The Trad Times: glancing over an old clipping file


Senior Member

Not entirely unmotivated by the few misguided souls who interminably whine about "Trad", but more so encouraged by those who might find an interest in such postings, I've decided to try to post, every week or two, an article that many will find of interest. This week, one that I mentioned about a year ago, on the Bow. I remember when it first came out in the Atlantic. Two-thirds a way through is a witty sub-section on the inimitable Charles Davidson of The Andover Shop, Cambridge. I hope you enjoy it. Apologies for poor formating.

[From time to time, I'll post something from the great George Frazier, who's been mentioned here for his article for Esquire, which featured the Andover Shop, among other places. As of late, I've pretty much obtained a sample of every full-cut white oxford button-down still made in the US -- when I can I'll get out the old measuring tape and write up a review.]

From Atlantic Monthly 11/95

Personal File -- November 1995
Bow Ties
Some rules of thumb for the neck
by John D. Spooner
Everyone has an opinion about bow ties. I have a young
friend in the television business in New York whose job
does not require him to dress for work in the conventional
sense; he can wear jeans and T-shirts to produce the
promotional spots for his cable channel. But once a week
he wears a suit, a fine shirt, and a bow tie. He is more
than six feet tall and in the past three years has gone from
shoulder-length hair to a shaved head. The only constant
in his appearance is a bow tie, once a week. "I hate the
grunge look," I tell him. "Why don't you wear a bow tie
every day?"
"A bow tie is like a wrapped gift," he tells me. "If I wore
one every day, it wouldn't be a treat."
I own 147 bow ties. Most
of them I bought myself.
Some of them have been
given to me by friends.
Often these gift ties have
little lights in them,
connected to batteries that
fit in a shirt pocket, and the lights spell out messages like
they are decorated with feathers or designed to spin
around like windmills. Until my junior year in college I
wore bow ties only to high school proms. These bow ties
were always the clip-on variety. Early in my junior year
in college a roommate and I were invited to a black-tie
dinner. My roommate had grown up in New York City,
had gone to boarding schools, and had attended numerous
coming-out parties on Long Island, in Connecticut, and in
the city. When he saw me clipping on my black bow tie,
he grabbed it from my hand, threw it on the floor, and
jumped up and down on it until the clips were broken.
"Never," he cried, "wear a clip-on bow tie. Never admit
you even know anyone who does." My roommate was
sartorially intimidating. He wore straw boaters in the
spring. He wore white-linen suits to class. When he didn't
wear braces to hold up his pants, he pulled a silk tie
around his waist and knotted it like a belt, just like Fred
Astaire. Being a successful roommate is like being a
successful husband or wife: it's a careful dance. He didn't
want to teach me how to tie a bow tie. He wanted to tie it
for me, whenever I was forced into a formal situation. My
job was to get him through exams. His only advice for me
when we parted was "Remember, tying a bow tie is like
tying your shoes in the dark while drunk."
I actually learned to tie a bow tie from a friend of my
parents', a friend my father dismissed as someone who
"thinks he's Peter Pan." Mike, my parents' friend, lived in
New York. He had gone to Harvard, class of 1928, and
spent his working life in the retail business as an
executive, starting in handbags. My junior year in college
I used to escape from my family during vacations and stay
with Mike and his wife, who always welcomed young
people. Mike wrote poetry. He took Chinese-cooking
courses at a time when Chinese restaurants specialized in
egg foo young and brown sauces. He specially painted a
wall of his apartment on which he projected films of the
sea crashing against rocks, so that he could "hold nature to
my bosom." He owned a negative-ion machine, which he
would turn on when he retired for the night in a
pessimistic mood; it would pump out enough good
vibrations during his sleep to allow him to awake an
optimist. "A bow tie is like the ideal life," Mike told me.
"You have to play with it, tweak it, to get it right. Even
then, of course, it's always a bit askew. But it should be."
He stood next to me in front of his full-length closet
mirror and walked me through the steps: "Let the ends
hang down, left side longer than right. Left hand over
right hand, make a knot, form a bow with the front piece,
flip over the back half, search for the little hole . . . and
pull the end through. Now you fiddle and diddle and
decide who you are in the bow-tie spectrum."
"What do you mean?" I
asked Mike, as he undid
my tie and signaled me to
try it.
"Well," he said, "the little-polka-dot people are generally
lawyers, professors, or doctors. Stripes are what these
same lawyers, professors, or doctors wear on weekends--
more informal. A tie with a single stripe and little figures
like animals represents a club--golfing, social, or
professional--to which the wearer belongs. You will be
expected to know this and not to inquire as to what these
little figures mean."
I know that bow-tie people tend to appear cocksure of
themselves--people like Professor I. B. Cohen, of
Harvard; Archibald Cox, of the Watergate hearings; Louis
Farrakhan. They are also often short men, like Arthur
Schlesinger Jr. and Senator Paul Simon. Mike at the time
told me to be careful of short men who are cocksure of
themselves. Luckily, I suppose, they often wear bow ties--
the dead giveaway.
I practiced my tie-tying back in Boston, thrilled that I
could master the art without having to give extra points to
my old roommate.
One of my other roommates that junior year was James
MacArthur, Helen Hayes's son, a man who later played
the role of Dano on television's Hawaii Five-O. His
mother was about to open in a play on Broadway, Time
Remembered, by Jean Anouilh. Her co-stars were Susan
Strasberg, the daughter of the director Lee Strasberg, and
a young Welshman starting his American career, Richard
Burton. The play was having tryouts in Boston, and
MacArthur's roommates were invited to opening night and
to the cast party afterward, at the Ritz. I wore my club
bow tie, the kind you are not supposed to ask about. At
the cast party I haunted Susan Strasberg, knowing that she
had to fall for a Harvard junior with just the right hint of
insouciance at his neck. The more I chased her, the more
she chased Richard Burton, escaping me constantly by
jumping onto his lap and burying her head in his neck.
Burton was drunk, and talking about how he was
responsible for the discovery of Dylan Thomas. I kept
trying to butt in to their conversation. At one point
Strasberg excused herself to go to the ladies' room. Burton
looked at me as if I were an annoying undergraduate. He
pointed a finger at me--or, rather, at my bow tie. "Which
are you?" he said, in that incredible voice. "A waiter or a
clown?" I flushed my bow tie down the Ritz toilet system
and into Boston Harbor, and I heard Helen Hayes tell her
son, as I was leaving the party, "He seems like such a nice
young man . . . so neatly dressed."
Bow ties have been around for more than 300 years, their
origin traceable, as one story goes, to the court of Louis
XIV of France in the 1600s. The King noticed a company
of Croatian soldiers who wore white silk kerchiefs around
their necks. The King apparently loved the look, and
appeared at court shortly thereafter with the white kerchief
plus some lace and embroidery to heighten the effect,
along with a small bow in front to finish it off.
Originally the Croats had wrapped
their necks as a charm to guard the
area against sword swipes.
"Cravat" comes from the French
cravates, which referred to the
Croatian soldiers. Cravats had grown larger and more
elaborate by the eighteenth century. Necks were swathed
in material that came as high as, and even obscured, the
chin and part of the mouth. Stocks--starched-fabric
cylinders like neck braces--were fitted around the necks
of fashionable gentlemen of these times. These were
surrounded in turn by silk or linen cravats, held in place
by white or black bows. Like women's hemlines, the bows
went up and down according to current fashion, tied
sometimes near the chin, sometimes below the Adam's
apple. Abraham Lincoln wore black bow ties with his
collars turned down; English dandies wore smaller bow
ties with stiff winged collars pointed up. But bows really
flourished in the last decades of the nineteenth century.
Women in the shirtwaist period, early in this century,
wore smaller, neater bows, tied perfectly like shoelaces
with ends symmetrical. At various stages since the 1930s
bow ties have been so small that they seemed fashioned
for dolls or so outrageously large (during the 1960s) that
they seemed grotesque. Alan Flusser, an authority on
men's clothing, wrote in 1985, "The general rule of thumb
states that bow ties should never be broader than the
widest part of the neck and should never extend beyond
the outside of the points of the collar." These rules, like
those for almost everything else in life, were made to be
Charlie Davidson has been running the Andover Shop, in
Cambridge, Massachusetts, like a private club for more
than forty years. He taught me that buttons are not enough
on the cuffs of men's suit jackets: they must be
accompanied by proper buttonholes--buttonholes that
Charlie is famous for refusing to sell to people who
wander into his little shop and don't measure up under his
quick assessment of their taste. In the mid-1970s a
wealthy businessman came into the store. He had been
referred to Charlie. The man ordered three suits, custom
made. Charlie took the order and told the customer they
would be ready in "about a month." After five weeks the
customer, whose last name was Zachary, called to inquire
after his suits.
"Not quite yet," Charlie said.
Another two weeks went by, and Zachary was put off
again. Charlie had not made the suits. "He'll get the
message," Charlie told me. "I am not sure I like the cut of
his jib."
Four weeks more, and Zachary called, irate. "What the
hell do you do over there?" he asked. "Make the clothes
alphabetically?" After hearing this line, Charlie made the
suits. Zachary had passed the test.
Charlie, the arbiter of good taste for Harvard men over
many years, does not trust people who wear bow ties. He
says, "George Frazier, the writer who really popularized
the term 'duende' [extraordinary sense of style], never
wore a bow tie. He thought it was a contrived thing, that it
made you look like a dandy. Bobby Short, to whom I've
sold clothes for years, wears a bow tie only to work. Cary
Grant and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. never wore them, and
they were the best-dressed men of their era." I was
surprised that Charlie felt this way about bow ties, since
he was the one who told me over the years not only about
real buttonholes on jackets but also that a true gentleman
never wears cologne. He stubs out his cigarette with his
toe, not his heel. He has a Dopp kit made of silk, not
leather. He stirs his drinks with his finger. Hundreds of
Harvard men have taken these and other Charleyisms to
"Give me your rules for the bow tie," I asked.
"First of all," Charlie said, "when people ask me if I'm
married, I always say, 'Yes, but I'm not a fanatic about it.'
So here's Number One: Do not wear bows all the time.
Keep the viewer off balance. Wear them once in a while,
the way you might eat liver.
"Number Two: Never wear a bow tie to an interview or a
pitch for new business. People will concentrate on the tie
rather than on what you are saying.
"Number Three: In the men's-clothing business ten
percent of tie sales were in bows . . . forever. Today it's
fifteen percent or twenty percent, which is unprecedented.
This tells me that there is such ambiguity of roles today
that men are desperate to assert something.
"Number Four: You would be amazed at the practical
reasons people wear bows. Doctors have always worn
them, because patients can't reach up and yank on them
the way they could with the four-in-hands. Certain men
wear them in the summer because they eat more salads.
Dressing can splash on long ties.
"Number Five: Men who wear bow ties care more about
themselves than they do about you."
I continue to wear my bow ties, despite the facts that I'm
not short, I'm not a doctor, and I do care about other
people. I am an incurable romantic, however. I have run
with the bulls in Pamplona, and I make sure my bow ties,
in Italian silk, come from Carrot & Gibbs, in Boulder,
Colorado. Mike, my New York mentor, used to quote
from Conrad Aiken. "The lines always spoke to me of
bows," Mike told me, "so that's how I think of them." On
appropriate occasions I recite them as well:
Stars in the purple dusk above the rooftops
Pale in a saffron mist and seem to die,
And I myself on a swiftly tilting planet
Stand before a glass and tie my tie.
Copyright © 1995 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
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