Ties 101: Necktie Basics

Man in brown suit and scarlet tie

If you have wondered who started the noose that the necktie is, it’s 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, so you can hardly blame them. 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.” Neckties are still called Cravate in French until today.

17th-century Croatian soldier wearing a cravat

In no time it 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 necktie to Western Europe, America, Canada, Australia and other British colonies.

Louis XIV of France in 1667

Today, ties make the man. In a world of impressions, it takes him from man to gentleman, from respectable to compelling. Leaders of the western world do away with this crown jewel in photo-ops to make themselves look more reachable, but won’t be caught without it when it’s business-as-usual. 

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

Wearing the Tie Right

The devil is in the details, like where the tip of the head - the wide part - lands after the knot is tied. It has to hang in front of the belt buckle. If it falls short of the beltline, you’d look like you outgrew the poor tie. If it overshoots the belt, you are drawing public attention to a private matter. But with the head placed right and the tail concealed, that’s when the tie makes the man. 

A buttoned-up jacket or vest is in fact there to make up for misses in this delicate matter, otherwise the poor tie still manages to peek through the bottom edge of the jacket or vest and you might as well stay at home. The head of the tie falling short of the belt is also the reason why elaborate necktie knots like the Eldredge or Trinity have to be worn with a jacket or vest. They use so much material and have to have the head hang short of the belt buckle.  

Worn right, the neck loop should not be loose around the neck. The tie 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. At present, this is accomplished in a number of ways. There’s the pre-tied necktie that you put over your head and tighten by pulling on the tail. The zipper tie does the same thing but with a zipper. The clip-on has no loop, but what it offers in comfort it lacks in pizzazz. Pizzazz is with the self-tied neckties which can properly hang in front of the belt buckle, and which you can knot with finesse. The most expensive neckties are self-tied. 

Tie Knots

Mathematically, there are now 177,147 ways to tie a tie, but for the purists, there is only 1 correct way - the Windsor Knot named after the Duke of Windsor (King Edward VIII of England before his abdication). It was likely invented by his father though, George V.  It’s also called Full Windsor, and Double Windsor Knot. The knot is symmetrical, well-balanced, and can be undone entirely by pulling the tie's narrow end up through the knot. When tied correctly the knot is tight and does not slip away from the collar during wear. It is very comfortable to wear, as the knot itself will hold the tie firmly in place while still keeping space between the collar and the neck. It is especially suited for a spread or cutaway collar that can properly accommodate a larger knot.

Windsor Knot with a dimple

Today, the most popular knots are the Windsor, Half-Windsor, and Four-in-Hand. The last two are progressively smaller. While the Windsor and Half-Windsor are symmetrical, the trendier Four-in-Hand is asymmetrical and would rely on a point collar to make it look balanced. Learn these three and you’re good for any shirt collar and for any occasion. Whichever knot you decide to use, it should be rounded - not squashed. The bottom should clasp the protruding part of the head into a tight circle with a dimple in place.

Recommended reading:How to tie the necktie knots?


Quite a challenge is knowing what size necktie works for you. Most neckties come in Standard and Extra Long lengths. Standard neckties are about 58 inches long, while Extra long ones are about 63 inches long. The goal is to have the tip of the head land in front of your belt buckle once tied, so if you are 6-foot or taller, or shorter but with a broad neck, you should try the Extra Long tie. But if even an Extra Long tie comes short for you, you can order a custom tie.

While length is driven by fit, width is driven by fashion. Skinny ties draw attention to a slim build, while standard-width ties complement broad and athletic builds. Consider that while the width needs to be proportionate to your body size, it also needs to be about the width of your jacket’s lapel.

Pairing with Pocket Squares 

With a jacket, a pocket square complementing your tie 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 in weddings, the pocket square has to complement the tie colorwise and not be the same exact material. 

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

How to Tell a Quality Tie

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

The Tie Fabric

Tie fabric comes in either a pattern or an artwork - called Theme Ties like a Flag Day tie. The most popular patterns are Solid-Color, Striped, Checkered, Plaid, Paisley, Polka Dot, and Floral.

Solid-Color is the most basic and most formal option for a necktie and is the choice for highly formal events and interviews. 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 ties - and pocket squares too - that match the wedding motif. 

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 tie is not on your shirt too. 

Wrinkles are a Big Minus

Wrinkles are not to be seen in ties, 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. 

You can tell the quality of a tie from its elements and behavior. Quality ties have bar tacks near the tips on the backside that keep the tie’s shape. These are enhanced by the slip-stitch; stitching which runs the length of the tie between the bar tacks. This prevents the tie from shifting form after repeated tying and untying. Good quality ties are made of three pieces, and this can be seen by the two sets of seems on the backside. To check that the tie material was cut properly, hang it over your arm. It should hang straight and shouldn’t twist or bend.  

The presence of the keeper-loop is another mark of quality. With the tie tied, the tail should go into and be held by the keeper-loop to prevent it from showing. 

Storage and Maintenance

Neckties are most wrinkle-free if stored on necktie 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. 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.

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