The styles of bow tie – and why they matter

Monday, December 20th 2021
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I rarely wear a bow tie. Certainly never casually, and the number of black tie excuses has dwindled since I left my job in legal journalism. 

Back then there were several award ceremonies a year - we even threw four ourselves - but those have gone and, perhaps surprisingly, little in menswear has taken its place. 

That has started to change a little though, so I thought it was a good opportunity to look more closely at the design and style of bow ties.

It’s also an excuse to cover Mickael of la Bowtique (below), who certainly deserves it, having done so much to spur interest in bows since he came to London.

Mickael offers three fundamental designs of bow, and they’re also the most common generally. 

The first is the butterfly shape, where each end of the bow curves outwards from the bottleneck in the middle. This is the most popular and today considered the classic style. Mickael is wearing a butterfly above.

The second is the batwing, where the bow itself is straight - though of course it doesn’t look it when tied. This is the most traditional shape but quite unusual today. This is worn in the top image below.

And the third is the diamond, where the ends of the bow are pointed, so that when tied, each side looks uneven. This is unusual but also perhaps appears more easy and relaxed. The diamond is shown in the second image below, followed by (more usefully) a comparison of the different patterns. 

There are many other variants, including bows designed to sit underneath the collar (above), and string bows that hang down from it. Mickael has made many of them at the prompting of clients - usually an email with an image and the subject line ‘Can you make this?’

However, I think the more interesting variations are the tweaks to those three classic styles. Particularly the butterfly. 

The most obvious change is in the size of the bow (height, not width). Mickael’s classic bow is 7cm high at the outer edge, which is pretty average. You get one or two smaller than that, and then quite a few larger. 

A little bigger, say 8cm, is a subtle change. Once you get beyond that it starts to become more of a statement. 

Which is why at the larger sizes, the bottom of the bow is made larger, but not the top. This is usually referred to as a ‘dropped’ style. 

You can see this with the bow below. The total height is 9.5cm, but the top half is still 4cm; only the bottom has been enlarged to 5.5cm. 

This is a more subtle way of adding size. It stops the bow looking too seventies, and is also more practical, as it stops the top of the bow pointing into the chin. 

You can achieve some of this style by simply pulling down the two ends of the bow, so that they point downwards a little. (This has been done to some extent in the top two images of this article.) But it’s much better if the bow itself is dropped. 

I think it’s also more stylish to play with the height in this manner, than with the width. 

It would be intuitive to buy a longer bow tie - or adjust an adjustable one to be longer - in order to make a bigger bow. But actually, the width is best kept in proportion to the wearer. 

The general rule there is that a bow’s width should align with the outer edges of the wearer’s eyes. It’s when this isn’t followed that bow ties can begin to look silly: a clown’s bow tie may be high but it’s also very, very wide. 

Consider Buzz from The Anthology below, wearing a 9.5cm dropped bow. This is a big size relative to Buzz’s stature, but it doesn’t look big because the width is still proportionate. 

You can start to see how the proportions of a bow tie have something in common with both tailoring and with eyewear. 

Just like the lapels and shoulders of the jacket surrounding the bow, the physical proportions of the wearer - not just height, but breadth, neck, features - should be taken into account. Keep them all in balance, and be a laggard when it comes to fashion trends: if you're going to move that way, do it slowly.

The similarity with eyewear is that because a bow tie is close to the face, very small changes make a big difference. It’s not quite as bad as glasses, where 1mm is a normal change and 2mm a big one. But still we’re talking in terms of half centimetres. 

The other obvious variation is the material of the bow. 

Now in general, the rule with black tie is that the bow should match the facings of the dinner jacket. So satin with satin, grosgrain with grosgrain. That goes for velvet jackets too - unless the facing is in velvet (like mine) and then there’s more room to play. 

As ever with rules, this is a good starting point, but there’s also elegance in playing with contrasting textures. It’s certainly a lot better than bright colours: try a black velvet as an alternative to grosgrain, before scarlet or purple. 

Grey velvet can even be nice, as seen on Robert Spangle above. As with most elements of black tie, it works because it’s a change in tone and texture rather than colour - almost muted black rather than a new hue. 

I find green (below) or burgundy velvet is nice when the outfit is no longer strictly black tie, and so there's other colour elsewhere.

There are also a few different silks other than the basic satin and grosgrain - with some Mickael's shown above. There’s silk barathea, hopsack, and slubby silks. There’s silk mixed with lurex, - which gives it a bit of sparkle - and waffle weaves. 

However, other than possibly a slubby silk for something casual, I would stick with grosgrain and satin. And of those two,  I’ve always felt grosgrain was the most elegant - both because it's more subtle and because satin is always used on cheap rental tuxes.

Silks can also be heavier or lighter. Usually heavy silks are too stiff, however, and are only used for really large bows - such as the one Mickael made for Marc Jacobs (below). 

And there is variation of the interlining, though as with neckties, it’s usually nicer to have a lighter lining so you’re wearing the silk, rather than the lining. 

There should be more emphasis on bow ties, given how central they are to black tie. 

It’s not uncommon for a bespoke spoke customer to spend £5k on a tux but then plump for a standard off-the-shelf bow. And to agonise over every aspect of the tux’s design, but hardly consider the shape of the thing closest to his face. 

Mickael is doing great work to try and bring back this focus, and I’ll cover more about his work - as well as the bow tie I commissioned - in a second piece.  

Below is a further comparison of different styles and shapes - all made by la Bowtique, as are the ones above. More on the la Bowtique website here

Medium butterfly (7cm height)
Large butterfly (8cm height)
L-R: Large dropped butterfly, medium butterfly, diamond
Diamond-end bow
Batwing bow
Dropped batwing
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James

Hi Simon, good timing as i will be buying a bow tie in the not to distant future so useful referances. What model is Mickael wearing in the second photo?

James

Do you know the width?

James

yes, height

Ryan

Hi Simon, somewhat unrelated question but what got you into legal journalism? It seems rather niche and, dare is say, not especially exiting?

neil

Good to see that all of your photos feature correct shirt collars with black tie, and no inappropriately worn wing collars.

neil

Agreed nothing necessarily wrong, but nevertheless not correct. Wing collar shirts should be formed with a single cuff if done correctly, whereas black tie demands double cuff.

neil

Well it’s not wrong to wear a bow tie depicting Donald Duck, but it’s definitely not correct is it?
I suppose I will have to accept that you have decided I am wrong in my argument.

Zachary Mallett

Context is King – the Donald Duck tie is absolutely adorable on the 6 year old child who got to choose their clothes for picture day at school, and less well suited to New Years Eve at The Savoy 😉

Brendan

Attached soft wing collars aside (which shouldn’t really be worn by anyone over the age of 17, IMO), a separate stiff wing collar could be seen as scrupulously correct, albeit slightly more formal than absolutely required for black-tie. It’s more restrictive in the choice of bow tie of course, as the tie should then be sized to the collar rather than adjustable, but that’s really the only consideration.
Given the origins of black-tie as a slightly dressed down evolution of white-tie, I’d even think one could even get away with incorporating other elements of white-tie and still be “correct”, so long as care was taken. I’ve seen a number of such variations worn (to my eyes successfully) at livery and clubland events in London, so my perception is based on that experience.

Zachary Mallett

Absolutely – and the idea that one full set of items is perfection for one occasion and irredeemable used in any other is at odds with reality, and leaves little room for creative expression.
I’ve happily worn “white tie” trousers with black tie and the world seems to still be spinning on its correct axis.
If it’s all about maintaining a rigidly calcified uniform we’re talking about then Simon should close up shop and the rest of us can all go back to staring at the wall.

Robin

That’s a very interesting answer.
Having followed PS for many years I can appreciate now why you (and others in finance , law etc) pursue something creative like tailoring.
It’s obviously to countenance the intellectual rigour of your jobs .

Rather like when I would see a senior manager happily doing the washing up at work !

Zachary Mallett

That really does sound like a very challenging and rewarding career – thanks for sharing!
It’s interesting how as a person with diverse interests, experiences, and acquaintances you’re perceived when you step outside others expectations.
I spent some years working as a staffer for a Member of Parliament, and no matter how much hard policy work I did whenever it came up that I also had a background as an artist in film and television people would immediately apply their impression of what that means and see you very differently – like you’re a different species – “that cartoon art guy”.
Even now, working for many years in Visual Effects for big movies, if I’m seen by my artists wearing a blazer, a decent overcoat, or having a copy of the Economist in view, I’m marked out as very much “the other”.
Don’t get me started at the reaction when I voiced my assumption that Dogecoin must obviously be cleverly referring to the leader of the very mercantile Republic of Venice. Turns out it is very much not….
We all can become very tribal in our little silos and interest groups, and it’s surprisingly easy to shock people when you step outside expectations.
A colleague of mine has aphantasia, a neurological condition that leaves her without a ‘mind’s eye’: she lacks the ability to mentally visualize her thoughts in any way – but that doesn’t keep her from being an artist and I keep a little portrait she drew of me from memory on my desk – it’s recognizable as a face, a male face with glasses and a beard. It’s far from what you might expect or certainly how I’d picture my face, but it’s a constant useful reminder that none of us will ever be perceived by others the exactly way we perceive ourselves 🙂

Manuel

Hallo Simon,

would you wear your navy Cittleborough & Morgan suit with a bow tie? if so, what colour would you choose?

Thanks

Manuel

Aaron

It’s frustrating how anachronistic bow ties can look. There are many times I wish I had a bow tie instead of a long tie on, particularly at work when my photocopier has a paper jam.

Hal9k

With a navy suit, I’d probably recommend perhaps a dark brown bowtie, perhaps in grenadine. A bowtie will attract enough attention just by being different, but by going with a subdued color, it all balances out quite nicely.

Stephen

Hi Simon,
An interesting niche article. Personally outside of formal black tie events such as an awards ceremony or red carpet premiere, Nowadays, I do find bow ties and related black tie a self indulgent anachronism, that only looks good in Downton Abbey or an Agatha Christie type movie.
I do find the informal spotted bow tie eccentric old professor a good look – though only on a eccentric old professor!

Dominic

I’m pleased to see there’s now a way of buying exactly what you want. 10 years ago, when I last bought a black tie, I tried a range of upmarket London menswear shops but was very disappointed by the lack of choice. They all sold almost exactly the same tie.
Thinking about it the variety and quality of shops has also improved markedly over the last 10 years.

Hal9k

There’s also Sam Hober.

Ed

Budd has a better than usual range of black and white bow ties.

Nico

You may want to check out HN White. Diamond shapes.

Jamie Berry

I’m surprised that you’ve not commented on ready tied versus tie yourself. I think now people don’t mind much, but once upon a time a ready tied bow tie was probably seen in the same way as a ready tied normal tie (as worn by the police etc in case someone tries to strangle them, I gather!).

Jamie Berry

I agree – but some of the photos look pre-tied to me! I’m sure I am mistaken…

Jeremy Holden

I bought a pre tied bow a few years ago from a shop in Sweden; cant remember the name. It was expensive though.

It is indistinguishable from all my other self tie versions.

Jeremy Holden

Simon why do you have to contradict me? If I say it is indistinguishable, why cant you just accept that? You haven’t even seen it, so how can you say it will look a little too perfect?
And I spent most of my career in the police wearing a pre-tied necktie. Designed so nobody could try and strangle you with it!!

Jeremy Holden

Well that comes across as a bit of a put down.
I’ve spent 30 years developing quite some expertise in elegant clothing. Even though you’ve spent far less than that, I would never talk down to you.

James

It can’t be indistinguishable because no pre-tied bow tie (no matter how authentic looking) can be undone and draped round the neck when the time of the evening for whisky and cigars comes around (whereupon all the people who tied their own can undo them and let them drape around the neck so they can pretend to be Tony Bennett!)

Bob

Guilty as charged but with black tie only once a year (and often less frequent) have never justified the time required to learn to tie a good looking tie (attempts to date have been terrible but is why I have a “real” bow tie too)

Zachary Mallett

Once you realize it’s the exact same knot with which you tie your shoes it’s very manageable (and that you twist to tighten).

Trick I used when younger was to tie the bowtie around my knee (most people’s knees are rather similar in width to their neck, then if it’s adjustable you can disconnect the adjustor section and transfer the now tied bowtie to your neck – refasten at the back, tuck down that collar, and you can be Tony Bennet without the end of evening swicharoo 🙂

Practice a bit, and you can get there without the trick and “do it live”

neil

So if you are (heaven forbid) wearing a proper wing collar shirt as part of your black tie ensemble, you cannot untie your tie as in doing so you would have to release the front collar stud (to avoid looking totally stupid) at which point the collar would fall off.

neil

In your previous comment you say you like it (untying your tie) as long as it is part of the wind down of the evening. Now you say you shouldn’t be undoing the bow tie anyway.
Which one is it?

neil

Sorry, not looking for an argument at all Simon. Merely seeking clarification is a sea of contradiction.

Jeremy hHolden

Ok so I don’t want to get into the wing/turn down debate, but Simon am I picking up a new theme here, that a wing collar is a more formal depiction of black tie? I did not appreciate that there were degrees of formality, thinking black tie was black tie.

Jeremy hHolden

Thanks. But shirt?
Do you make these things up to suit your narrative?
When you get an invitation which sets black tie as a dress code, do you expect it to state “quite formal, more formal, very formal?” “No ivory as you might be mistaken for the maitre d'”. “No notch lapel as you might be mistaken for a interloper”.
I’m not being difficult, but I have trouble sometimes following you, as if some judgements are being plucked from thin air and presented as wisdom.

Peter Smith

Midnight blue Simon. It looks black under artificial light, whereas black tends to look gray. Small details.

Peter Smith

Wel I took the advice re midnight blue from Simon Cundy at Poole many years ago. He seems well placed to provide good advice.

Peter Smith Wright

I hope you will forgive me on this Simon, but cundy has been on this a lot longer than you, so I am minded t go wit his judgement.

Stephen

Simon is right. The dress code might be black tie, but there is context which provides an idea of what would be acceptable and what wouldn’t. For example black tie at home might allow a velvet smoking jacket, but this would be inappropriate for a formal dinner in town. You need to know the attitude of your hosts and fellow guests.
Taking off your tie, in my opinion, would not be acceptable outside the home, but I appreciate folk can do what they like.

Ian

Mickael’s ties are adjustable for collar size though and the mechanism for that includes a clasp. I just wonder if the two halves of the tie would come apart during tying making it difficult to form a knot?

Mickael Korausch

Dear Ian,

The clasp does not come undone when tying due to the design of it. When pulling both halves, the clasp becomes more secure.

Mickael

Hal9k

Lots of black ties in the article, but I don’t see any more colorful ones! I wear bowties from time to time, particularly for more festive, celebratory occasions. I find that they compliment a sport coat quite well, and I also wear them with suits. They don’t blow in the wind, and they don’t brush up against stuff or get caught in it. I do wear neckties for more somber, official-type scenarios, however, and for any time a bowtie might pop a bit too much.

Oh, and be sure to tie it ever-so-slightly off. It shows that it’s not a pre-tied, and gives your companion something to straighten up for you (highly underrated part of getting ready for an event).

Mickael Korausch

Dear Al,

While this articles focuses on black tie, I also make colourful bow ties to be worn daytime. We hold a selection of about 400 different woven silks you can choose from directly on our website: https://www.labowtique.com/fabric-library/

Don’t hesitate to contact us if there is anything specific you are after and we will do our best to help.

Mickael

Jack

As an architect and professor emeritus, I have often worn bow ties. Two aspects of one’s attire require additional attention with the bow tie: the shirt collar – bow ties hide the “roll” of a button down and the buttons, either buttoned or undone, do add a little too much to the neck area. Spread collars present their own issues beneath a bow tie as well. And second, the shirt placket is more exposed with a bow tie and should be substantial and well maintained (ironed). Corbusier wore a small compact, tightly tied bow tie – in fact I don’t believe I have ever seen a photograph of him in a four-in-hand. His student and well known architect, Jose Luis Sert, also always wore similar bow ties. A bow tie kept out of the way when leaning over the drafting board – alas, not an experience in today’s digital offices.

I look forward to the next installments on bow ties.

Jeff

This is quite a good comment, thank you.
Regarding the “next installment,” I’d like to add my vote to make this a reoccurring series, though realistically this is likely a one-and-done article. The decline of the non-black-tie bow tie has really accelerated, even over the past few years. Ten years ago Drake’s offered several, now not a single one on their website. My old favorite, Alexander Olch, seems to be in a state of hibernation.
I like to wear one every now and then, unfortunately they seem to have entered the realm of quirky (or worse, weird), with few opportunities to wear them in a professional setting without being known as “the bow tie guy.” This is one trend I wish I could reverse.

Aaron

If you are looking for a new source of nice bow ties the Gentleman’s Gazette shop has a decent selection. I’ve bought other accessories from them before and the quality is good.

Hal9k

Yes, once seen in one, it’s the inevitable label. And I say ‘you only WISH you could be this cool’.

Mickael Korausch

Dear Jeff,

Being labelled as the bow tie guy definitely happens.. After wearing daytime bow ties a few times, people will get used to it and stop commenting/labelling you. Whatever people wear/do, one will always be labelled, it might as well be for wearing smart bow ties!

Mickael Korausch

Dear Jack,

You are right concerning the type of collars, bow ties are not to be worn with collar too spread, no matter the shape.

They are quite practical for any job/hobby such as architecture, drawing, and most “making” activities. Hence why they have been worn by people such as Le Corbusier.

Stephen Dolman

Are there any contact details?

Karol

Simon, would you be interested in writing a post or two about your most worn and most liked clothes? The last one was a few years ago, and I suppose many things have changed since then. Maybe I’m in the minority of readers, but I was always more interested in your personal style than shop and product reviews. Would you consider writing about it more?

Karol

https://www.permanentstyle.com/2017/09/bespoke-commissions-what-i-should-and-shouldnt-have.html
Here. So my question would be, for instance: of all the clothes you bought or had made in the last 4-5 years, which ones do you love wearing the most? Which ones do you actually wear the most? And which ones didn’t work out?

Tony H

I don’t wear bow ties much at the moment (because I’m either suit and tie or wfh), but I always found the extra effort you need to put in to feel comfortable in one and not an anachronism a really useful exercise for getting out of a rut.

You can’t do the rest by rote if you’re putting on a bow tie!

Anonymous

Where was Permanent Style in 1976, when as a young man I was trying to figure this out? I have always referred to the style you and La Bowtique describe as “diamond” as “batwing,” and the straight style didn’t really have a specific name other than “straight,” but this was decades ago clearly. 

Excellent point about the width of the tie. Again in the Paleolithic age, I had read that the tie should never be wider than the wearer’s chin, but the principle holds. Whenever someone looks “off” in black tie, the wrong bow tie is often the culprit. 

Mickael Korausch

Dear Anonymous,

Interesting regarding the naming of the shape, is this something that you did personally or were “diamond” bow ties regularly referred to as batwing?

We agree that the bow tie is really often the culprit of a poor black tie attire. Even an affordable/decent fitting dinner suit will look greatly elevated with a nice bow tie.

Anonymous

I utterly love the bow tie. If possible I would wear one all the time.
Problem.
I am conscious that there is a certain perception out there about bowties. I cannot really understand it but know it exists. So that stops me being comfortable wearing one out .
I can think of very few blazers and tweeds that a navy polka dot bow cannot go with . Every time you tie one it is a little different. Every knot is different and depends on the length you chose. And all that with just one bow.
Back in the 60’s it was normal attire in the office though a little less usual than a tie. But no one would have commented.

Mike Hawthorn, the First Brit F1 world champion actually wore them with a shirt while racing!
What a man.

BRAD TOMPKINS

I think the key to wearing a bowtie successfully comes from the style of the tie, and the manner it is tied. A bit of rakish, un-fussed manner of tying can help one from looking too constrained and thus uncomfortable.

Zach S

A great point as always in relating to the constant themes here: that it would be much more interesting if more people in black tie would experiment with texture or style/shape, rather than the garish yet dull and easy different colours often chosen by those who assume black to be boring (if I see another red bow tie in someone’s uni formal pictures…)

Mickael Korausch

Dear Zach,

This is something we will be working on in the year coming, interesting textures for black tie. There are so many different weaves to be used (not as your traditional satin or grosgrain) and still look fitting with black tie.

IT

I find most modern bow ties to be too large in both, hight and width. My neck is 16-16.5, yet when I adjust a modern bow tie to that size, it ends up being almost comically wide when tied. So, I have to adjust the bow to around 14. Also, the hight on most modern bows is larger than was standard in the 1920’s-1960’s, when bow ties were popular. I bought a few vintage pieces (probably from the 1960’s) by Brooks Brothers and J. Press in batwing shape and they are absolutely perfect in both, hight and width. I simply can not find such proportions on the bows I see being sold these days. A bow tie is quite a statement piece, so, I prefer to keep the size on the smaller side. For black tie, the diamond shape seems to be the most interesting. Too bad there aren’t many places where one could wear a bow tie without feeling self-conscious and out of place. Outside black tie dress code, I wear my vintage bow ties a few times a year to my Upper East Side church in Manhattan. Even if I end up being the only person in a bow tie, it doesn’t feel unnatural in that setting. I suppose, “old money” types still wear them in country clubs and to certain private parties.

Mickael Korausch

Dear IT,

The sizing is a common issue with most bow tie manufacturers, the sizing on the band is not actually correct, hence making it difficult to tie them as they are intended to be!

By being too long/short, all the design works becomes useless.

Anonymous

You find that the Turnbull asser bows are larger . I get round this by shortening them but the knot still looks good.
Budd have smaller ones, or at least did the last time looked, which is long time back. That’s a great place for the bow tie.
barristers still get to wear them as normal attire in England. In fact Rumpole of the Bailey wore some lovely ones I recall.

Dan James

Interesting and insightful article. Never thought about the width being in proportion to the eyes or glasses. I haven’t worn black tie in over 30 years and doubt I will soon. I do remember enjoying wearing it at university and learning how to tie a bow tie for myself. Another reason to long for my callow youth.

Dominic Aiello

I have been thinking, with the right suit, either of these bows would work just fine.

BOW TIES.jpg
Russ

Ones eye is not drawn to the Marc Jacobs bow.

H

Mickael made up three velvet bow ties for me earlier this year – a dropped batwing (for me) and two butterfly models (different sizes as presents for friends).
He was great to work with and the ties are beautiful. Clearly, it’s not something I wear everyday but it is a pleasure to wear it when I do – very much recommended.

Mickael Korausch

Thank you H! A pleasure working on these for you and your friends.

Steve B

I wish I had opportunities to wear such outfit & it makes me more aware of the variety & impact of different bow tie. I must say for me Buzz from The Anthology is TDB as Edward Sexton says; very suave & could sit aside Boggie in Casablanca anyway. Is the DB jacket from The Anthology Simon?

Peter Smith Wright

Hi Simon
Can’t reply to your previous comprehensive answer on the thread itself, but just wanted to say that Simon Cundy was not expressing a personal preference when advocating midnight blue, so the well/badly dressed tailor point does not really apple here.
He was in fact simply highlighting something of the history of the DJ.
Happy Christmas!

Stephen Dolman

Hi Simon,
Compliments of the season.
Yesterday evening I watched an old
Astaire/Rogers musical from the thirties, wonderful dancing and music as you would expect.
However, Fred’s clothes were as always ,,impeccable. He wore a three piece dinner suit, single breasted with peak lapels and a single breasted shawl collar waistcoat.
But I was very taken with his choice of
Bow/Shirt
White wing collar shirt with a black butterfly bow.
I.M.H.0
That ensemble could be worn today and I guess it would receive many favourable comments
Regards
Stephen Dolman

Kenneth

Good morning..each man looks great in their bowtie and formal attire…i like wearing them because they represent a nice change of pace….is there anything wrong with a pre tied bow tie?? In my humble opinion it depends on wear you buy it…for example in the states 2 excellent companies THe BOW TIE CLUB and BEAU TIES LTD OF VERMONT make their bow ties look like they were self tied…most important gentlemen..HAVE FUN!!!!!!!PEACE ….