throne. The cravat became the fashion of aristocrats and the elite, and the trend spread over Europe and also to the English colonies. No longer did it just look like the Croatians wore it, but now could consist of ruffled collars, ribbons, linen, cotton, tasseled strings, or even lace.
In 1715, a spinoff of neckwear appeared, a leather collar with lace at the back called “stocks.” It was popular among soldiers because it kept their heads high and offered some protection against bayonets.
In the 18th century, the fashion movement spread to all men no matter what level of society or wealth they belonged to. By the end of the century, wearing a cravat in black was considered the apex of fashion. General Sherman can be seen wearing a leather stock in some Civil War era photographs.
The traditional Cravate made a resurgence all over Europe, donned by a new class of young men who called the macaronis (named in the song Yankee Doodle) who had come back from Europe with new fashion sense.
By 1815, the French Emperor Napolean Bonaparte wore a white cravat against his black attire during the battle of Waterloo. History books tell us he did so to honor the Duke of Wellington who always wore white into battle. Around this time people started calling cravats “ties” after the practice of tying them around their necks.
As ties took off, the rage became tying them in interesting ways. There were even books written about different knots; The Neckclothitania was a satire published in 1818 about tying ties. A more serious volume was released in 1828 by H. Le Blanc, The Art of Tying the Cravat.
The world changed dramatically with Industrial Revolution and so did the acceptance of the tie. In fact the term “White Collar” workers comes from the dress of a new class of businessmen who left the gritty manual labor for the lower classes, who also wore ties.
In 1880, the Oxford University rowing team had the first school tie and the practice spread quickly. Over the next decade, the standard tie had some competition with the fancier ascot. It was the favorite of Britain’s King Edward VII, who wore it to the horse races and who was emulated by his subjects.
But by 1910, the popularity of ascots started to fade as fashion became more casual and bow ties were reserved for “White tie attire” events.
The fashion sense of ties changed dramatically in the early 1920’s when a New York City tailor by the name of Jessie Langsdorf invented a brand new way of cutting the fabric for ties, allowing it to stay in shape after use. His ingenunity opened the door for new knots for ties became the most popular neckwear, the bow tie now being reserved for black tie functions (like with a tuxedo.)
In the 1930’s ties became wider and were printed in bold patterns and art deco designs. They hung well shorter than our current tie length because pants were worn near the belly button, not on the hips, and men also wore vests that covered up the bottom of the tie. They were still usually tied with a Windsor knot, named after the Duke of Windsor.
Of course during World War II fashion wasn’t exactly a priority for the country, but one it was over and troops returned home they donned reinvigorated neckties with strong patterns and colors. But post war, men wanted celebration, not military uniformity, so the vibrance of America society reached fashion as ties grew wider in what was coined the Bold Look and art deco motifs included hunting scenes, floral patterns, photographs, and Cuban/Miami “tropicalism.”
The pendulum of taste swung back to conservatism in the 1950s, the “Mad Men” decade where skinny ties and flat patterns were most common, though bright colors were still in vogue. Branded the “Mister T” look by Esquire, the ties were longer once again as belt height dropped and tapered suits and slim lapels were the look of the day. As the calendar turned to 1960 and then 1961, these skinny ties reached the epicenter of the “IBM/Men in Black” look with widths as small as 1” and colors usually dark and uniform.
Later in the 1960’s, fashion went haywire with psychedelic bad taste and Pop influence, with ties followed suit. The Kipper tie became popular, a clownish 6” wide short time with outrageous swirls of color named after designer Michael Fish at Turnbull & Asser. The 1970’s saw no relief from these faux pas as the Disco era ushered in stranger Kipper ties and new fabrics with plenty of shiny things. Interestingly, the Bolo Tie (Western tie) emerged around this time in Arizona, and it even became Arizona’s official state necktie in 1971.
From the frying pan of the 60’s and 70’s we jumped into the fire of the 1980’s with an explosion of options - everything from Kipper ties to skinny ties and bright pastel colors to dynamic plaids. Novelty, or kitschy ties were considered avante guard, with Pop art images like fish or strawberries rendered on ties, and faux-materials like fake plastic or wood grain images catching popularity. Ties also grew in length to 57 inches as men wore their pants lower, still.
It wasn’t until the 1990’s that ties took a step back toward business fashion, with widths becoming uniform at 3.75 to 4 inches and plenty of bold yet uniform striped and paisley patterns. In the first decade of the 21st century the standard tie thinned out by about a quarter inch and more European designs and influences came in.
In the last three years we’ve seen ties get even skinner with more influence from Italy and France, with a range from 3.5 inches to skinny ties again at 1.5-2” and everything in between. There’s a mix of old-world tradition mixed with varying fabrics, bold prints, paisleys, and dynamic splashes of color. The rules have all been broken and we’ve adopted the best looks for neckwear from the past century. Anything goes in ties these days – as long as it looks good!