I’m not one for hard and fast rules of dress etiquette, but then again I never thought “bow tie with polo and sportcoat” would happen. Via Pete Schroeder. We’ll have to assume this was an emergency, only-tie-available-in-a-pinch situation.
Bow ties and the V-area
My opinion on bow ties tends to go back and forth. Obviously, I prefer them for black tie. This leads me to think maybe I should buy a few to try with other more casual ensembles. But then I remember how frustrated I get when tying one and my preference toward neckties stands.
Regardless of whether I’ll eventually branch away from my comfort zone, I do think there are instances when a bow tie looks better on a man wearing a suit or jacket than others.
Unlike neckties, bow ties don’t venture vertically down the torso into the V-area created by the jacket’s lapels and the shirt underneath. Instead, they stay toward the top on the collar and push the attention toward one’s face, which is fine but also can create a problem.
If your jacket (typically a two-button, single-breasted) is cut in a way that has a very deep V-area, this can leave a huge expanse of fabric that’s not broken up down to the buttoning point. Combined with a bow tie, this can look awkward.
The solution is to wear the bow tie with outfits that expose less of the shirt to begin with. You can take the approach of Joseph Cotten above and wear a waistcoat, which makes three-piece suits ideal. Some double-breasted suits would also work as many of them have shallower V-areas.
Another option would be to layer a sweater, such as a cardigan or a deep V-neck under the jacket. I’ve also seen some three-button jackets with the lapels rolling on the second button that’s helped this problem, too.
Q and Answer: How Formal Are Bow Ties?
Ken asks: Is a bow tie more, less, or equally as formal as a long tie, or does formality depend on pattern/texture etc? What about a diamond tip bow tie v. a traditional bow tie?
Bow ties aren’t really more or less formal than long ties. They’re different.
The most formal occasions call for bow ties. For black tie or white tie events, the black or white tie in question should always be a bow. These ties, of course, are very specific - either satin or grosgrain, in solid black or white.
Because of this association with evening and dinner clothes, any color bow tie is particularly at home after dark. It’s a little more fun than the long tie, and so it travels well to parties, openings and the like.
During the day, though, I’d describe it as a more casual choice. It’s certainly more eccentric. You can wear a bow tie in a business context, but only in a business context where it’s appropriate to stand out. Because stand out you will, even at a meeting of Republican thinktank employees or popcorn magnates.
One aside: when wearing a bow tie, remember that it will leave much more shirt visible on your chest. For this reason, the bow looks best with a three-button coat, or a waistcoat. Without that higher V, the expanse of shirt will make the outfit look unbalanced.
Q and Answer: Can I Wear a Tie and a Button-Down Collar?
Matthew asks: I’ll often wear a knit tie with a button-down collar. I figure, a casual tie for a casual shirt. But I can’t find much of a consensus on wearing other ties with one. What are your thoughts on the particulars of ties with button-down shirts?
Here’s the short answer: yes, you can wear a tie with a button-down collar.
The longer answer, as it always does, has a bit more complication.
The button-down collar is a particularly American style. The oxford-cloth button-down is so beloved that in menswear circles it’s become known simply as the OCBD. The collar, originally invented for sport, has become the definitive shirt style for both casual and more formal dress in the United States. Just because it’s a genuine icon, though, doesn’t make it appropriate for every situation.
There is, of course, a heirarchy of formality in shirts. Speaking generally, double cuffs are more formal than single cuffs. Collars grow more formal as their spread widens. Fabrics with harder finishes are more formal than those with softer finishes. Button-down oxfords are the most informal of all. Still, we live in an era where half of the covers of GQ magazine feature men wearing skinny ties with plaid sport shirts, so there’s still plenty of room for the tie-and-button-down combination.
If you live outside the United States, wearing a tie with a button-down collar may be affectedly American, or even inappropriate. I certainly wouldn’t do it if I worked at a London financial services company, for example. Of course, I wouldn’t likely wear a button-down collar much if I lived outside the United States, so it simply wouldn’t come up.
Inside the United States, I think your instincts are absolutely correct. I tend to wear a button-down casually. They pair well with sportcoats, especially casual, texture-y ones, and they look great with knit ties and bows. In fact, I generally prefer button-down collars with both of those tie styles.
The more American your aesthetic, the further you can push this - if you buy all your clothes at J. Press and wear nothing but sack suits, like George H.W. Bush, you can wear a button-down in almost any situation. If you’re of the Anglophilic persuasion, or tend to wear Italian styles, they’re not particularly suitable, even with a blazer or loud checked coat.
If you want to wear a button-down collar with a suit, you’re entering dangerous territory. Above is a famous photograph of Cary Grant in a button-down and suit. It’s a picture that often comes up when people argue about the subject of whether the two are an acceptable pairing. Cary Grant looks great, so as a general rule, I’d say that if you’re Cary Grant, you can wear a button-down with a suit. I’ll also make an exception for the kind of dyed-in-the-wool trads who have sworn a blood oath against suit darts and dress every day like they were going to a meeting at the Dean’s Office at Harvard in 1964. And heck, while I’m at it, I’ll make an exception for the most casual of suits - corduroy.
For all us normals, though, it’s almost never a good move. The best case scenario is that you’ll make it to the level of the inoffensive dress of an insurance conference attendee from Dubuque. The worst case scenario is that you’ll fall short, and end up at the offensive dress of an insurance conference attendee from Dubuque. It’s really not worth the risk.
Los Angeles Dodgers star Matt Kemp, proving that the secret to pulling off an oversized purple velvet tie is having just signed a contract for $160 million.
(Thanks all who sent this.)
One of the many nice folks we met at our meetup last week was Keith Paugh from the very small local clothing purveyor Launderette. He told me about a how-to-tie-a-bowtie video they were about to release, and voila! Here it is. In the style of the French New Wave. Enjoy!
Who’s got 1 thumb and isn’t great at tying bow-ties?
"My bowtie swagger is more along the lines of ‘Cordovan on my feet / Brooks Bros on my back." - Krister