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Tie One On

bow-ties-bella-graceI admit it. I have taken my share of grief over the years for wearing a bow tie. My affection – or affliction – has prompted snickers, crude jokes and feeble attempts at one-liners.

I’ve been asked, just for example:

“Do you tie those yourself?” No, I want to say, my butler does it for me.

“Can I touch it?” Seriously? If you look like Grace Kelly, I would say, knock yourself out.

“Are they hard to tie?” Yes, very, I say. Rather like those sneakers you’re wearing.

Whenever I get that look, the, oh, he’s wearing a bow tie look, I just remember what a very smart and sartorially advanced gentleman once told me: “It takes a confident man to wear a bow tie.” It doesn’t hurt that women seem to notice and frequently compliment a well-chosen bow tie.

Men’s Journal recently did a takeout on “The Art of Wearing a Bow Tie.” After suggesting, incorrectly I believe, that wearing a bow tie is “always a strange choice,” the article when on to say something I do agree with: “There is no way – unless you happen to currently live in a fraternity house at a large southern university – to subtly wear a bow tie. Your neckwear will say something so you want to make sure it’s on message.”

Like the man said – confident men wear bow ties and, in my experience, the same men make a fashion and personal statement. No president since Franklin Roosevelt has routinely worn a bow tie. He also used a cigarette holder and wore those little glasses – Pince-nez – that fasten to the bridge of your nose. The bow tie was the least of FDR’s fashion statements. Harry Truman, a sharp dresser, tied one on from time-to-time, but no one since has dared except when the commander-in-chief breaks out a tuxedo for something like the increasingly silly White House Correspondent’s Dinner.

Speaking of the tux, I am unalterably opposed to the trend of men wearing long ties with a tuxedo. Call me old-school, another label often attached to the bow tie wearer, but the classic, clean and elegant look of black tie demands a bow. And, yes, you must learn how to tie it yourself. Those store bought, already tied models look like they were stamped out a press. Part of the style of wearing a bow tie is tying the darn thing.

I got my first bow tie when I was, I think, 14 years old. I bought it myself and was given a little booklet – I still have it somewhere – on how to tie the bow. I went home and stood in front of a mirror for what seemed like hours trying to master the right combination of crossovers, tucks and pulls required to cinch the knot just so. My arms began to ache from being held in an unnatural position, but I eventually mastered the art. I don’t need a mirror any more, but it helps. But, as I said, if you are going to make the statement make it all the way – tie it yourself.

Winston Churchill wore, just about every day, a navy blue polka dot bow tie. You think he had a sense of style? Humphrey Bogart wore them. Lincoln and Branch Rickey, the baseball innovator and the man who signed Jackie Robinson, wore bow ties. George Will, the cranky, pedantic columnist frequently wears one, and I forgive most of his most ill-considered rants because he does. Bow ties and the fact George Will appreciate baseball makes up for a lot of misguided political opinions. The late, great senators Pat Moynihan of New York and Paul Simon of Illinois wore bow ties. Can you see Harry Reid or Mitch McConnell in one? I rest my case.

There is a school of thought that bow ties only work with sport coats or a blazer. I’ll grant you that such pairing are generally safe bets, but former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, a great judge and a habitual bow tie wearer, pairs his ties with a dark suit and he looks just like he is – distinguished and classy. Whatever you do, don’t wear a bow tie with one of those old fashioned jackets with the elbow patches or, even worse, a corduroy jacket. It is just fine to appear scholarly or academic, but you can cross a line that you don’t want to cross pretty easily.

Some fool has said you can’t trust a man who wears a bow tie. Ridiculous. Or, its been suggested that when you are next called for jury duty, wear a bow tie. No one wearing a bow tie ever gets placed on a jury they say. Don’t believe it. I did it once and was named the foreman.

In a day when jeans and a tee shirt paired with flip flops can constitute high fashion, I subscribe to a higher and better standard. I’ve never worn a bow tie to a baseball game, but look at a photo of a game prior to 1960 and you’ll see gents in the stands dress for success. I do agree with the contention that a bow tie makes a statement. It says something about style, tradition and individuality. Think Fred Astaire and James Bond, shaken not stirred and always black tie. Think Chaplin and FDR. Teddy Roosevelt, too. Bow ties put you in good and not too crowded company.

Learn to tie one. They’re sold in many colors and shapes. Ladies seem to like them. See if you’re man enough.


The Poetry of Cities

sandburgCarl Sandburg and Downtowns

It is the birthday of the poet and Lincoln biographer Carl Sandburg born January 6, 1878 in Galesburg, Illinois.

Twice winner of the Pulitzer – The War Years about Lincoln’s presidency won the award in 1940 and his Complete Poems won in 1951 – Sandburg is often dismissed today as too much the sentimentalist. Perhaps that is why I like him very much.

I thought of Sandburg’s poems about Chicago and Omaha and other cities this morning while absorbing the news that downtown economic mainstays – big Macy’s department stores – in Missoula and Boise are soon to close. As Idaho Statesman reporter Tim Woodward noted, the Boise store was a fixture in the heart of Idaho’s Capitol City for decades; a meeting place, a lunchtime destination. Such icons are hard – impossible perhaps – to replace.

Boise once had five downtown department stores. Now it will have none. Boise and Missoula are still among the most attractive downtowns in the west, but big, old time department stores are magnets for people and help support other small merchants and one hates to see them close and you wonder what can possibly fill the void.

But, back to Sandburg.

The editor of a recent collection of Sandburg’s poetry, Paul Berman, told NPR a while back that the writer was inspired by cities: “His genius, his inspiration in [the Chicago] poem and some others, was to look around the streets, at the billboards and the advertising slogans, and see in those things a language,” Berman says. “And he was able to figure out that this language itself contained poetry.”

There is poetry in great cities and, yes, a yearning for the variety and uniqueness of downtowns where people gather, things happen and the look and culture is much different – and vastly more interesting – than a strip mall or suburban shopping destination surrounded by acres of parking.

In one of my favorite Sandburg poems – Limited – the narrator is headed to a city, or at least a final destination.

I am riding on a limited express, one of the crack trains
of the nation.

Hurtling across the prairie into blue haze and dark air
go fifteen all-steel coaches holding a thousand people.

(All the coaches shall be scrap and rust and all the men
and women laughing in the diners and sleepers shall
pass to ashes.)

I ask a man in the smoker where he is going and he
answers: “Omaha.”

Read some Sandburg. This is a great site to sample some of his enduring work.