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Dec. 1 2009 - 12:34 pm | 244 views | 0 recommendations | 7 comments

Why Is the Media Obsessed With Bow Ties?

NFL linebacker Dhani Jones wears a bow tie. The L.A. Times finds this remarkable. Photo by the Los Angeles Times

NFL linebacker Dhani Jones wears a bow tie. The L.A. Times finds this remarkable. Photo by the Los Angeles Times

When I saw the first line of yesterday’s L.A. Times story on NFL linebacker Dhani Jones, I knew I couldn’t read any further. It says: “There’s a bow tie revolution going on.”

Jones explains that he’s trying to urge other pro athletes to join what he calls “the resurgence of the gentleman” – and that they should all start by wearing bow ties. But someone needs to tell both Jones and the Times that bow-tie wearing is far from revolutionary, in fact, it’s long been an obsession of the media for no apparent reason.

Seemingly every man in the public sphere who sports one on a regular basis draws constant attention for it – and I simply can’t figure out why. If journalists mentioned a woman’s affinity for scarves or a particular style of suit each and every time a woman was profiled, we’d deem it sexist, or at the very least, unnecessary and kind of weird. And yet, writers can’t help themselves when it comes to pointing out a man’s bow tie.

Take columnist George Will. Though he’s been wearing a bow tie for public appearances for decades, he changed course for a few TV spots in October and wore a traditional long tie. This shocked Stephen Colbert so much that he did an entire segment called “George Will’s Long Tie,” and insisted on sporting a bow tie in order to “restore balance to the universe.”

When Rep. Earl Blumenauer, a Democrat who is also known for wearing bow ties, challenged Will on some of his climate change assertions, the showdown was quickly dubbed the “battle of the bow ties.”

Back in June, the Huffington Post asked its readers who they considered the best dressed Supreme Court justice. When John Paul Stevens, famous for his bow tie affinity, landed at No. 2, the site created a photo slide show of other “decorated gentlemen” who wear bow ties, including Tucker Carlson, “Gossip Girl” character Chuck Bass and fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld.

When I worked as an editor at a legal newspaper that ran a daily profile of a state or federal judge, the reporters couldn’t ¬†help but mention when a male judge had a habit of wearing bow ties. I always thought it irrelevant and bizarre.

The Associated Press tells journalists to “use the same standards for men and women in deciding whether to include specific mention of personal appearance or marital or family situation.” Like I said, I can’t think of a single article of clothing that a woman would wear that would compel a writer to mention it every single time he or she saw one.

Bow ties are a completely appropriate, unremarkable piece of professional clothing. If John Paul Stevens or Tucker Carlson suddenly starts wearing a propeller hat, or an enormous neckpiece with a clock on it a la Flava Flav, then I would understand the relevance in mentioning it. But until then, lay off the bow tie mentions, people.


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  1. collapse expand

    I appreciate this piece, as I’ve often found the fascination with the bow tie rather amusing. That said, I do think you’re missing a very obvious analogous scenario – The Pant Suit.

    Hillary Clinton’s pant suits were spoken of/written about so frequently that she referred to them in her speech at the Democratic Convention.
    http://www.sitv.com/blogs/politics/day-2-sisterhood-traveling-pant-suits

    On top of that, her apparel was given a year in review:
    http://www.abcnews.go.com/GMA/story?id=5656295

    And, they were scrutinized by newspeople, designers and self proclaimed fashionistas (and fashionistos)
    http://www.thestar.com/living/article/301465

    http://zeldalily.com/index.php/2009/10/the-politics-of-dress-political-women-in-power-and-pantsuits/

    Your point remains of course – it’s all silly – bow ties or pant suits, but I just would disagree with the idea that this fascination applies only to bow ties.

  2. collapse expand

    Bow ties have occasionally enjoyed a brief renaissance in the last half-century (notably during the “preppy” era) before taking their rightful place: stuffed in the back of the dresser drawer with the cuff links, shoehorn and mustache comb. Apparently we are experiencing another short rebirth.

    There are times when a man must absolutely wear a bow tie, such as formal wear. Otherwise they are taboo. Here’s why:

    Most men hate wearing ties; they’re hard to tie, they’re uncomfortable and, since tie tacks/clips, etc. have vanished, if you’re not careful you’ll get them in your food –hence the fashion statement of men tossing the end of their tie over their shoulder at meals, a maneuver that says: “No matter how mature and powerful I am, I have the table manners of a 6-year-old.”

    And men being men, most would wear the same tie forever (and probably just slip it off over their heads rather than retie it every day) if it weren’t for the whims of fashion (wide-thin-wide-thin-wide-thin-wide-thin).

    The discomfort and the matter of tying a complicated knot on oneself are only compounded with bow ties, which are nearly impossible to tie (I’ve tried … with a Harvard bow tie, no less) and as uncomfortable as a regular tie. As a result, very few men wear them.

    In the ancient era when I was young (the 1950s and early ’60s), little boys were given bow ties until they were old enough to wear regular ties — of course, being the ancient era, these were clip-ons. Having your dad show you how to tie a necktie was as much a rite of passage as learning to drive.

    About the only adult male from that era who wore a bow tie was the father in the “Dennis the Menace” cartoon strip, which speaks volumes about them.

    In the years that followed, neckties went through many iterations (wide-thin, paisley, stripes, dots, black, long, short, you name it). I quit wearing a tie to the office years ago and they have just about vanished from my workplace, even among top management.

    So what does all this say about the bow tie? Well think about who wears them regularly: Men like Dennis the Menace’s dad. Men who want to show off by sending the message that “I can tie this complicated torture device on myself,” “I’m a nonconformist” and “I don’t care if I look comical and eccentric.”

    In other words, men who wear bow ties are sending the message that: “I’m a showoff, I’m a maverick, I’m eccentric and I don’t care what people think.”

    Think about it: Ever seen Cary Grant in a bow tie? Would you want to?

  3. collapse expand

    But, but, “I’m Chuck Bass.”

  4. collapse expand

    I’m with lmharnisch on this one — the reason bow ties are such a signifier is exactly because so few men wear them…

    If a woman — like Diane Keaton, who consistently (?!) covers her hands with gloves indoors — wears something so consistently that’s also a little weird and show-offy (we know you’re old, Diane and that your hands will reveal this) it bears comment.

    When I see a guy in a bow-tie I wonder what made him choose it…is he specifically seeking additional attention and why?

    But I admire the ability to tie one and, on the right man and the right clothing, a bowtie can look great.

  5. collapse expand

    Three words: Anna Wintour’s sunglasses.

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