Noticing the tie that binds

Menswear: It takes men with a certain - oh, je ne sais quoi - to wear a bow tie. And since they stand out in a crowd, they tend to bond.

July 20, 2000|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

So what do Abraham Lincoln, Stan Laurel, Harry Truman, Frank Sinatra, Karl Marx, Steve Jobs, Winston Churchill, Donald Duck, Mark Twain, Frederick Rasmussen, Manet's "Olympia," Minister Louis Farrakhan and virtually the entire male membership of the Nation of Islam have in common?

Well, of course, they all wear (or wore) bow ties.

Olympia's admittedly is only a bit of string but then again that's about all she wears except for a bracelet, a pair of bedroom slippers and a hibiscus bloom in her hair.

Farrakhan and his followers mostly wear narrow straight-edge bow ties, usually red or black, although the minister often wears the more assertive butterfly style.

Marx's beard often obscured his.

Churchill, Great Britain's World War II prime minister, invariably wore the traditional butterfly in a conservative white polka dot on a navy background, befitting his Conservative politics.

Duck favored an uninhibited red.

"The bow tie wearer wants to be a little bit different," says Kirk E. Hinckley, president of the international Bow Tie Club catalog. "They want to be distinct. They're proud of their difference. And they're showing it through their bow tie.

"The type of individual who wears the bow tie is a very autonomous person," Hinckley says, "a doctor, a lawyer, a professor."

A duck.

"They work in very horizontally integrated businesses, I guess you would call it," says Hinckley, who not only sports a bow tie, but also an MBA from the University of Baltimore. "They can show their autonomy. They can show their independence. Car salesmen: I've got a couple of Jaguar salesmen who like to wear them."

Pediatricians love bow ties, he says. They don't get in the way and babies can't play with them.

"Architects love bowties," says the 33-year-old Hinckley. "They want to look structurally different.

A friendly crowd

The Bow Tie Club, he says, derives from the camaraderie shared by bow tie wearers: "It's a club where all you have to do to be a member is wear a bow tie."

The "club" is actually a commercial venture launched by Hinckley, who got the idea while working in the shirt and tie departments at Brooks Brothers, Joseph Bank and Nordstrom. He found bow ties seemed an afterthought.

"We were treating the bow tie wearer as a second-class citizen," he says.

Which is definitely not how bow tie wearers think of themselves.

"You look at bow tie wearers," he says, "you know that person has confidence and control of their life. ... It shows they have control of what they wear. They can be a little bit different and be independent. They have some power at work, or some autonomy.

"But the best thing about the bow tie is that you know immediately who the person is: It's the bow tie man."

A convert

Hinckley was born in California and lived in Scotland until he was in the fifth grade. His father worked for Westinghouse Corp.

The family moved to Maryland; he attended Catonsville High School then graduated from the University of Indiana in 1988; he earned his MBA in 1991.

He converted to bow ties about three years ago when he launched his bow tie business.

With his fiancee, Corinne Hsu, he cuts ties from silk imported from Como, Italy, and the interfacing that gives them body, from a kind of polyester material. They send the lot off to Baltimore seamstresses."[The bow ties come] back in finished form," says Hinkley, who now lives in Silver Spring. The couple ships the finished ties to customers in all 50 states and abroad to about 20 countries. He figures they sell 3,000 to 4,000 ties a year.

His pink elephant tie is a hit among Republicans, and he's working up a donkey tie for Democrats in time for the election season.

Hinkley advertises his current collection, which may run to 165 patterns, in the New Yorker, Smithsonian, Johns Hopkins Magazine and especially Civilization, the magazine of the Library of Congress, which brings the best response. Bow tie wearers are nothing if not civilized.

A bond

An example of the inveterate bow tie wearer is Gilbert Sandler, the seasoned chronicler of Baltimore's urban foibles and folkways.

"We who wear them are kind of a fraternity, like freemasons, we understand one another," Sandler says. "We share a common understanding and we wave to one another like truck drivers on the road, so to speak, like old Mustang owners. We know.

"It has to do with the feeling that you want to strike a pose, of sorts, to confront the conventional with a kind of smile, a touch of the quixotic. There's a certain joi de vivre about a bow tie."

He's eating a turkey burger in Werner's, the Redwood Street restaurant and the perfect place to discuss the somewhat retro bow tie.

"In these days of casual dress you see people with no ties, much less bow ties," he says. "When I get on the light rail, as is my wont, I am not only the only person with a bow tie, I am the only person with a tie. Look around you! Look around you! Do you see another tie?"

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