A Tradition Hangs On

Ties are de rigueur for Father's Day, but why?

We loosen the colorful neckcloth's knotty mysteries

June 19, 2005|By Stephen G. Henderson | Stephen G. Henderson,Special to the Sun

You can always tell with Dad; he's not much of an actor. So, what happened after he fumbled the top off a shallow, oblong box this morning and pulled out -- "Oh, sweetie! What a surprise!" -- a pink necktie? Either his eyes went all twinkly, or the corners of his smile became momentarily stiff.

Experts say chances are about 50-50 -- call it an even ... er ... tie -- that your gift will find its way to the back of Dad's closet, never to be seen again. With these sorts of odds, it's a wonder that neckwear is still so persistently popular at Father's Day.

Yet, according to statistics from the Men's Dress Furnishing Association (MDFA) in New York City, of the 90 million neckties sold each year in America, an estimated 15 percent are given as presents on the third Sunday of June. For this seasonal spike in sales, we can thank Sonora Smart Dodd, who wasn't involved with haberdashery, but had everything to do with the creation of Father's Day.

Dodd's brainstorm came while listening to a Mother's Day sermon in 1909. Her father, William Smart, a farmer and Civil War veteran, was a widower who raised six children alone in rural Washington state. To honor his selflessness, Sonora organized the first Father's Day celebration in Spokane, Wash., on June 19, 1910. As this commemorative holiday gradually began to gain popularity nationwide -- President Calvin Coolidge was an early enthusiast -- there were no bigger supporters than manufacturers of men's neckties.

"The neckwear association was very active in promoting Father's Day as a gift-giving occasion. They were one of the first groups to do so," explained Gerald Anderson, MDFA president.

"Back in the 1920s, though, there weren't as many gift options for men. Ties were a logical choice as it's a highly personal item, yet there's no size question involved with the purchase. This tradition continues today."

An explanation, of course, that raises another question: How did men find themselves twisting a noose of cloth around their necks in the first place?

A tie timeline

While fashion historians find it relatively easy to trace the evolution of a caveman's loincloth into a pair of pants, the tie's creation is still rather a puzzle. Debate simmers around several different, though not mutually exclusive, explanations.

Some believe the neckerchief was first adopted to warm a man's vocal cords so he could more easily speak. Another school of thought holds that no sooner did Adam don his fig leaf, than men felt the need to display their sexual prowess with a conspicuous substitute elsewhere on their body. Yes, it's the infamous "tie as phallic symbol" theory and a snicker, if you can't resist, for those men who wear bow ties.

Still others insist that draped necks have a military genesis and were created to lessen irritation caused by wearing body armor. Partisans of this view point to Trajan's column in Rome, which has bas-relief figures of 2nd century Roman soldiers wearing kerchiefs under their breast plates, or the 7,500 scarved terra-cotta warriors, unearthed in 1974, but buried in the third century B.C., along with the first Chinese emperor, Ch'in Shi Huang-ti.

As for the invention of more modern neckties, nearly all costume encyclopedias attribute this to the Croats of Eastern Europe.

During the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), nearly 6,000 Croatian troops arrived in Paris in 1635 to lend their support to King Louis XIII and Cardinal Richelieu. These mercenaries sported distinctive neckerchiefs -- a style previously unknown in the West. While French officers at this point were wearing elaborate lace collars that needed to be carefully starched, the Croatian scarf's practicality -- loosely tied and left to flop about as it may -- was immediately evident. Indeed, the French word for tie, cravate, or cravat, is most likely a corruption of "Croat."

This new fad for cravats was quickly linked to an item also then in vogue, the wig. In the court of Louis XIV, you see, big hair was required to flatter big egos. These luxuriant tresses cascading about shoulders, however, left little room for starched collars. Another reason for the adoption of a central, draped tie.

"You know the French. They take appearances very seriously," said Ann Buermann Wass, who has a doctorate in costume and textile history from the University of Maryland and is the staff historian at Riversdale House Museum, a former Calvert family mansion in Prince George's County. "The cravat was soon accepted at the French court, and then came to England with Charles II after the Puritan Revolution."

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