The Way You Wear Your Hat: The Messy Bow Tie


“Thank Doctor Who” a friend said scornfully as we wandered around TopMan, slack-jawed at the mass of teenage bow-tie aficionados strutting around the store with their Bieber-fringes, check shirts and turned-up denim. The only problem was that their ‘I don’t give a damn but I am a dandy’ aesthetic was let down by the uniform neatness of their bows; hardly surprising given that all were clip-ons.

Tying a bow tie is an art, not an exact science; the symmetrical ‘perfection’ sought by many, even when achieved through self-tying, is about as appealing as one of those dire photo-realistic paintings. The idea is to achieve expression, not facsimile; ‘perfect’ pre-tied and self-tie bow ties look stiff, clownish and unnatural. Not only would I oppose wearing a pre-tied bow tie – and not for the crude snobbery advocated by some that it shows you ‘went to the wrong school’ or university but because creation is so much more satisfactory than replication – I would also oppose the ‘craft’ of tying a bow tie too carefully, too symmetrically, too artificially.

The ‘messy’ bow tie may sound like a paradox – for why should a decorative effect be untidy? – but the ‘mess’ is simply a descriptive comparison with the uniformity of pre-tied bows. Mess is usually what you end up with when first attempting to tie a bow tie; uneven, lumpy and wonky. However, the great charm of this educational stage is often clouded with frustration; “Why isn’t it PERFECT?!” we scream into the mirror, knowing the happy end-of-the-rainbow glory of symmetrical bow tie bliss is far away, not realising that the grass is greener on this side of the fence.

Winston Churchill, though seldom feted as a style icon, was famous for his bow ties and in his later years, was rarely seen without one. The most famous photos of Churchill usually involve three crucial props; V-for Victory, a cigar and his favourite navy polka dot bow tie. Well worn indeed, but perfect? Symmetrical? Not a bit of it. Though he wore one every day, every day was different; lop sided on Monday, tiny on Tuesday, bulky on Wednesday, approaching the perpendicular on Thursday.

The water-colouring aesthete’s routine of dressing was the very opposite to that of a man like Brummell, who discarded neckties if they were not perfectly tied the first time. Churchill tied it – possibly with a cigar in his mouth – whilst his head gradually filled with the grave concerns of the day; there was no concern of symmetry, or perfection and because of that, the beauty created was natural.

If you are planning on making the step from pre-tied bows to self-tie you will probably be put off by the idea of a bow that looks like it was tied by a pair of pig’s trotters but think on this: a bow in of itself is a decoration, a fancy. It is not ‘natural’ to wear a bow. However, it has been customary to adorn a buttoned collar for hundreds of years with a splash of what is really creative art. There is nothing creative, nothing pleasing about a glued, stiffened replica and nothing appealing about something that has been touched and tweaked to within an inch of its life. Try it, tie it – and be happy with the result. The best way to achieve the small-winged minimalism? Try tying it with as little length as possible.


  1. Ian Guild said:

    I agree with you 100% Winston. Once you’ve learnt how to tie them, bow ties are a great option. I like them because:
    1. They don’t strangle you as long ties can.
    2. You usually don’t keep fiddling with or adjusting them.
    3. If you occasionally have trouble conveying food from the plate to your mouth, a bow won’t get splashed on!!
    4. You don’t have to waste time getting the length just right.
    The only annoying part associated with bows is that you’ll inevitably receive comments like, “You’re tie is crooked”.
    Onward and upward! Cheers from Melbourne.

    May 17, 2011
  2. Jake said:

    Great post. Pre-tied ties completely undermine the sort of rumpled, carelessly elegant look that is part of the appeal of the Dr Who look in the first place.

    May 18, 2011
  3. Ray Frensham said:

    As I say to many young chaps, when I am about to teach them how to tie a bow, as part of their education: I am about to teach you something that will stand you in good stead for the rest of your life…… and indeed it does.

    May 18, 2011
  4. John said:

    I have to say, I wear a bow tie regularly (and haven’t worn a pre-tied one since I was 10 or so) and I hate this bit of advice, although I hear it from every reputable source.

    I think that it is needlessly showy to purposely leave a bow tie messy. To me it seems the same as leaving cuff buttons undone just to prove they are real: sloppy dressing just to show that you have better clothes than the other guy.

    That said, I don’t think that one should worry overmuch about how neat his bow tie is, and constantly fiddling with it is to be avoided. However, any sort of purposeful sloppiness reeks of pretension and poor taste. A more common example would be spending an hour perfectly sculpting one’s hair to get the perfect, just rolled out of bed look.

    May 18, 2011
  5. John said:


    I didn’t say it should be purposefully sloppy.

    “Try it, tie it – and be happy with the result” is the line of advice. In what way is that saying ‘make it look messy’?

    The only reason the piece is entitled ‘The Messy Bow Tie’ is because there is very little else to call it.


    May 18, 2011
  6. Apologies, I seem to have called myself John in the previous comment.


    May 18, 2011
  7. Jim said:

    Agree with John, and with Winston’s reply.

    For the average aesthete — one should aim for a perfect bow but accept less, or else spend inordinate amounts of time tieing bowties.

    But — the perfect aesthete would spend as long as it takes, naturally. Such is his burden.

    May 18, 2011
  8. John said:

    Sorry if I was caustic and missed the point. I was reading this at the same time as a forum thread coincidentally on the same topic.

    I think that your advice of do it best is fantastic.

    By the way, I love your style and your columns here.

    May 18, 2011
  9. John said:

    And correction to my sloppily typed response: I think your advice of do your best and be happy is fantastic.

    May 18, 2011
  10. Jake said:

    Agree with both John and Winston. Tying a bow tie should become just like tying a four-in-hand: so much second nature that you neither have to *try* to make it perfect, nor *try* to make it imperfect, it simply is what it is. That may mean it’s a little lopsided, or slightly off-centre on a windy day, but that’s all fine. It’s part of being well-dressed that not everything has to be flawless.

    May 19, 2011
  11. halfwhiteboy said:

    Nice post. I am actually guilty of wearing these “artificial” bow ties. But I can’t seem to find the real deal anywhere here. I mean, at least the ones that I can afford. So in the meantime I’m stuck with the ready-mades.

    May 19, 2011
  12. Adam L said: offers self-ties for US$15 each. I swear by them and they’ve been doing a good job of variety with the bows – skinny, full, diamond-tip, even some cotton or wool.

    May 19, 2011
  13. Barima said:

    Ironically, Matt Smith’s bow ties are a lot less “perfect” – indeed, possibly more authentic – in the current Doctor Who series. I suspect his blue one might be from Hermès
    The small-winged minimalist look is admirable if one can perform it well, otherwise it just looks like, well, a knot


    May 19, 2011

Comments are closed.