Classic Black-Tie Neckwear



The formal bow tie is not just black tie’s namesake but also its pièce de résistance as it embodies the formality and elegance of the entire tuxedo ensemble.  When a tuxedo-clad gentleman enters a room, it is the black bow shape framed against a crisp, white shirt that immediately sets his attire apart from a simple dark suit.  In the dinner suit’s heyday formal bow ties were available in an almost infinite variety of shapes and sizes.  Today the ready-to-wear options are much more limited and many of the classic variations will necessitate the services of a custom tailor or manufacturer.


Self-Tie versus Pre-Tied

The choice of bowtie model separates the men from the boys and the gentlemen from the waiters. Wearing a pre-tied bow tie to a formal function is the sartorial equivalent of using training wheels at the Tour de France.

The decision to avoid self-tie models is invariably based on ignorance rather than experience as most men have no idea that the process is virtually identical to tying a simple shoelace bow.  Anxiety over a flawed result may also be a contributing factor.  However, the fact is that a slightly asymmetrical hand-tied bow adds a unique flair to each man’s ensemble much like the natural irregularities of a real flower trumps the contrived perfection of an artificial boutonniere. 

Fixed Size versus Adjustable

Adjustable models are the norm nowadays but sized ties are preferable.  The primary advantage of a fixed length tie is that the width of the finished bow will be directly proportioned to a specific neck size as opposed to the one-size-fits-all bow which is expected to accommodate necks ranging from fourteen to eighteen inches in circumference.  And because the fitted models are made from a single piece of material, their exposed bands forego the excess fabric and unsightly clasps characteristic of the adjustable versions – a particularly important factor for gentlemen with a preference for wing collar shirts.  Fortunately, an adjustable model can be converted to a fixed size with a quick trip to the tailor.   


The following are the most common styles of bow ties.   


Name Bow Shape Tie Shape Tie Width

classic "butterfly"



 3" to 3½"

modern "butterfly"
or "thistle"
(classic "semi-butterfly")


 2¼" to 2¾"

(classic "straight-end" or "club")


 1½" to 2"


 A butterfly or batwing design can have pointed ends for a unique and classic effect.


The shape is a matter of personal preference although the pointed-end designs coordinate nicely with the angularity of peaked lapel jackets and wing-collar shirts.  The dotted lines shown on the patterns indicate where the tie blades (ends) are folded to create the bow shape.  In the case of pointed ties, the two points are achieved when the pointed tip of one blade extends beyond the square fold of the overlapping blade.  (See Tying a Bow Tie for complete details regarding the tying process.)

While its shape may be open to interpretation, the tie’s size must follow certain guidelines to ensure a handsome proportion.  Originally the rule of thumb was that the outer edges of the bow never extended beyond the edges of the collar.  However, since wing collars are now much smaller than they were, it is safer to use Alan Flusser’s rule that the finished bow should fall somewhere between the width of the wearer’s face and the outer edges of his eyes.  

In terms of tie width (i.e. the vertical measurement of the tie blades), these tend to vary by bow style as well as by current fashions.  The sizes used in the chart above are a good starting point but by no means absolute.  In general, wider ties work well with higher collars as they prevent the bow from becoming insignificant in comparison.






The term “black tie” says it all.  When it comes to neckwear for classic tuxedos, the only allowable color other than ebony is midnight blue – and that’s solely because it is considered blacker than black.  (Ironically, a midnight blue suit calls for a black bow tie.)  Any other hue runs the risk of branding you as a 1980s prom date or wedding usher.


The texture of the bow is governed by the lapel facing of the dinner jacket.  A satin lapel calls for a satin bow tie while grosgrain facings require a ribbed or textured finish such as barathea or faille.  (Technically, grosgrain and faille are different ribbed fabrics but in reality the terms are often used interchangeably.)  Like the jacket lapels, a quality bow tie will always be constructed of pure silk. 




When worn with wing collars, bow ties are placed in front of the wings.  This positioning is not only proper etiquette but also a practical choice as the collar’s wings will help to keep the bow in place by pressing it forward.