If you don’t own one already, make this the year you tie your first bowtie.
by Hunter Murphy
Easter is a time for rebirth. Down South, the azaleas and dogwoods are blooming and, although we’re no longer primarily agrarian, we still have plenty of green space. (I personally don’t know if Southerners could survive long without the color in our flora and fauna, from Louisiana to Carolina’s Coastal Plain.) The bugs and the animals are mating, and it’s a time when we get to witness nature’s creativity, its divinity, everywhere.
This time of year also ushers in a renewal of fashions. While temperatures in the South can sometimes feel like summer year-round, Easter is a milestone when it comes to the Southern wardrobe. White and seersucker begin making appearances, particularly for the Southern gentleman, and the bowtie, which has kept its traditional audience over the years, is beginning to gain new, and younger, fans.
The Oxford English Dictionary claims the first instance of the word “bow tie” occurred in 1897 in the “Sears, Roebuck Catalogue,” which advertised “Gentlemen’s silk bow ties. For turn-down collar.” Thirteen years later, the Westminster Gazette in London described a man who “wore a check suit … and a pink cotton bow-tie.” Of course, we know the bowtie is older than both of these references, as evidenced by pictures of many 19th century figures, including our own Mark Twain.
John D. Spooner, writing in The Atlantic Monthly, said, “Bow ties have been around for more than 300 years, their origin traceable, as one story goes, to the court of Louis XIV of France in the 1600s. The King noticed a company of Croatian soldiers who wore white silk kerchiefs around their necks. The King apparently loved the look, and appeared at court shortly thereafter with the white kerchief plus some lace and embroidery to heighten the effect, along with a small bow in front to finish it off.”
Later on, poet William Butler Yeats, Nobel Laureate John Galsworthy and statesman Winston Churchill were spotted wearing different varieties. In reviewing a biography on Churchill, Dennis Showalter called Churchill the “The Bellicose Briton in the Bowtie.” Ian Fleming, whose James Bond character often donned a bowtie, famously coined the phrase “Churchillian looseness” in regards to tying the bowtie.
More recently, André Benjamin, better known as André 3000, an amazing musical talent who hails from Georgia, has chosen the bowtie as an accoutrement, as have other celebrities like P. Diddy, Stephen Colbert, Justin Timberlake and Kanye West.
In the past few years, companies all over the South have cropped up, focusing on this decorous neckwear. Influenced by the Crescent City, New Orleans Bowties are made from international silk and personally sized to fit each customer’s neck. Southern Proper, located in Atlanta, calls the bowtie “the perfect accessory for any gentleman” and prints its ties with oysters, red snappers, retrievers, azaleas and mint juleps. The Cordial Churchman in Rock Hill, South Carolina, got started with a seersucker bowtie and now sells plaid, striped and madras, gingham and chambray varieties. They also offer a Bow Tie of the Month Society Membership that allows customers to choose a new tie every month. And High Cotton Ties, made in North Carolina, firmly believes bowties should be a regular part of a gentleman’s wardrobe and offers 100 percent cotton bowties (and cummerbunds) in almost any style and color, with a commitment to the classic Southern mainstays of tattersalls, ginghams and plaids.
Dedicated to the great textile industry of North Carolina, the mother of High Cotton Ties, Judy, wanted to give her soon-to-be doctor son a handsome alternative to long ties. He’d mentioned a recent medical study concerning harmful bacteria on silk neck ties to her, so she made him a cotton version to wear to a University of Virginia Medical School function. Soon, doctors and members of his rotation were requesting the cotton ties.
Judy also sent a few ties to her younger son, James, at the University of Chapel Hill, where he wore them to derby parties, fraternity/sorority socials and other college events. The brand began to grow, and James now serves as co-owner with his mom, who’s since found some help sewing, while still sourcing cotton from North Carolina.
James spends four days a week out of seven on the road, traveling across the Southeast from as far north as Annapolis, Maryland, to Memphis, Mobile, Alabama, and east to the Atlantic Ocean. “What I do now is tell my mother’s story,” he says. “The charm is the fact that it’s a cotton bowtie made in the South. We want to stay down to Earth, humble and very clear about who we are and what we represent. My mom stayed at home to raise three rowdy boys, and our company represents these values.”
About the bowtie’s long and varied history in fashion, James says, “The bowtie has meant so many things to so many generations. It has ebbed and flowed in popularity. Currently, we’re experiencing a rise in popularity, and High Cotton is delivering a product at the right time in the history of Southern fashion and culture.”
The bowtie isn’t limited to a particular race, age or religion, but James says 18-25 year old guys are a big part of High Cotton’s customer base. “We do great business with the older set, but we target colleges and universities,” he adds. “Our bowties are for folks who want to begin wearing bowties and for the seasoned veteran.”
Through all the bowtie’s history and its public perception, one thing is certain: a bowtie makes a statement. Oscar Wilde famously claimed that “A well tied tie is the first serious step in life.” Whether you start with solid baby blue or something more adventurous like High Cotton’s pink and green tattersall, there’s no better time than spring to sport your first bowtie.
Most of the companies offering bowties don’t pre-tie them. Here’s fine South Carolina clothier, Brittons of Columbia, featured on High Cotton’s website, on how to tie your own:
Photo credits: All photos except Mark Twain and André 3000, courtesy of High Cotton Ties and taken by Anne Rhett.
Hunter Murphy has written two novels for which he’s currently seeking representation. He is a Southerner, a writer and a gay cowboy. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama, with his partner of many years, his mother-in-law (a feisty senior citizen who continues to tell him tall tales), and an English bulldog, who is a tough critic. Find out more about Hunter in our “Contributors” section and read his list of the “Greatest Bromances in Southern Literature,” published March 21.