When it comes to neckwear for formal events and office attire, neckties are still by far the most popular choice, and this is especially true in North America. Bow ties, however, still have a very rich history and are widely used in more formal dress codes such as black-tie and white-tie settings that require a tuxedo. The bow tie has also experienced a bit of a niche resurgence in popularity for use with regular suits more associated with the standard necktie, as it can add an extra tinge of charm that neckties occasionally fail to deliver. But by and large, the bow tie is unequivocally linked to the tuxedo, and this is likely to remain true so as long as black-tie attire never completely falls out of fashion.
In one of our previous articles, we discussed several ways to tie a necktie, and while most people rely on one or two methods of fastening a necktie, the possibilities are quite vast. This is not so with a bow tie, as there are only at most a few ways of tying a bow tie properly. Bow ties are also perceived to be much more difficult to tie than neckties—even more so than the café knot of the necktie that showcases intricate patterns—and generally this is a true statement. But it's not as difficult as people seem to think it is, and by following this guide, you'll be able to get ready for your next formal or black-tie event in almost no time at all.
Several guides that do exist do a very poor job of explaining how to tie a bow tie properly, and this is where many gentlemen feel intimidated in the realm of formal wear. But fear not, as this guide will help you master your skills with a bow tie so you won't be pacing around at the last minute, burying your face into your hands and rushing to the nearest department store to buy a pre-tied bow tie (and please don't ever do this, and we will cover why you shouldn't later on).
But before we get into tying the bow tie properly, we need to go over the right way of selecting one that is right for your own personal style as well as the particular dress code for which you'll be needing one.
Choosing The Right Bow Tie
A black bow tie made from silk or satin is the gold standard for black-tie dress codes and events that require a tuxedo. A black bow tie will also pair nicely with other less formal suits, giving you more versatility in your wardrobe if you want to give yourself a change of pace from a consistent rotation of neckties. Other materials, patterns, and colors besides black for bow ties can also add an edge to your outfit, but keep in mind that these would not be acceptable for strictly black-tie events. Just make sure that when you do settle on a bow tie that you like—whether it is a standard black one or something more colorful—it is one that you must tie yourself. Avoid pre-tied bow ties and especially clip-ons, as these will severely diminish the class, appeal, and overall sophistication of your suit or tuxedo. The only exception to this aforementioned rule would apply to wedding parties that require strict uniformity in dress; a pre-tied bow tie is going to be perfectly symmetrical unlike a self-tied bow tie, so if you plan on being a best man at someone's wedding you might be required to wear one that is pre-tied. But for all other events and purposes, tying your own bow tie is always going to be the preferred—if not mandatory—way to go.
Even at high-end department stores and boutique shops, most bow ties that you can tie yourself have an adjustable strap in the back so you can fit the tie to your neck size accordingly, and this is perfectly normal and acceptable. Some men, however, want a bow tie that is fabricated to fit their particular neck size without the gap that is inevitably present with an adjustable strap. Just keep in mind that finding one of these is going to be more difficult but certainly not impossible. In most cases, a tuxedo jacket will cover the back of the bow tie anyway, so the part of the strap that adjusts the length will not be visible. This is also only a slight concern when wearing a wingtip collar. As spread and cutaway collars never expose the back part of a tie, you'll be better off with the more common bow tie that comes with an adjustable strap. As with many things when it comes to nuances of formality, it's all a matter of personal taste, so choose accordingly.
Joking aside, you will want to leave yourself a little extra time than you normally would need for tying a necktie, as nailing down the bow tie just right can take a bit of trial and error. You may even want to practice tying it around your neck first without a collar; sometimes people find this easier at first than tying it with the shirt you plan on wearing to your formal event.
Now we'll explain the steps of actually tying the bow tie.
- Drape the bow tie around your neck- You'll notice that the ends of the tie are flat and parallel to the ground. As a general rule of thumb, the bottom of the right end of the tie (from your own vantage point) should be aligned with the kink (or taper) of the left end; as a result, the left end of the tie will be slightly longer. You may have to adjust this as you practice tying the bow tie in order to get things just right.
- Take the longer left end of the tie and cross it over the shorter right end. The left end of the tie should now be to your right as you hold it with your right hand.
- Take the end that you're holding in your right hand and pull it underneath the space between the tie and your neck. Pull the end so the tie fits tightly around your neck and throw the longer end that has now been looped over your right shoulder. Let it rest there for a moment.
- The other end of the tie—the shorter end—should be dangling directly in front of you. Take the bottom part of this end and fold it over the center part of the tie that is around your neck. The end of this part of the tie should now be perpendicular to the ground. Hold it in place with your left hand.
- Take the longer end of the bow tie that is resting on your shoulder and drape it over the part of the tie that you're holding in place. The longer end should now be hanging down under your neck, with an appearance similar to an elephant's trunk. Now this next part is where it gets a little bit more complicated, and where most people have trouble.
- Take the two ends of the shorter part of the bow tie that you are holding in place and fold them together over the end that is dangling under your neck. Hold these two ends in place. There should now be a small hole between the part around your neck and the ends that you are holding in place in front of you.
- Take the long end of the bow tie and carefully push it through the left side of the small hole between the part around your neck and the folded ends that are being held in place, with the flat end pointed toward your left.
- Each side of the loosely formed bow around your neck should have both a flat end and a looped end. Pulling the looped ends away from the center will tighten the bow, while pulling the flat ends will loosen it. You will likely have to pull both ends back and forth a few times before your bow tie is adjusted to your liking.
Keep in mind that a self-tied bow tie will always be slightly asymmetrical, as that is part of the bow tie's charm. But it shouldn't be completely off-center either. So you may have to repeat all of these steps before you can settle on a look that you're comfortable with.
While all of this may sound intimidating, believe us when we say that it is much easier than other people make it out to be. Once you master the bow tie, putting one on in the future will take no time at all, and this will always give you a style advantage over others who may not feel comfortable straying away from the more common necktie. It is always better to have more options in your wardrobe at your disposal, and the bow tie is one of the ways to achieve this increase in versatility.
One more thing to keep in mind when tying a bow tie is how it will sit over your collar, especially when wearing one with a dress shirt that has a wingtip collar. The front part of the bow tie should always sit comfortably over the tips, never under them. You'll also want a dress shirt that is a little closer-fitting around the neck, otherwise tying a bow tie around a loose collar will be more difficult and won't look as cohesive.Don't forget to check out our guide to different necktie knots as well, and feel free to browse our accessories so you can better complement your custom suits.