A decorative piece of fabric knotted around the neck has been a part of the clothing of Western men since the seventeenth century, though the exact nature of the necktie has changed frequently over that time. Neckties have been wide or narrow, brightly patterned or somber, depending on the current rules of fashion. Because business clothes for men have remained rather conservative throughout the twentieth century, the necktie was often the only piece of clothing through which a man could express his individuality. Women have also worn neckties as part of a tailored look. Women's neckties became particularly popular in the late 1970s, inspired by actress Diane Keaton's offbeat style in Woody Allen's movie Annie Hall (1977). However, neckties have predominantly been required formalwear for men.
When the tie, then called a cravat, got its start around 1650, it developed from simple, loosely tied pieces of fabric into elaborate lacy scarves that tied in back or were knotted in a bow at the neck. By the mid-1800s, however, men's neckwear became simpler. The lacy cravat was abandoned and most men wore a necktie held in place by a stickpin, or a bow tie, also called a butterfly tie. Though the early 1900s would see a short period of popularity for the English ascot, a wide scarf that tied loosely under the chin, for the most part the simple straight necktie and the bow tie would remain the standard choices for men's neckwear during the twentieth century.
Some social commentators insist, with some humor, that necktie styles can predict the state of the economy. When ties are wide and flashy, they say economic times will be hard, such as in the 1930s, a time of economic depression, when neckties were worn as much as four inches wide. Narrow and conservative ties, such as the ones worn in the booming economy of the 1950s, however, predict a healthy economy.
Whether an economic indicator or not, the changes in men's tie styles certainly indicate the social climate of the times. During the flashy 1970s, designer Ralph Lauren (1939–) introduced ties that were five inches wide and brightly colored. The conservative 1980s saw the arrival of the "power tie" in yellow or red, which, worn with a dark suit, represented the high-powered dealmakers of the time. By the 1990s the power politics of the 1980s had become identified with greed and ruthlessness, and power ties lost their appeal. No matter the time period ties have been used to express male individuality.
Gibbings, Sarah. The Tie: Trends and Traditions. Washington, DC: Barron's, 1990.
Gross, Kim Johnson. Shirt and Tie. New York: Alfred Knopf, 1993.