Tying Up Loose Ends
A reflection on the bow tie – that magical piece of neckwear – with bow tie enthusiast Ray Frensham
Article by Adrian Peel Photography by Andy Barnham
For those of us who are overly self-conscious, the thought of wearing a bow tie in public tends to fill us with dread. After all, it’s only freaks, geeks, eccentric university professors and figures from the distant past like Winston Churchill who wear them, isn’t it?
And if I were to go out proudly sporting one anywhere in the Home Counties (where I’m from), I would surely receive verbal abuse and possibly even a beating from a menacing gang of youths, wouldn’t I?
They wouldn’t care that very tough characters in recent successful TV dramas have worn them to great effect (I’m thinking mainly of Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders and especially of Albert “Chalky” White in Boardwalk Empire). As ever, I imagine Downton Abbey has also played a major part in this mini-renaissance…
But that said, I have seen more and more young(er) people wearing them over the past couple of years, mainly at weddings. In fact I myself bought my first bow tie in Ross, one of those ridiculously cheap American outlet stores, in Denver, Colorado in 2013, so they are a fairly new addition to my wardrobe too.
Made by Tommy Hilfiger, my purchase was a 20-dollar silk bow tie and pocket square set, though thankfully not a matching set. Excited about wearing it and impressed by the price, I later returned to the shop and bought two more but, in my heightened state of enthusiasm, I failed to notice that one was polyester and the other was pre-tied AND polyester…
The most sartorially acceptable of the three (i.e. the one that wasn’t polyester) was red and blue striped and, as it wasn’t pre-tied or clip-on, I had to learn how to tie it myself. Cue a visit to YouTube and a frustrating couple of days trying to get it right. My wife, after watching the same video, finally showed me how to do it.
I would like to say that after that I never looked back and that I now wear bow ties all the time, even when popping to the shops, but that would be a lie. I have worn one on a handful of occasions and have since acquired another: a lovely wool and silk blend I found in a Hackett clearance sale in Mexico.
One important thing to remember when tying a bow tie is that it shouldn’t be too symmetrical (one of the reasons why pre-tied bow ties are best avoided). A slightly askew bow tie gives a pleasingly nonchalant air of relaxed elegance and of not trying too hard. Clip-on bow ties that reek of fancy dress should never be worn by anyone over the age of 11, especially in the presence of Queen Elizabeth II, who is apparently able to spot one a mile away.
So what are you waiting for? Elegant, emphatically back in fashion and with some truly wonderful designs on the market, there really is no excuse not to start wearing a bow tie on a regular basis.
Anyway, let’s hand over to Ray Frensham to get his views on the subject. If I haven’t convinced you to “go bow,” I’m sure he will…
Please could you tell me a bit about yourself, where you’re from, your professional background and what it is you do.
I was born in 1952 in the East End of London. I’ve had what the Americans call a “checkerboard CV,” jumping from everything from investment banking and Lloyds of London insurance to running rockabilly clubs and setting up an indie record label and song publishing companies.
By 1986 I was working in TV as a researcher, starting with the last series of The Tube, the Channel 4 music show. I carried on in TV and eventually moved into screenwriting and ended up as chairman of the London Screenwriters’ Workshop.
Then in 1995 the first of many editions of my book Teach Yourself Screenwriting was published. It’s still a worldwide bestseller, now titled Break into Screenwriting. I still do the odd weekender course and later this year a new edition will be out again in South Korea, so they are inviting me over there to do a few lectures and workshops for the launch.
I retired about three years ago, so now I just wake up each day and decide exactly what I want to do and where I want to go. I do like travelling and, well, just watching the world go by.
How long have you been wearing bow ties? What do you like about them?
I’ve been wearing bow ties since the day I first learnt to tie one; I was about 16 or 17. I remember standing in front of the mirror, having tied the tie a few times, and saying to myself: “From now on, if ever I have cause to wear a suit or jacket, I will only ever wear a bow tie, with all the accessories like a silk handkerchief in my top pocket.”
Why wear them? Well in those days, nobody was wearing them – they were like a species close to extinction. So there was that element combined with my own passionate individualism (I’ve always felt somewhat different to most other people, but not in an arrogant or snobbish way). I suppose I saw it as a crusade before it became an addiction!
Have you noticed an increase in the number of men wearing bow ties in recent years? If so, why do you think that is? Have programmes like Downton Abbey and Peaky Blinders been instrumental in making them popular again?
Thankfully yes, a definite increase. I suppose the retro scene has to take some credit here, but outside of that crowd, I noticed it first started about ten years ago in Sweden and then in the USA (probably through things like the preppy revival and even Abercrombie & Fitch) – and they all prided themselves in being able to tie their own bows.
Downton Abbey has certainly rekindled an interest in formal dressing, especially stiff collars and white tie etiquette. The one thing that Peaky Blinders has been responsible for – if you ask the menswear retailers – is the popularity of the stiff rounded collar (the Arundel) worn with a tunic shirt and front stud, but no neckwear. The other influence is in the haircuts: the short shaven sides and variations thereof. Personally, I’ll stick with Ripper Street (they were there before Blinders!).
How often do you wear bow ties? Why should someone switch from a tie or cravat to a bow tie?
I wear bow ties all the time (one of my email addresses starts bowtieguyuk2000…). You start to realise it becomes a kind of signature look and people expect to see you wearing one. It’s certainly handy if you are in a crowd or, say, at a conference and someone says, “Who/Where is Ray Frensham?” and they’ll say, “He’s over there – the one in the bow tie.”
I only have a few straight ties (mostly black, for funerals). When I have to wear one, often I will stand in front of the mirror and I’ll have temporarily forgotten how to tie it! For variety I’ll wear a cravat or sometimes a neckerchief. A lot depends on the weather, and most of the time I wear a tunic (collarless) shirt anyway.
What are some of your favourite bow tie materials and colour combinations?
I always prefer silk – they tend to tie so much better. I don’t know so much about colour combinations but I do have a rather special collection of original Art Deco and Art Nouveau bow ties that I bought on buying trips to the USA in the 1970s and 1980s. I bought them at astonishingly knock-down prices; nobody wanted them it seemed. They look, feel and tie beautifully.
I’m not a great fan of linen as they crease too much. Cotton is okay, I suppose. In the summer I tend to stick to my seersucker bows and plaids.
What advice would you give to someone looking to start wearing bow ties? Any advice on how to tie them, dos and don’ts, mistakes to avoid, etc.?
Don’t be scared or nervous and don’t feel “different.” Don’t worry about any looks you might get from others (honestly, they will mostly be approving). The trick is to wear it and then forget you’re wearing it. Oh, and learning how to tie your own bow tie is a real turn-on for many women…
To get the best results, you really need someone with you to help. Whenever I’m teaching someone – and I was even asked by Brooks Brothers UK to teach their own staff how to do it(!) – I always start by saying “I am now going to show you something that will stand you in good stead for the rest of your life: how to tie your own bow tie.”
Do you think there is still a slightly negative stigma attached to this particular item of neckwear among certain people – that they tend to associate it with nerds, old-fashioned types and eccentric university professors?
Not so much negative stigmas but definitely stereotypes – they’ve always been there. People like to label things anyway and compartmentalise things into easy packages. Perhaps it’s a little less stereotypical these days (should we blame the “hipsters” now?).
Of course, you will always get the occasional “Oooh, does it light up?” or “Does it spin round?” but bow ties are immensely practical. You don’t stain the tie when you’re eating and doctors wear them because they are more hygienic. Surgeons wear them too because the tie won’t flop into the patient while they are operating.
I must admit I did once have a vision of myself striding across a university campus in my tweed suit (with leather elbow patches) and gown and my bow tie, followed by a gaggle of students. So I guess stereotypes are still useful sometimes.
Which other outlets would you recommend when it comes to buying quality bow ties? What are some of your favourite brands?
‘Quality’ bow ties are a bit of an expensive place to start: retailers like Drakes, Paul Stuart, Brooks Brothers, Ben Silver or J. Press (although you could always wait for their sample sales).
I’m more interested in supporting the newer what I call micro labels like The Cordial Churchman (they are brilliant at making individual bow ties to your own specification) or the Fine and Dandy Shop in New York…
For people who are starting out and eager to build up a wardrobe of bow ties at affordable prices, I would steer them towards places like www.TieTheKnot.org, www.KingKravate.com or www.15ties.com (all ties are $15).
What do you think of clip-on and pre-tied bow ties? Where do they stand in the crimes against fashion stakes?
Actually, in the last five years, I have completely reversed my stance of “God, I hate those pre-tied apologies on bits of elastic.” It came from a conversation I had with a seller in Boston who said “The reason I stock pre-tied ones are because some of my customers are elderly, often in their eighties and with arthritis in their fingers, so they cannot tie their own bows anymore.”
So I don’t have any problems there. I guess there is no forgiving those who should know better but just can’t be bothered to learn.
Do you consider yourself lucky? What are your future ambitions, professionally speaking?
I suppose the older I’ve got, the luckier I’ve felt. I’m still alive and relatively healthy, although of course I have now entered the medicated years – and naturally bits of the body tend to casually sort of drop off occasionally. Certainly the older you get the more you start to embrace the moment and cherish the everyday. Your whole concept of ‘time’ changes.
I don’t have any future ambitions, just to keep waking up each morning and seeing the glass half full, not half empty. I guess that’s one thing I have noticed: I have a profound lack of ambition! I’m happy to give an interview or coverage to a book or magazine that’s interested, but I don’t go out actively seeking attention.
As some friends of mine (who are Lady Gaga’s jazz quintet) said to me, they like it because they get all the reflected glamour-by-association, yet they can still go down to the corner shop, buy some groceries and not get noticed. I guess I’m quite happy to stay in the wings.