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Necktie Day: From status symbol to fashion accessory

Silke Wünsch
October 18, 2023

A standard for managers and politicians, donning ties on special occasions reflects a wearer's good manners. But, when loosened or removed, it could reveal a different person.

Many colorful ties are hung side by side.
Ties for the pickingImage: Christoph Hardt/Geisler-Fotopress/picture alliance

More than 2,000 years ago, men already draped scarves or shawls around their necks.

One forerunner of the modern-day tie can be seen on the soldiers of the famous Terracotta Army in China. Many of the 8,000 clay warriors who guarded the tomb of the first Chinese emperor, Qin Shi Huang, draped dressy scarves around their necks.

The clay soliders of the Terracotta Army in Qin Shihuangdi's mausoleum, where neck scarves are clearly visible on some of the figures
Artfully tied scarves have adorned men's necks for more than 2,000 yearsImage: /Penghua/SIPA Asia/ZUMA Wire/dpa/picture alliance

Men's scarves were also trendy in Antiquity, for example among the Romans. Trajan's Column in Rome from 113 A.D. bears witness to this: On the 40-meter-high column, decorated with numerous reliefs, legionnaires can be seen wearing a knotted scarf around their necks.

During the Thirty Years' War (1618-1648), Croatian mercenaries wore scarves around their necks — which legend says, piqued the interest of the French king Louis XIV. He is said to have been so struck by the Croatian soldiers' silk scarves that he later introduced them into courtly fashion. They were tied to form an elaborate collar ornament, sometimes even decorated with lace.

The present French name for the necktie is said to have originated from that time. The knotted fabric was referred to as "a la cravate," which derived from "in the Croatian style."

Painting of French king Louis XIV sitting on an armchair in baroque dress, surrounded by other splendidly dressed men, some of them wearing neckerchiefs tied into bows
A far cry from the modern day tie: the collar ornament of Louis XIVImage: Jean-Claude Varga/akg-images/picture alliance

An air of authority

The necktie as we know it today first came into fashion in the 19th century. Initially worn as a short and wide length of fabric, it became longer and narrower over time.

Today, the tie is sometimes long and narrow, sometimes wider, sometimes shorter, colorfully patterned or plain — depending on taste or men's fashion trends.

Whether worn as a fashion accessory or as a status symbol, a tie gives its wearer an air of authority and maturity. In certain professions, it is often mandatory for men to wear a tie: as a manager, banker, newscaster, representative and politician.

It's hard to imagine, for example, customers sitting across a flip-flop-and-T-shirt wearing banker during a loan discussion.

Forgoing ties also has symbolic power

But the symbolic power of a tie does not necessarily end when it is loosened or taken off. For example, when former US President Barack Obama watched live in 2011 as a US special forces unit tracked down and shot the most wanted terrorist of the time, Osama bin Laden. The photo from the "Situation Room" went around the world.

Several people, including former US president Brack Obama, sit around a table and look spellbound in one direction.
The famous 'situation room' photoImage: Pete Souza/White House/AP/picture alliance

Seated amongst his staff, Obama, who is usually neatly dressed, was pictured in a polo shirt and a jacket raptly watching the events unfold on the screen. No presidential posturing: In this politically important moment, he is at eye level with the others, a team player.

Many male politicians like to take off their ties to be "one of us." This also inspires trust and makes people's representatives more approachable and human.

Snipping the tie off

In the mid-20th century, the tie became the symbol of the bourgeois establishment. It was predominant among the conservative middle class and bureaucrats, while men's fashion otherwise became more colorful and casual. Hippies were setting the trends, and the 1968 movement declared a war on the tie.

Several women surround a worried looking man and cut off his tie while laughing
Carnival kick-off: a good opportunity for men to get rid of ugly tiesImage: Hendrik Schmidt/dpa/picture-alliance

In Germany, women take the most radical action against the tie annually on Weiberfastnacht or Women's carnival night. Celebrated on the Thursday before Ash Wednesday, which marks the solemn period of Lent, women cut off men's ties, thus symbolically depriving them of their power.

This custom dates back to the time when women began to fight for their equal rights.

The hard-working washerwomen from the district of Beuel in the western German city of Bonn are said to have stormed Bonn's city hall for the first time in 1824 and cut off the ties of the — all-male — authorities. To this day, the storming of the town hall is a famous carnival custom and cutting ties is part of the tradition in the German cities where carnival is widely celebrated.

A sign of respect

Wearing a tie to weddings, funerals or job interviews is still a seen as a sign of good manners and respect today. If no other dress code is specified for a wedding, a man should wear a tie. The same applies to funerals. A neat appearance is also an advantage when applying for a job, and those who work in the financial sector should have an assortment of ties in their wardrobe anyway.

Image titled "Femme à la cravate rouge", a woman sitting on a bed and wearing a red tie
Painting by Edouard Vuillard (around 1899) titled 'Woman with red tie' shows that women too wore the accessory back in the dayImage: akg-images/picture alliance

While men are subject to the tie obligation in certain situations, women are completely exempt from it.

However, women also enjoy wearing ties. According to the fashion blog "krawatten-ties.com," ("Krawatte" is the German word for tie) women's ties are extremely coveted. They are narrow and short or even — as in the style of the 1970s — particularly wide and trimmed with colorful, usually floral patterns, are tied loosely and do not sit at the top of the collar.

Whether forced or not, the tie has long since become a fashion accessory. Although the most commonly worn tie color is dark blue — and you can't go wrong with that — those who want to make fashion statements choose bright colors and patterns, even animal motifs.

This article was originally written in German and was first published on October 18, 2022.