Bow Ties

Figure 1.--Bow ties were popular for younger American boys wearing short pants suits during the 1950s and 60s. This boy in a 1964 advertisement wears college-style cardigan, popular at the time. The sweater came in sizes 2-12.

The modern bow-tie appears to be a direct descendent of the basic 18th-century stock. The bow tie was not initially a style of neckwear specifically associated with boys. We note what look like bow ties in the mid-19th cntury. We are not sure what they were clled at the time. American boys in the 1940s-60s often wore bow ties when they dressed up. This was especially true of younger boys under 12 or 13 years of age. The reason for the popularity of the bow tie is probably the clip on versions which permitted the boy to wear one with out tieing a knot. Today boys are less likely to wear ties at all, especially bow ties.


The dictionary defines a bow as a "flexible loop or gathering of eibbon, paper, ect. used as a decoration. We are discussing bows used as a clothing garment, but of course bows have other uses such as on gift packages. What we do not entirely understand is how to classify the bowtie. Is it a type of bow or an ebtirely different decorative item. The definition of bowtie is, "a small necktie tied in a bow at the collar". The term necktie began to be used in the 1840s. We do not, however, begin to see modern-looking neckties until the late-19th century. So our question becomes whether or not to differentiate bows and bow ties. This is more difficult than it sounds. We see boys wearing bows/bowties as early as the 1860s. A good example is John Schwensusen. It is difficult to determine if he is wearing a bow or bowtie. Of course the different is usually relatibely easy. Bows were usually much larger than bows anf commonly tied with tails hanging down. But as can be observed with John there were small nows tied without tails than can be confused with bowties. We have generally refferred to bowties as the relative small bows that boys began to wear about the turn-of-the 20th century, but hopefully we can refine our definition. We would be delighted to hear from readers with expertise on this subject.

Modern Usage

Recently, bow ties have enjoyed a renaissance. Worn for formal wear with a pleated-front shirt, they are appropriate and elegant. Worn during the day, they will give a man a casual or professorial look. Bow ties should also avoid the extreme proportions. Tiny bows look just as silly and out of place as those huge butterflies that make men look as if their necks have been gift-wrapped. 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. Bow-ties are currently worn by a minority of men. Many American men would not wear them, claiming it makes one look like a "geek". One American historian, Arthur Schlesinger, who is norted for wearing a bow-tie, points out, "They are a great convemience. It is impossible to spill soup on a now tie. In fact it requires extreme agility to spill anything on it at all." Of course for a boy, this is an especially important advantage.


Modern neckwear appears to have evolved from the cravat, but the precise process is not fully understood. We note bowtie-like garments in the mod-19th century. They seem to be associated with stocks. Large floppy bows were of course especially popular for American boys in the late-19th century. Just how the bowtie is related to these forms of neckwear we are not sure. We see what look like bowties in the mid-19th century. A good example is American boy C.C. Ellis about 1870. These small bows were eclipsed by the huge floppy bows at the end ofthe 19th century. We notice bowties being worn in the early 20th century just as large floppy bows were going out of style. We are also not sure of the relationship between neckties and bow ties. They seem to have becone popular at about the same time. We do not know, however, if they evolved independently or id ome evolved out of the other. The bow-tie seems to be a direct descendent of the basic 18th-century stock. Stocks were made of washable fabrics and were wrapped many times around the neck and then tied in front. Eventually, this evolved into the single band around the neck, with the ends tied up in a bowlike configuration. The bow-tie like stock was especially popular in the 1850s through the 1870s. They were commonly worn by boys in the 1850s and 60s, but in the 1870s boys began to more commonly wear larger, flopier bows. A restyled bow tie reappeared at about the turn-of-the 20th century. They were worn by both men than boys. A HBC reader writes, "It only recently occured to me that the tradition of dressing small boys in bow ties derives from the huge floppy things of a century ago. It's funny how these things transmute over the decades. One of the benefits of reading HBC is that I now see these things." HBC does nit think this is the case. If it was than the bowtie would have mostly been worn by boys in the 1920s. The bowtie had a revival and was particularly popular for boys in the 1940s-60s when clip ons made them very convenient.


I do not yet have details on the historical styles of bow-ties. The modern bow-tie has ends that are shapped into bat wings (straight) or thistles (curved).


We note bowties done in various sizes and the popularity of the various sizes have changed over time. We note some quite small bowties in the early 20th century. A good example is the bowtie worn by an American boy, James Hoffman, about 1905. These small sizes disappeared after World War I (1914-18).


We see boys in many countries wearing bowties, but not very commonly. Our information is limited, but we think the bowtie was especially common in the United States. The photographic record shows that more American boys wore boy ties than boys in other countries. This was certainly true in the early 20th century. Bowties were not as common as neckties in America, but they were widely worn. This was not the case in other countries. After World War II we see more boys in other countries wearing them. Most of the images we have found of boys outside America wearing them come from the post-World War II era. We note a number of German boys in particular wearing bow ties. We see boys in other countries wearing then, but not as commonly. Here are archive is fairly limited so we can not make any valid assessment of bowtie popularity in many countries besides America at this time.


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Created: March 16, 1999
Last updated: 8:31 AM 1/3/2016