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Thursday, Dec 25, 2014
Lifestyle Stories

It’s time for bowtie prejudice to come undone

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Gentlemen, I’ve seen you at lunch, your necktie flipped over one shoulder to keep it out of your food.

I’ve seen it blowing in the wind and tucked into your shirt to keep it in check.

I have a simpler solution, one that makes you look dapper and fun all at the same time. I’m talking, of course, about the bow tie.

I hear your cries of “Poindexter!” and “Nerd!” Yet, I’m here to tell you those days have passed.

The bow tie’s star is rising, boosted by those hipsters who have also brought back lumberjack beards and little girls named Edith.

Bow ties imbue wallflowers with confidence. They’re deceptively simple to wear and cheap to own. They come in fabrics and patterns that make your power tie from the 1980s look downright beige by comparison.

In short, bow ties get attention.

“There are no lukewarm feelings about them,” says Lori J. Durante, executive director and chief curator at the Museum of Lifestyle & Fashion History in West Palm Beach.

Put on a bow tie, and in certain eyes you’re either Pee Wee Herman or James Bond, Bill Nye the Science Guy or C. Everett Koop, Barney Fife or Sam Spade.

Forget those tickets to Pamplona. The real test of manhood is taking the slings and arrows of the anti-bow tie crowd. You’ve got to stand with your head — and your tie — held high. This seems particularly true here in Florida, where every day is Casual Friday. People wear flip-flops to church here, for Pete’s sake.

I got hooked on bow ties six or seven years ago. I was covering a government board up in Pasco County, and one of the members showed up with a real eye-catcher just below his chin. I probably offered some off-hand admiration. I might have asked him where he got it.

A few days later, a bulging envelope showed up at my office. No return address. No note. Just a bow tie.

And so began my personal fashion odyssey. The way was rough at first, fraught with you’re-not-wearing-that-are-you glares from my wife and with the quick-look-away glances of speechless coworkers.

Well, not all of them were speechless.

I wore my new hand-me-down bow tie to meet a coworker and a developer for lunch. Moments after I got out of my car, my coworker and I made our first impressions on each other: “Do you always dress like that?” he asked.

Nobody ever said that about my neckties, even the one with poison-dart frogs printed on it.

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Bow ties haven’t always been so maligned.

Croat soldiers wore them as they were killing people in the 17th century. French King Louis XIV liked what he saw, and before you could say “L’etat c’est moi,” a men’s fashion staple was born.

They’re everywhere in pictures from the 19th and early 20th centuries. All those fat, post-Civil War presidents wore them. I once saw an old yellowed photo of Harry Truman wearing one while fishing.

But somewhere along the way, bow ties got lost.

In the first season of “Mad Men,” set in 1960, you can see the faltering pulse of the bow tie. Amid the sea of skinny black ties, you’ll find only two characters with bow ties — the fuddy-duddy senior partner and the befuddled TV guy, who has horn-rimmed glasses to boot.

There were plenty of bow ties around when I went to the University of Virginia 25 years ago. It was a fine Southern institution, and bow ties thrived like hothouse flowers. But just outside the Rotunda’s walls, the winds of change were howling. The end of the bow tie was near.

By the time Paul Simon — the senator from Illinois, not the guy who sang with Garfunkel — ran for president in 1988, his signature bow tie made him the butt of the joke when Al Franken portrayed him on “Saturday Night Live.” (“I think I scored biggg ... on the bow tieee ...” (He did not.)

But the bow tie’s time in the Orville Redenbacher Memorial Wilderness is ending.

Justin Timberlake wore one for an album cover. Chris Brown wore one on “Larry King Live.” Shortly after his regeneration, the 11th Doctor Who donned one, declaring “bow ties are cool.” (That same fellow also wore a fez from time to time, but fez sales, thankfully, stayed flat.)

These days, bow ties are still a small-but-growing blip on the menswear radar.

You see them on either the pillar-of-the-community types or the young arty upstarts. Aging Gen X guys like me — too young for gravitas, too old for devil-may-care — are just now finding a place in our wardrobes for this little piece of sartorial history.

“That’s why we grew so much in the fourth quarter,” said David Mutter, Gen Xer and bow tie wearer.

Mutter recently bought Vermont-based Beau Ties Ltd., a small shop that has made bow ties for more than 20 years. These days most of his sales come through the company website.

The hipsters may have revived the bow tie, but the Internet has kept it alive. Cast “bow tie” into the Google search window and watch the sales opportunities roll back to you a hundred fold.

Add “Tampa” to that search, and you’ll find Ella Bing, a mom-and-pop operation that makes bow ties in Spring Hill. Brent Kraus started the company with his parents two years ago to honor his younger brother, Matthew, an avid bow tie wearer who died by suicide in 2010.

Kraus’ mom sews the fabric ties; his dad makes them out of wood. They’ll also create a new bow tie from your old neckties as part of their cheekily named “Necktie Eradication Project.”

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Guys choose bow ties because they want to stand out from the crowd, says radio show host Dan Maduri.

“One day I woke up and said, ‘Enough is enough. I’m tired of being ordinary,” says Maduri, 29. “When you wear it, it’s a great conversation starter.”

Brady Diggs has become a five-days-a-week bow tie wearer since moving to Tampa more than two years ago from Virginia. He hopes his fashion statement makes him and his headhunting business stick in people’s minds.

“When you come in, people already have an impression of you,” Diggs says. “There’s an air of success.”

At 35, Diggs already has enough bow ties to wear a different one each day for a month. He says he’s seen so many other guys in bow ties around Tampa, he’s thinking of starting a club.

“It sounds crazy, but if you’re wearing a bow tie, I want to network with you,” he says.

If you’re going to buy into the bow-tie resurgence, there’s no limit to your options. You can buy Maduri’s basic black, but Mutter will sell you a tie printed with stars and planets or another that looks like a color-blindness test. Kraus sells ties named after Jose Gaspar and other Tampa figures.

Basically, if you can’t find a bow tie to reflect your personality, you’re not really trying.

Wear one and, odds are, yours will be the only one in the room. If it’s not, compliment the other guy and welcome him to the club. Either way, keep your ears open for praise from a stranger who appreciates your decision to stand out from the crowd.

And don’t worry about the bow-tie haters. They’re more than offset by the people impressed that you can tie one in the first place.

But, you say, you haven’t worn a bow tie since your mom clipped one on your collar at Easter when you were 5? No sweat. Just follow these steps to join the bow-tie brigades:

1. Love it. Pick a design and a pattern that fits your personality. Me? I like everything but circles. Circles are for clowns. If you’re testing the waters, check secondhand stores, Goodwill or the Salvation Army for hand-me-downs. They can be hard to find, but a vintage bow tie is worth the hunt. If you’re going all-in, hit the nearest men’s department and go shopping.

2. Tie it. Please, for the love of Winston Churchill, do not even look at those pre-tied pretenders. And leave the clip-ons for the preschool set. Tying a bow tie isn’t nearly as hard as people think. Lord Grantham has his valet to do his on “Downton Abbey.” You’ve got Google.

3. Own it. As you should realize by now, bow ties are not for the faint of heart. You’re going to get everyone’s eye when you enter a room. Fortunately, just putting one on makes you stand a little taller. Confidence, my friend. All those eyes upon you are admiring your ability to do something they can’t.

4. Pass it on. You don’t have to send people anonymous bow ties in the mail. But it never hurts to encourage a guy to find his inner Croat mercenary. Give him a website or send him to the nearest men’s section. The bow tie revival can use the support.

kwiatrowski@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7871

Twitter: @kwiatrowskiTBO

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