There's no reason to fear the bow tie

Robert Houk • Nov 10, 2019 at 12:00 AM

It’s been a while since I have worn a bow tie. I fear I may have forgotten how to tie one.

I still have a few bow ties dangling from a hanger in the back of my closest. They are holdovers from my younger and more dapper days.

There is just something about a bow tie that screams enthusiasm. Unfortunately, it is an optimism that is often limited to the person wearing one.

The bow tie is the most misunderstood and maligned of mens neckwear. It is sometimes ridiculed as pretentious. Other times, it is belittled as lacking function.

Personally, I find bowties and those who wear them to be very open and gracious. You’d never accuse Barney Fife, who always wore one with his classic salt and-pepper suit, of being a snob.

Sadly, I suspect Barney’s bow tie was a cheater, which is a cardinal sin in the bow tie nation. Thou shalt not wear a clip-on is one of the Ten Commandments of the International Bow Tie Society, an organization founded by Chuck Blackburn, the husband of U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn. R-Tenn.

I think some of the resentment towards the bow tie is rooted in jealousy. Its most ardent critics are usually those who never learned how to tie one. They are happy in their four-in-hand world and scoff at what they see as the folly of anything less than a half windsor.

I learned how to tie a bow tie back in the mid 1980s from Hugh Slagle, who owned a vintage clothing store on Elk Avenue in Elizabethton. He taught me the art and sold me a couple of bat-wing bow ties. They were dreadful and wildly out of style, but they were sure fun to wear.

I remember seeing Johnson City’s attorney James Epps III stroll into City Commission meetings dressed in his bow tie and seersucker suit and thinking, “That dude must know what he’s doing.” Epps told me that his father advised him “to never wear a cheater,” and to be careful not to tie a bow tie too perfect because people might think it is a clip-on.

That’s another commandment from the International Bow Tie Society: “Thou shalt NOT wear bow ties so neat and symmetrical as to appear pre-tied.”

Getting back to the irrational hatred of bow ties,  wearing them is often linked to a “frat-boy mentality.” It’s true that some fraternity brothers wear them, but so do university presidents. East Tennessee State University President Brian Noland is certainly fond of them.

Politicians have had a love-hate relationship with the bow tie. Image makers often advise candidates to steer clear of bow ties least they conjure up Hollywood images of entrenched power and deals struck in smoke-filled rooms.

In today’s casual society, there’s fewer men who wear any type of neckwear to work on a regular basis. Those who do, are viewed by some with a degree of suspicion.  

Nonetheless, the always affable Joe Alexander, who owns Alexander Insurance in Elizabethton, wears his bow ties to show his professionalism and to put clients at ease. People he deals with have become accustomed to his colorful bow ties, and are alarmed when they see him in public without one around his neck.

“Folks get a kick out of seeing them,” Alexander told me. He also gets a hoot out of wearing them, along with the flamboyant socks his wife selects to go with his bow ties.

Don’t get me started on argyle socks. That’s a column for another day.

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