A Nation’s Standards-Part 1
`Would you tell me,’ said Alice, a little timidly, `why you are painting those roses?’
Five and Seven said nothing, but looked at Two. Two began in a low voice, `Why the fact is, you see, Miss, this here ought to have been a RED rose-tree, and we put a white one in by mistake; and if the Queen was to find it out, we should all have our heads cut off, you know.
And England has always had a love affair with roses. They had the Wars of the Roses1 with white and red roses used as heraldic badges to distinguish political factions. Roses figured prominently on the long banners used during the period and became the symbol of the Tudor dynasty that prevailed at the end of this conflict. And like the deepest fear of the cards Alice meets in the flower garden, a lot of the nobility were beheaded for choosing the wrong colored rose2.
During the Wars of the Roses, heraldry and livery3 reached their zenith with the English grandees spending unimaginable fortunes to outfit their retinues in the colors and symbols which echoed their crests. The point is that the English believe in symbols and their whole culture has carefully cataloged their rules and meanings. When men stopped wearing identifying badges directly on their outer garments or carrying shields, it was natural that the necktie would devolve into a form of personal crest.
Without getting into the evolution of the necktie, suffice to say they were almost universally solid bits of silk with a functional use to protect the shirt and hold the collar in place. I suppose after a while, someone, somewhere4 became bored with the universality of solids and the small pattern was born. It probably should have stopped there but the fact is once that cat was let out of the bag, it was impossible to stop the proliferation of patterns that eventually produced the harlequin prints of the 1920s and 30s5.
The necktie itself only achieved its current four-in-hand shape around the same time that patterns began to appear. In the twentieth century, English heraldry entered a new more bureaucratic age and personal crests gave way to those of military units, schools and political organizations. Even if they secretly desired them, men did not need special and unique ties because it mattered more to be recognized as a member of a powerful group or to express exalted indifference to the same. The age of the peer stamping his own badge on everything was at a temporary end and now it was all about the regiment, the school, the profession or geometric nothingness6.
But irrespective of the purpose of the necktie, whether to complete the outfit of jacket and shirt, a signaler to an observer or even to reign in a man’s behavior, it has to be made of some material and silk with a wool lining has been the most enduring choice for English men. They prefer a heavy, solid woven silk which yields a chunky sensation when handled. This is appropriate really because the English engage in what I call Chunk dressing. What does that mean? Good question and since it is based on my observations and interpretations I suppose I had better tell you.
Chunk dressing is an approach. Items are simple in both color and color combinations, patterns can be quite bold and contrast is apparent. Additionally, items of the same scale of pattern and groups of color are lumped together irrespective of “clashing.” It works well under certain guidelines because the colors are all of a sort. City colors go with city colors and country ones with country ones.
These spotted ties all illustrate both the simple primary color rule and the chunky, rich silks the English prefer for their neckties.
The fact that colors tend to be simple and primary means that there will be a certain harmony to the cacophony of pattern and color…if you see what I mean. Bear in mind that chunk dressing allows a certain weight and quality to become the standard. Interesting factors such as the mildness of the English climate allow for a uniformity of texture and depth throughout the outfit, throughout the year. It would be hard to imagine a Manhattan-ite going to work in 100 degree August weather with a heavy woven tie around his neck.
Another example of simple, primary color combinations.
This uniformity of tie thickness (both silk and lining), tying its thicker knot translates into other uniformities in the English outfit such as a single reigning shirt collar style or at least a relatively minute degree of variance within the world of the spread collar.
It would be hard to wear a straight or forward shirt collar with the chunky ties most Englishmen own. Although straight collars are actually quite common in England and though predictably crowded by the fuller tie knots, it does not look THAT wrong.
The English do not like having to deal with what tie goes with what shirt collar. And the basic outfit uniformity expands like a mushroom cloud until the basics of cut, color and quality are all similar enough that distinguishing elements lie in how you wear something, not within what exciting choice you’ve made. That’s why we as Americans see only a color or a pattern while the English see a specific knot for a tie, the bend in a collar, the way a shirt cuff has been pressed. Sherlock Holmes’ solving mysteries through use of deductive reasoning via observation is more than a good story; it’s the way the English mind works.
Frequently you will see that neckties and shirts are very straightforward. The colors and patterns used rarely have a Byzantine intricacy that can be found in other cultures’ patterns. Colors are simple and pure rather like the basic set of Crayola crayons. Suits are dark, shirts are light and ties are dark (but rarely as dark as the suit, oh la la!). To be sure the whole English ensemble works well if kept within its confines and explains the limitless variations on the same theme. It’s important to understand the ties that bind the English. While it might seem that anything goes, this is not the case and even neckties worn for a flight of fancy are actually chosen for subliminal cultural reasons. It would seem that with regard to necktie selection, the English are much more repressed than some other jacket and tie wearing cultures.
The English consider the Shirt to be the important thing, even if it’s quite bold and the tie is the equivalent of a napkin. In the States, we consider the shirt akin to the palette where we showcase the all-important necktie. However little an American may know about clothes, he will wax nostalgic about his choice of neckwear. In England, shirts are trusted friends and certain colors and patterns that we would consider dizzying serve as British classics.
But why are there so very many English shirt classics and why are a large proportion of them so bold and open to minute reinterpretation along the same theme? The City of London is a single square mile of financial services territory which supports some 400,000 commuters every overcast day. Many of them will qualify as the City lads who favor brash shirts, something no doubt to admire on themselves and each other while they spend most of their day on the phone or watching the ticker. The point is, you can often look at your own shirt, but once it is around your neck, it is harder to visually enjoy your tie. The deeper point is that with so many shirt and tie wearing Englishmen concentrated in a small arena, one needs an awful lot of classic shirts to be in step with tradition and still look a bit different from your neighbor.
We are speaking of trends here. There will be things that appeal to everyone and those that are not worn but are unobjectionable to anyone. However, at the ends of this scale there will be those who will wear only the most restrained of things and those who will dress flamboyantly or with more panache. There are shirt and tie items the general office worker would never touch but will still either admire or sneer at as fundamentally an English choice as opposed to that of an outsider.
But what of the ties? If the controlling word for a film and its cult following which resonates still through the decades can be summarized as “Plastics”, then too can the defining word for the choice of English neckties monolithically define itself as “Geometrics”.
And there are three genres of ties, the very staid old Tory tie which is the bulk of the Drakes7 style prints and wovens, the Turnbull and Asser-esque tradition which has been taken up by TM Lewin, Harvie and Hudson and dozens of other merchants and makers, which features large two- or three-color geometrics, with the spot tie being the most popular, almost always on a dark blue or red or scarlet background with a contrasting spot. Finally there are the very bold ties of a Duchamp, which combine dandyism with abstract art.
Color and Tone
Americans- at least those among whom I spend most of my time- tend to be as conservative in their clothes as Londoners. There are, it is true, certain subtle distinctions between the two. A friend of mine from the eastern seaboard, a tall upstanding gentleman whom I have always regarded as more British than the British both in his apparel and in his accent, was in a London club one day, waiting for a member who had invited him to lunch. As he stood at the bar he overheard three young men speculating as to whether he was an American or an Englishman. He could not resist approaching them with the question, “Which do you really think I am?”
Two of them replied that they thought he was British. But the third dubbed him an American. Asked how he had come to this conclusion, he said, “Because of your tie.”8
“You have ruined my life!” my friend exclaimed. He had thought this tie of his to be of the discreetest and most British design. Now, whenever he goes to London, he finds himself looking curiously at every man’s tie before he looks at his face, trying in bewilderment [to figure out] just how he went wrong.
However formally they may be dressed, Americans do tend to wear brighter ties than the British do. They also wear, rather more often, their own version of the Old School and club ties.
… excerpt from Windsor Revisited by HRH The Duke of Windsor.
The one starting rule is that for work, the English, at least when in England, like dark ties. Medium blues and bright reds are acceptable, but generally dark ties are preferred. This is interesting if only because one would think a tie is a way to introduce some glint and relief to the dark suit and dry shirt. However, that is an Americanism. The English introduce light and color through their shirts.
And speaking of color, one must choose dark blue ties that are not too dark, lest they match your navy suit too closely. To be clear, “dark” does not mean an absence of brightness or vibrancy, although it often does. The English have no reservations about rich, deep color in their tie, and colors are often both purer and contain various shades of the same color to give warmth to the visual effect. For example, consider 4 different shades of blue, all pure in their own right, woven into a tie to keep the overall effect a true blue from a distance, but closer inspection reveals the gradients of the same color.
In England, contrast is king, ties should be darker than shirts and their background color should never match that of the suit.
But if the English like dark ties, why then do they often wear pale ones? It might be closer to the cultural truth to say that they are expected to wear dark ties rather than that they like dark ties. As such, the Englishman, by wearing a lighter, brighter tie, is in a perpetual state of naughtiness; a form of sartorial derring-do. Not only does it help brighten up the frequently overcast weather, but also serves as a way to bend the rules without breaking them and so fulfills an English penchant for sartorial deviance.
As mentioned, the English will wear bright ties as long as the color is true and pure and not washed out. Occasionally a bright pink or orange will light up an otherwise sullen worsted navy suit, but the color resolution must be strong. Black ties and black background ties cannot be given away. Although, having said this, black ties are beginning to make headway with younger dressers. For the moment, if you had to buy ties for a shop catering to English customers, you would do well to avoid black.
Think of the large number of exceptions in this way. If you are American and I were to state that most American men wear a white or light blue solid shirt for work, your mind might instantly attach to the large number of examples on a given day where this is not true, ignoring the even larger pool of men who are indeed wearing white or blue solid shirts. The exceptions do not disprove the rule.
Bright ties are not a problem for the English. Notice that these ties, even when they appear busy, are all very simple.
In the USA, bright or light ties are common but there is a dislike of dark ties as overly mature and serious. Thus, an American who sees a Brit wearing a light tie registers it as normal and does not detect the flamboyant bravado the Brit believes he is displaying to the world. The message is lost on us, and lost more deeply because so many Brits wanting to be dashing wear the brighter tie. But in the overall context of English culture, it would be viewed as a renegade look.
Unless it is in a regimental or club pattern, black is out. Dark grey, dark red, dark blue (but of course not the darkest blues because that would make it all too easy to sum up), dark purple (although not too dark lest you give the impression of “assuming the purple”), dark green (not a forest green but a rich dark emerald) with the operating term being dark. Why not lighter ties? It seems there is a real anxiety over being mistaken for an ice cream salesman. The vast majority of lighter ties the English make are sold overseas.
In fact the number one seller in England is blue of one shade or another from medium to the lighter shades of navy, followed by dark red. So forget about all those shades of yellow, pink, bathtub green, lilac, sky blue, cream etc. you see with English labels on them. Those are all made for export.
Patterns and textures
Woven ties are preferred in England. In the USA, prints are also somewhat popular. Our brutal summers give rise to the demand for something lighter and more carefree wound around the perspiring necks of our miserable office denizens. A printed tie is more in keeping with the spirit of the heat wave. This is one reason we like lighter colors for ties that the English will gladly export but wouldn’t acquiesce to wear even at gun point.
Although the English will wear printed ties, they prefer ones in heavier weights or with thicker linings than are normal in the USA. They also like a very bright red background in prints. I have seen the English wearing all sorts of ties, and they are far from infallible in their tastes. They wear ties of every color, weight, weave, pattern; they even wear ties that match the color of their shirt, which cuts against the grain of their usual principles of contrast between shirt and suit, and shirt and tie. Of course, this discussion is pertinent to trends and traditions, not what each and every Englishman wears.
When the English do wear printed ties, they prefer heavier weight silks with texture.
Solids you should think would be the off-the-rack choice for a mindset that reaches for heavily patterned shirts, but that would be far too easy. The English do wear solids but generally consider them uninteresting.9 Solids themselves need to have some texture like an ottoman or panama weave or even grenadines. For solids, the English require an interesting look, which is why the satin finish (and the Mogador) is making headway. Satin finish ties, when nice enough quality densely woven from expensively dyed silk and, ironically, somewhat matte finished, combine surface interest with intensity of color. The sort of solid tie American men like, the basic flat looking solid, is avoided in England.
Popular are the Sheppard’s check or hound’s-tooth ties in a variety of scales from tiny to the size of a nickel, either in the self color (making an interestingly textured solid) or in a contrasting color, silver and navy, purple and black (or is it navy?) etc…
The English see details. It is likely that Beau Brummel’s focus on details as the mark of quality in otherwise plain clothes was nearly as compressing as the force required to turn coal into a diamond, then you start to understand how small variations on the same theme impress the English.
Here is an English “curveball” to consider. To my eyes, if something looks handsome, it is acceptable. Generally it will also be admired as handsome by my fellow Americans and accepted as such. To the English, something that looks handsome can still be culturally awful, and it might be admired but you will be an outcast. For instance and although you can learn to mimic the English approach to shirt and tie, when it comes to socks and pocket squares you tread on perilously thin ice. Not only in the choice of material and color(s) used but in the way it is plopped in the pocket or slid up the calf. I daresay an entire book could be written on the subject of when it is acceptable to wear a pocket square and the images you conjure in the English observer’s mind. Some apparently dreary choices can sound you out as a bounder and some flashes of color can mark you as a solid citizen without so much as a warning or a reason. If someone were attempting to study the English to produce spies to mix amongst them, I would wish them the very best of luck and hope their grip on sanity was concrete.
Stripes or club ties are a national source of angst. To wear one you are not entitled to is a sin looked down upon by even those who do not wear neckties at all. The chances of making a mistake are great enough for most English men to forsake wearing a regimental tie altogether. However, it is undeniable that a striped tie is a beautiful accompaniment to a shirt and a suit; a sartorial fact that English men would admit to. How then do we reconcile the social barrier with compelling sartorial art? Enter TM Lewin, keepers of the English club tie for nigh on forever. They know and archive every club tie in existence that rates in England and therefore they can produce regimental tie patterns that infringe on no one’s right to be an old boy. An interesting “blue ocean”10approach to creating a new, untrammeled and in-demand market. That’s Capitalism on the hoof.
Striped ties often have texture as do solids. The English do not generally like smooth ties unless the silk has an interesting finish.
End of Part 1
All ties by Harvie and Hudson.
1 The Wars of the Roses were a series of civil wars fought in medieval England from 1455 to 1487 between the House of Lancaster and the House of York. The name Wars of the Roses is based on the badges used by the two sides, the red rose for the Lancastrians and the white rose for the Yorkists.
2 Although identification of a given noble house was often easy which political faction they backed was more difficult to determine. Because the Wars of the Roses had few soldiers in any sort of uniform beyond liveries, confusion over which side one was on was a recurring problem. It was not uncommon for friendly soldiers to fight each other accidentally or for captured Yorkist soldiers to claim they were fighting for the Lancastrians.
3 Although I will assume that everyone understands that heraldry is the art and science of noble identification, livery should be explained. It is the manner in which nobles decorate and signify ownership of their property; including human servants.
4 It might have been James Lipton who liked a small repeating white dot pattern on a dark background.
5 Created and produced by Charvet they were inspired by Ringling Bros. travelling circus and soon became a favorite afterhours choice of the smart set. They combine abstract design with beautiful colors and quality silk and linings. Due to difficulties with the process, printed ties were not common during this period and Charvet’s bold patterns were seen both as an exclusive symbol of consumption and as one of leisure triumphing over labor or commerce, not to mention they brightened up a lot of mundane outfits.
6 During the war of the roses, banners and standards had been painted silk. They were always considered secondary to the decoration on the soldier or knight himself. That was a problem; in fact the main problem discovered was that the nobles had far too much power which the Tudors sought to dissolve. With the rise of professional regiments raised for the King, power was transferred to the throne and embodied by the regiment’s colors. The idea of a silk flag personifying the regiment or the country blossomed. The turn back facings of the colorful jackets were reflected in the regimental colors. The logical conclusion for an army which abandoned colorful jackets for khaki was to place the facing colors as a badge on the sleeve head of the jacket or as a flash on the side of the helmet. Neckties also reflecting the colors of both the jacket turn backs and the regimental flag were used to distinguish their otherwise standardized uniforms.
7 Drake’s are an English tie maker, and although the English generally do not like prints, they will wear them if they are heavy and rich enough and very conservative. Of course, many of the British wear printed ties outside of the City for Town or casual events but they prefer the woven ties for business.
8 Never mind that James Clavell wrote in King Rat that the English could always tell the American prisoners of war by their waxy skin!
9 Actually, Kate Fox in her “Watching the English” (p.291)mentions that the the single solid color tie is considered no higher than middle-middle [class].
10 Blue Ocean vs. Red Ocean approaches to business opportunities appeared in Harvard Business Review. Essentially the “Red Ocean” approach involves fighting with competitors over existing market share while the “Blue Ocean” approach entails creating new markets without competition.