My mother died early this summer. And I found myself not wearing a tie for a dozen weeks.

Granted, it was a grueling summer, and who wants a swatch of silk tied tightly around the neck in this climate? But I had worn a tie for the previous 17 summers while working in the real estate business, quite comfortably. It has given me pause for thought.

Certainly, my abstinence this year was some sort of mourning. My mother loved to see me in a suit and tie. Cockney by birth, she always liked a well-dressed man.

However, I digress. Wearing a tie is slipping out of fashion, even in the worlds of business, finance and law. But, guys, (and I am addressing just the gents here), as swell as you look with an open collar, you look even better wearing a tie.

But not just any tie. There is no such thing as a good cheap tie. On the other hand, high price is no indication of fine quality. Branding has distorted any sense of value for money in today’s menswear.

The Basics

Let’s forego the temptation to cover the history of the necktie, bowties and eccentric tie designs or exotic knots. Let’s err on the side of conservatism, as one should with ties.

The basics include construction, color and pattern, texture and knotting. Above all, one is concerned with effect. Let’s start there.

When a man walks into a room, whether for a quiet kitchen dinner with close friends or a busy cocktail party that seems like an extension of the workday with finger-foods and alcohol added, you don’t want anyone telling you what an amazing tie you are wearing. Just as a woman does not want to be complimented for her dress, jewelry or coiffure, a man should merely receive appreciative looks.

It’s quite easy, really. Suppress the effort to impress, and combine with simple taste, to produce the best effect. Don’t wear a tie to express your interesting and colorful personality. Let your personality itself do the work.

Construction

Most ties are made from three or four pieces of material sewn together. Typically a silk shell will be wrapped around a lining and sewn together with a loose stitch. An expensive old-school alternative is the seven-fold construction, which is made from one piece of silk folded in a specific design and requiring no lining. Expect to pay up to $500 for the seven-fold.

Additional details for a well-made tie can include the following:

Slip Knot

This is the end of the stitch that holds the tie together and is sometimes visible at the small end of the tie. It is designed to have plenty of give in it to allow the tie to return to the correct shape after the punishment of knotting and un-knotting.

Bar Tack

The other end of the slip stitch, where the stitch is anchored by repeated looping stitches.

Keeper Loop

Some wearers like to tuck the thin end of the tie through this so that there is less flapping around.

Tipping

There are three varieties: Untipped, which means there is no extra material covering the reverse side of the shell material at the tip of the blade; self-tipped, meaning that the same material as the shell is attached to cover the visible reverse side; and custom tipped, which uses a different fabric to cover the tip.

tiediagram
Click images for source

Color and Pattern

Pattern and color are provided either by weave or by print.

8693_84_197-gray-flannel-suit-and-tiesThe classic woven fabric for ties is called Macclesfield, named after a town in northwest England where exiled French Huguenot weavers brought their skills in the 18th century. Macclesfield silk fabric is characterized by small weaves of geometric patterns. The effect was the look of the sophisticated well-dressed man of the first half of the 20th century. Think Gary Cooper.

Printed silk ties came into their own in the 1920s and since then have become the most common type. They are less expensive to produce than woven designs and the possibilities are almost endless, with the result that the endless possibilities stray into the territory of bad taste and modishness.

The most famous and ubiquitous producer of printed ties in the American market is Hermès. Some men with 50 or more Hermès ties are satisfied that they possess an excellent wardrobe. That conceit has been an excellent business model for the French company, but there is more to being well-dressed than having a dazzling collection of printed ties.

Design

There are four main design types, each with a corresponding level of formality: club, striped, geometric and solid. In order of formality:

Club

The least formal design includes insignia from a sporting or social club or, more broadly, includes the wearer’s interest or hobby. Feel free to go crazy here. You will inevitably be judged by some people. The only no-no is to wear the official club tie of an organization to which you do not belong. Especially in England.

club
Tie from New & Lingwood

Striped

These used to be predominantly regimental or school ties. The same rules regarding non-membership protocol apply. We will dispense here with some interesting nuances about the direction of diagonal stripes. Following World War II, Italian designers stirred the pot by producing stripes in all directions, including horizontal. Typically, American ties have diagonal stripes rising to the right shoulder, whereas the English style rises to the left shoulder. The latter is more complementary when wearing a pocket square. Striped ties are helpful if you have a wide or fleshy face.

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Tie from Sam Hober

Geometric

Like the Macclesfield, a tight geometric design produces a more formal effect. But color and texture provide an important variable. Generally, the darker the color and the smoother the texture, the more formal the tie.

Solid

My personal favorite. I have gone for entire years wearing only dark, solid grenadine silk and satin ties. Boring? Yes, I can be. But I believe that there is great effect in being undemonstrative. The grenadines, because of the way light plays on the texture, have an informal touch. Solid satin is the most formal. Avoid solid black ties with a black suit, unless for evening wear. Come to think of it, avoid black suits altogether, unless professionally required. Looks good at a distance, but cheap close-up.

solid
Tie from Drake’s

Knots

It is a favorite pastime of sartorial scolds to point out that the Windsor knot was not actually used by the Duke of Windsor, so I tread carefully here. It is a stiff and symmetrical way of knotting a tie, but clearly still prevalent; and one has to wonder if the practice continues only because of received wisdom. Windsor achieved the large knot effect by custom ordering his ties and linings to be especially thick around the area of the knot.

windsor
Duke of Windsor. Photo courtesy of Hawes and Curtis

With the four-in-hand knot ‒ that’s the normal flip it around the side and once over the top method ‒ the tie will have a drape. It’s not supposed to be straight and regular. A curve and some irregularity is very desirable, if it is not exaggerated ‒ nothing recherché, s’il vous plaît. The desired look is nonchalant decorum.

Why wear a tie?

And that brings me back to my mother. I believe she liked to see a man in a tie because it is the last purely ceremonial item in a modern man’s wardrobe. She had seen fewer men wearing ties in her final years and delighted in seeing me do so in her presence. My abstinence in mourning her was subconscious at the time. But I recognize it now and am back in form again, keeping up appearances.

Sources for Purchase

If you can’t visit Drake’s in London, there is a wonderful selection of their ties at Hamilton Shirts in Houston. With so many other retail stores the selections have become disappointing with the expectation being that men prefer shopping online. During a recent visit to Barneys in New York it felt like wartime rationing was in effect. The aisles and the shelves seemed deserted.

I have had great success with Sam Hober. Based in Thailand and using European materials. David Hober is very helpful with clients ordering made-to-measure, custom neckwear. The quality of materials and work is excellent, and delivery expeditious. Thank you, David.