Sense and Nonsense: The Mystery of Bow Ties

During a coffee break at the Old Post Office Building in Washington, I chanced into a conversation with Mr. Marcus Cohn, the noted communications lawyer, and Mr. George Farr of the Staff of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Mr. Cohn was congratulating Mr. Farr because he was, like Mr. Cohn, sporting a bow tie. They proceeded to wonder whether Schall’s Roman collar could not be classified as something of a bow tie at least in spirit. Mr. Cohn ventured to suggest that by extension, Schall could be suspected of belonging to the bow tie cult, a high compliment indeed.

At this point, as I came late to this conversation, I half sensed that something was more at issue here. So I asked Mr. Cohn, “Why, do you have a ‘theory’ about bow ties?” He seemed enormously pleased at this, to me, curious question. He promptly reached into his briefcase and handed me a copy of his recent article in the Washingtonian called, you guessed it, “The Bow Tie Gang.” It turns out, with apologies to Mr. Frank Purdue and his chickens, that it takes a tough man to wear a tender bow tie. A bow tie, like liberty, may be one of those things whose right to wear we just might have to defend unto the death.

Mr. Cohn, the proud owner of 268 bow ties, a man capable to boot of explaining exactly how to make one of the darned things from scratch, holds that the bow tie wearer is a special breed, standing out from the normal clod. Only a select few like Daniel Boorstin, the Librarian of Congress, Art Buchwald, FDR, Abe Lincoln, or Patrick Moynihan (but the latter only on Sundays) wear bow ties. Some fool fashion critic had written in Dress for Success that no one takes a bow tie wearer seriously. Mr. Cohn, of course, thought this view laughable.

The bow tie is, in fact, the tie for the man who rejects the crowd. Its morning selection is the only creative act a really free man has each day. “Now, I must confess my own bias,” Cohn wrote. “In the mid-1930s, I left the University of Oklahoma and swam happily into the orbit of the political science department at the University of Chicago. Since then I have worn nothing but bow ties. At the time, they were for us a kind of protest, a sign — ‘though I’m not sure how — of my commitment then to philos6phic anarchy.” I presume that not even Mr. Cohn would make the writer of the Second In­augural, from Springfield, Illinois, a “philosophical an­archist” on the grounds he wore a bow tie!

Cohn, moreover, pointed out that most men’s clothes are automatic. “All men wear basically the same uniform: putting on our shirt, socks, and suit is nothing but a mechanical act re­quiring no thought or feelings. Certainly no dexterity or creativity is called for. But these are exactly the qualities we summon up when we choose and tie our ties. And if the bow tie wearer is insouciant, jaunty, a bit cockier than the fellow who hews to the more traditional four-in-hand, maybe there’s a reason.” Cohn estimated that perhaps five percent of males are gutsy enough to wear the bow tie.

My friend B. F. (Bunney) Smith, out in Atherton, California, who models elegant gowns once in a while, tells me that dressing and dressing up are indeed deep actions of a human being. She rather confirms in an indirect way Marcus Cohn’s thesis about the tie. The poor male only chooses creatively one thing a day, while the female’s whole wardrobe is a product of distinct choice. Maybe that is Mr. Cohn’s thesis — few males are strong enough to bear the burden or choice, which is something quite normal for the female.

The “Roman collar” is not distinct, of course, unless you choose, unaccountably, to wear some green or yellow shirt with it, as I have seen an occasional cleric do. The Roman collar is your basic black and white — still the most stately combination of human dress, I suppose, as wearers of tuxedos and evening dresses would attest. Cohn is right; dress does tell us a lot about how we appear, how we conceive ourselves.

I read an article somewhere recently, in an airplane, I think, about a chain-store called “The Banana Republic,” which specialized in selling refashioned old army uniforms and fatigues, materials gathered from around the world. The most comfortable and noble styles of dress were often, it turns out, pioneered by groups of men who dressed alike. But the world is full of so many different armies and navies, in so many different times and places, that we have tremendous models for dressing differently. I recall the most comfortable pair of pants I ever owned was my US Army fatigues.

The New Testament does not have much to say about dress — except that passage in Matthew which goes, “And why worry about clothing? Think of the flowers growing in the fields; they never have to work or spin; yet I assure you that not even Solomon in all his glory was robed like one of these.” Does that mean that Marcus Cohn, the one-time philosophic anarchist, cannot select a jaunty bow tie, or that Bunny Smith cannot choose an elegant gown? Not at all. Cohn had it right. “Even the act of tying the bow tie is a creative mystery. You start with a straight, inanimate, limp piece of cloth and ‘all of a sudden it’s a very decorative thing’ . . . . It’s like ‘tying a bow in a girl’s hair, or on a Christmas present.’ A bow is pure ornamentation, and the bow tie is inevitably more decorative than a four-in-hand, which merely hangs there.”

This, no doubt, is the metaphysical point — we are made for things like beauty and uniqueness beyond our given selves, like the lilies of the field. We are indeed the sole beings in the universe who can add to our ordinariness, handsomeness, or beauty, while remaining the delightful beings that we already are — ’tis a great mystery, this, mindful of that “philosophic anarchism” in which we were initially created, that which held, finally, that something, even ourselves, is better than nothing.


  • Fr. James V. Schall

    The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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