Bow Ties 101: Bowtie Basics

A man putting on a burgundy satin bow tie

If you think that neckties and bow ties are different neckwears and prefer one over the other, then you might be surprised to know that they have the same origin. They both started with the Croatian mercenaries who worked for the king of France during the 30 Years War in the 17th century. They wore a piece of cloth around their necks that closed the top of their jackets. While it did have a decorative effect, the Croats wore it for a practical reason - it protected from sword cuts to their necks. Who you can blame though for the constricting fashion accessory is King Louis XIII. He liked the neckwear of the Croatian soldiers so much that he made it mandatory for royal gatherings. In their honor, he named it La Cravate, derived from the French for “Croat.” Both the necktie and the bow tie came off it. Both iterations became fashionable and forged ahead with their own although often intertwined histories. The French still call neckties “cravate” until today, while they call bow ties “noeuds papillon” which translates to “butterfly knot” in English.

A Croatian soldier in the 17th century

In no time, the bow tie was adopted by the French upper-class citizens who were already highly influential in the fashion world at that time. It flourished in the 17th and 18th centuries and quickly spread to the English who in turn exported it worldwide through migration and colonization. The 18th century also saw England rise to be the world’s dominant colonial power, further enhancing its global influence. This carried the bow tie to Western Europe, America, Canada, Australia and other British colonies where it caught on.  

Soldiers in Zagreb, Croatia wearing the traditional cravat on National Necktie Day. 

The bow tie has since gone through periods when its popularity rose and ebbed. Today, It’s now a mainstay and even has its own holiday. It is, in fact, experiencing a resurgence in popularity with celebrities and dignitaries wearing it in galas and awards nights. It’s also now perfectly fine to wear a casual bow tie with a casual shirt on an everyday basis. 

Joaquin Phoenix & Leonardo DeCaprio at Golden Globes 2020

So how does one look good in a bowtie? The short answer is the bow tie has to look good, and it has to be worn right. 

Wearing the Bow Tie Right

Unlike the necktie, the original self-tied bow tie could not be pre-tied and then worn and adjusted. It has to be knotted properly with the strap around the neck. The center knot has to be tight but not wrinkled, clasping both wings firmly so they don’t move in the course of the day. With each end made into a flap on one side and a loop on the other, it cannot be perfectly symmetrical. It just has to be made as balanced as possible. With the various approaches to tying it, the desired result can be quite daunting to achieve, including the elegant horizontal dimple.

It is the self-tied finish that makes you look polished and dignified.

Worn right, the neck loop should not be loose around the neck. The bowtie was originally conjured by the Croats to bring the collar together, and that still stands to this day even with the advent of the collar button. With the self-tied bowtie, achieving this and the properly tied bowtie is a western rite of passage into manhood. This has been made easier with the clip-on and the pre-tied bowties. For holidays like the Christmas season, pre-tied bowties are popular. Pre-tieds have the distinctive bow sewn onto an adjustable band that goes around the neck and clips or hooks to secure. Clip-Ons dispense with the band altogether and clips on the collar. While pre-tied and clip-on bowties come in quality fabrics, self-tied bowties have a dignity that the other types just don’t have and is the standard for formal occasions.  While the self-tied bowtie cannot be perfectly symmetrical, it is, in fact, this self-tied finish that makes you look polished and dignified, having paid your manhood due. 

Recommended reading: How To Tie A Bow Tie

Bow Tie Knots

There are a couple of end results in tying a self-tied bowtie: the typical bowtie and the crossbow. The crossbow is tied in exactly the same way and only differs at the end with the loops and the flaps crossed. What can be surprising are the ways to tie the typical bowtie. It’s essentially like a shoelace and can be tied like one quickly with the Ian Knot invented by Ian Fieggen for shoelaces. The problem is that unlike a shoestring, self-tied bow ties are so much wider. So after tying the bow tie like a shoelace, there has to be a lot of adjusting to get it to look right. Generally, the more steps, the more intricate the tying, the least adjustments are needed at the end and the lesser the chances of wrinkles. 

Cross Bow Knot vs. Typical Bow Tie Knot

Compatible Collar

Bowties were traditionally worn with tuxedos and wing collar dress shirts. That has changed with the standard bowtie being physically compatible with just about any shirt collar; from the spread collar to the point collar. This wearability has in fact paved the way for the bowtie becoming more casual and popular, not to say practical. Physicians especially like it’s being just on their neck and not swinging around and in the way. 

Dress Shirt Collar Styles


There are only a couple of widths based on age - adult and kid. Adult bowties are around 4.7 inches, while kid bowties are around 3.9 inches. For adults, the band is adjustable from 14.5 to 20 inches. For kids 5-14 years old, the band is adjustable from 13-18 inches. 

Pairing with Pocket Squares 

With a jacket, a pocket square complementing your bowtie helps you stand out. With folds that range from muted to the flamboyant, they elegantly convey that you pay attention to details. With a few exceptions, like at weddings, the pocket square has to complement the bowtie colorwise and not be the same exact material.

The pocket square has to complement the bowtie colorwise and not be the same exact material. 

How to Tell a Quality Bowtie

Worn, the quality of a bowtie readily shows by look alone. When the bowtie is soft and thick to the touch as it should be, that is readily seen. However, the quality of a bowtie is primarily seen in the fabric, it’s sheen and texture. 

The Bowtie Fabric

Bowtie fabric comes in either a pattern or an artwork - called Novelty or Theme bowties like a flag bowtie. The most popular patterns are Solid-Color, Paisley, Polka Dot, Checkered, Striped, Plaid, and Floral.

Solid-Color is the most basic and most formal option for a bowtie and is the choice for highly formal events. It is also the time-honored choice for weddings. They allow the groomsmen and the boys bearing the wedding ring, the coins, and the Bible to be in bowties that match the wedding motif. 

Black Bow Tie Wedding

Paisley is a sought-after Persian ornamental pattern with a curved teardrop-shape. The name of the pattern came from a town in the west of Scotland that mass-produces the designs. Polka dots on fabric originated in Germany in the mid-19th century during the period when polka music and dancing rose in popularity.

Checkered, Striped, Plaid and Floral are names that are descriptive of the pattern. You just need to be sure that the pattern on the bowtie is not on your shirt too. 

Wrinkles are a Big Minus

Wrinkles are not to be seen in bowties, and so opt for materials that are wrinkle-resistant and from which wrinkles are easily straightened out. Silk, wool, and microfiber ties are wrinkle-resistant, while cotton, linen and their blends are more wrinkle-prone. 

Storage and Maintenance

Bowties are most wrinkle-free if hung on hangers. If needed, hand-wash in warm water and press out excess water with a towel - don't wring or twist. They can be steam-ironed with a low temperature on press cloth. Bowties are harder to stain because of their size, but for stains, dip a clean napkin in club soda and dab away - don't rub. For tougher stains, apply steam and use a dry spot remover. It’s quite natural to pull loose threads in the course of wearing them, and you can use a sharp pair of scissors or a nipper to cut those out. 

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