From Congress to Clowns: Media’s Influence on Bow Tie Transformation 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. 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).
Like the black sheep that it is, despite its sense of folly the bow tie also leaves the impression of being quite trustworthy. Many highly respected leaders, lawyers, politicians and broadcasters have donned them and some have even been branded by this signature piece. Winston Churchill was known for his signature blue and white polka-dot tie. Charles Osgood for his trademark tie worn during broadcasts. That sense of trust could stem from the idea that these men are brave enough to ‘go against fashion’ or because ‘they don’t care what people think’ we trust them to be more candid and honest.
Advertisers picked up on this trend and companies such as Chevrolet and Budweiser have included the bow tie in their corporate logos. They also reinforced this association of trustworthiness and honesty with their campaign slogans. In 1996 Chevrolet wanted its “blue bow tie to be among America’s top icons again”, so it created a series of “15 second spots featuring just the bow tie in unexpected places with the printed tag ‘Genuine Chevrolet’ and the narration ‘the cars Americans trust’” (Halliday).
Budweiser also made this association with their ad campaign featuring just their red bow tie logo and the words ‘Budweiser, True’. Though the bow tie has made a dramatic shift in the 20th century from a symbol of class distinction and distinguished conformity to a symbol of individualism and supposed trust, the bow tie has not waivered as the staple accessory of formal attire. There have been some recent adaptations, again brought on by Hollywood celebrities such as the black button cover or black bolo tie, but when alternates are chosen they are typically mocked by mainstream media.
Black tie affair still means black bow tie by all accounts. The sophistication and style has been reinforced by celebrities in photos or films of formal dances, dinners and parties. Representing all the glamour of classic Hollywood and associated with the debonair Humphrey Bogart and Frank Sinatra. It has such a long standing tradition and symbol of what it means to be a sophisticated and classy gentleman that even Playboy picked it up and incorporated it into their bunny logo .
In fact, Playboy’s use of the bow tie has in many ways taken the symbol full circle – the fantasy and money associated with having women and the ‘finer things’ in life really brings us right back to the ideas of class distinction and giving men something to aspire too. The bow tie has such an interesting history because essentially we aren’t sure what to think of it. Outside of its use as formal wear it doesn’t have a category or clear intention. Standing so far left of fashion it is one of those rare instances where those who chose to wear it really do demonstrate individuality and not out of a need for protest or desperation to be noticed.
Finkelstein wrote, The basic irony of fashion is that it cannot succeed in marking the individual as truly different. While fashions may be touted as a means to be distinguished, the pursuit of fashion is more effectively a means of being socially homogenized. The historic success of being fashionable has been to provide a sense of individualism within a shared code, since individuals can look acceptably distinctive only within a restricted aesthetic. When they purchase fashionable goods that will distinguish them, they do so only from a range of goods already understood to be valuable.
Having this understanding of fashion it seems to follow that one purchasing or wearing something un-fashionable truly is expressing their individuality. In the case of the bow tie it seems its wearers have less in common and that commonality derived by the observer has more to do with visual media’s attempt to categorize the wearer as something. Interestingly though, those known for donning the bow tie come from such a broad society base that stereotypes of general folly created by media characters do not really apply. However it may be that is exactly the point.
When you can’t be categorized you will certainly stand out and in that case the bow tie, outside of the formal, acts merely as a signature piece with no real intention other than being noticed. “To be fashionable involves having specific knowledge about the value of goods. It is not sufficient to desire goods because of their utility” (Finkelstein). Clearly using the bow tie for the sake of the utility of being noticed makes the item quite un-fashionable, but maybe it is the individual outside of the fashion world who truly understands the value of goods.
The bow tie is the ‘black sheep’ of the Cravat family, the outsider of the fashion world and that is its value. Visual media has changed its initial perceptions of being an item of social class distinction to that of a clown and yet despite its created perceptions those who choose to wear the bow tie outside of film and T. V. are highly regarded and trusted. Advertisers have picked up on this strange dichotomy and have even reinforced its credibility, but not to the approval of the fashion world.
It is curious to think that the bow tie will ever become fashionable outside of its formal roots mainly because it has become something far more valuable than fashion. Works Cited Finkelstein, Joanne. “Chic Theory”. Australian Humanities Review. 07 March 2009. <http://www. australianhumanitiesreview. org/archive/Issue-March-1997/>. Pohl, H. “The History of the Bow Tie”. 05 November 2008. lula general articles. 07 March 2009. <http://www. iula. org/the-history-of-the-bow-tie-16695/>. Halliday, Jean.
“Chevrolet ads seek to bolster image of bow tie”. 08 April 1996. Automotive News. Crain Communications. 07 March 2009. <http://www. highbeam. com/doc/1G1-18451431. html>. Simmel, Georg. “Fashion”. May 1957. The American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 62, No. 6, 541-558. 07 March 2009. <http://www. jstor. org/stable/2773129>. St John, Warren. “A Red Flag That Comes in Many Colors”. 26 June 2005. The New York Times. 07 March 2009. <http://www. nytimes. com/2005/06/26/fashion/sundaystyles/26BOWTIE. html>.