As a preppy product of the South and a gentleman with a sartorial sense of adventure, I have accumulated a healthy arsenal of bow ties over the years. And as someone who appreciates a challenge, I’m not afraid to wear them. Sometimes an event calls for something extra in your wardrobe to set you apart. Whether it’s a formal meeting amongst colleagues or a potential paramour’s birthday celebration, a bow tie is the ultimate rejoinder to the regular tie, that tired workhorse of the neck, which even in its most stylish form lacks a certain panache. Plus, as the ever-quotable Dr. Seuss once said, “You can’t dribble on bow ties.”
Growing up under the aesthetic influence of my uncle, a fashion-forward former male model, I was exposed at an early age to what Project Runway’s Tim Gunn refers to as “the semiotics of clothes, how the clothes we wear send a message about who we are and how the world perceives us.” Historically, the bow tie — especially when worn by a straight white male — denotes a notion of privilege. For instance, I was walking once in downtown L.A., sporting a bow tie, when a stranger yelled, “Hey, asshole!”
I had the privilege of knowing he was referring to me.
During the 20th century, the bow tie was in decline. A former mainstay of all classes of society, from the genteel on the East Coast to the outlaw of the Wild West, it now carried a purely negative, pretentious vibe, often associated with the highest economic strata: the extremely wealthy in board rooms, the snobby upper crust at the country club or the wily Southern huckster. In short, the whole Republican thing.
But is this perception true, or fake news? If you check the receipts, the last high-profile politician who rocked the bow tie was 1988 presidential candidate Paul Simon (not that Paul Simon), a Democrat who was an ardent supporter of civil rights and voted against the homophobic Defense of Marriage Act — doesn’t quite fit the stereotype. And the situation becomes murkier still when you consider that the Nation of Islam requires its 20,000–50,000 members to wear bow ties, the reason being that “regular ties were used in the South to hang and strangle black men.”
Obviously, discerning the bow tie’s exact role throughout history is almost as complicated as it is tying one in the present. But the bottom line here is that wearing a bow tie sends a message. Namely, one that says, “Hello, world! Look what I can do!” (And let me be clear, this message isn’t conveyed by the pre-tied bow tie — as fashionable as some may be — or the dreadful clip-on. Those varieties carry a very different connotation indeed, one of reaching, deceit, and, dare I say it, cowardice.)
Recently, however, my understanding of the proper bow tie’s message evolved drastically. At one such event I deemed worthy of wearing a bow, an incredulous woman approached me. She was in disbelief that I actually knew how to properly tie a bow tie. Who hurt you? I thought to myself, while assuring her I knew what I was doing. Nevertheless, she persisted. So I undid my tie, and without even the aid of a mirror, deftly reassembled it. Appropriately impressed, she took me home that evening, and the next morning I showed her once again — for good measure. I realized then that the bow tie is a type of sexual semaphore, communicating to the world proficiency, daring and an eccentricity unseen in most men.
While perhaps a radical thought when it comes to men’s fashion, this phenomenon has long been evident among the fairer sex. I’m referring, of course, to the classic choker necklace. Whether it’s Victorian, goth, bejeweled or cloth, the implicit message of a choker is one of submission. This stems from the accessory’s role in the BDSM community, in which it’s commonly referred to as not a choker, but a collar. The collar began as a tell within the sexual subgroup as a sign that someone is submissive, usually adorned with modifications like metal rings to allow for the attachment of a leash, encouraging the dominant party to walk around the submissive like a dog.
Obviously, though, just as the bow tie’s role has changed throughout time, the collar’s significance and origin has been obscured as well. For instance, nowadays, the choker is associated less so with the Marquis de Sade than it is with Claire’s.
I recall a female friend wearing a choker for the first time at a party and remarking to me that she had “never felt more sexual.” Another friend has openly referred to her choker as her “choke me, Daddy.” Clearly, even though the mission statement of the choker has been lost, the sexual ramifications linger ever so tightly around the necks of its devotees.
I concede that probability dictates there are some naifs out there who truly just want to wear a cute little throwback accessory without any primal ramifications. All that can be said is bless their little hearts. If only we had someone like Clueless’s Cher to inform them of what they’re unknowingly insinuating. Until then, they may come under unwanted fire and attention from the opposite sex. Just as the general public misinterprets the bow tie, men have latched on to the choker as a catchall signal that a woman is a secret freak.
While the choker’s sexual implication is so obvious that it resides in the name itself, a bow tie’s message is somewhat more complex. Just like a note passed in junior high that was folded over and over and over again to hide its meaning from anyone other than for whom it was intended, the bow tie is folded, twisted, looped, swooped, stuffed through, pulled taut and painstakingly aligned. Why all the dance steps? To broadcast the fact that pulling this off ain’t easy. It takes effort, skill and patience — but the payoff is huge. If I can make this happen, just imagine what I can make happen to you. And you know, I don’t mind taking the time to do it right.
Wearing a bow tie also symbolizes a radical act of one’s attire. It doesn’t belong. Only an asshole would go through the trouble. Are people going to think you’re the valet? No such concerns apply if you carry yourself with confidence and poise. Yes, I know I’ve gone out on a limb here. But why don’t you come out here with me? It’s fun. And sexually speaking, do you think the guy with the boring old rep tie is gonna eat your ass? He’ll give ya the ol’ missionary style and call it a day.
And it isn’t as if the bow tie has gone the way of the dodo. There are several notable examples of it being spotted in the wild. Conservative pundit Tucker Carlson comes to mind. Sans bow tie, Tucker has the face of any number of frat boys who barely graduated and now work in real estate. But with a bow tie? That’s the face of a man who only hate-fucks. And what about Bill Nye, the new Carl Sagan? He’s rarely seen without a bow tie. It’s a fair bet the Science Guy is going to have a firm grasp on his anatomy — not to mention yours.
A final reliable venue for the bow tie is around the muscular neck of the professional athlete. Notable examples include Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman and Cleveland Cavaliers superstar Dwyane Wade. Wade has actually joined forces with the fashion line The Tie Bar, which boasts 29 silk bow ties under his name. The sexual allure of the millionaire jock goes without saying. Look at what he can do on the playing field. What moves do you think he’ll have in the bedroom?
Of course, we can test our hypothesis in the real world to see just how strong a sexual message the bow tie sends. Next time you wear a choker or bow tie, don’t be afraid to look for your missing piece. No one has more in common in a room full of people than the two souls brave enough to communicate their desires and passion through the very clothes they wear. When figuring out what to put on before going out, the weak throw up their arms and throw on a hoodie, but the strong persevere and reap their rewards.
The final line of morse code in the bow tie’s SOS comes, fittingly, at the end of the night. After all that work to tie it just so, the physical activity of moving around the room and keeping pace with all the lively conversation takes its toll. Somehow, it seems, the bow tie only gets tighter as the event progresses. But you are patient. And you know that, when the time is right, you will finally have that sweet, sweet release. After the last song has played and the last martini (gin, of course) has been consumed, your time will come. You will undo your tie and let it hang down. You will unbutton your collar and breathe in the freedom you’ve waited for. The freedom you’ve earned.
And even this move sends a strong message: Now, after all that, it’s time to be informal.