Bowed To Joy: Harvard Displays Architect Walter Gropius’ Bow Ties

Curio: Gropius Bow Ties

A collection of six bow ties belonging to pioneering modernist architect Walter Gropius (1883-1969) are currently on display at the Harvard Graduate School of Design’s Frances Loeb Library.

Gropius, along with fellow modernist Le Corbusier, helped cement the bow tie as an emblem of nonconformist thinking, creativity, and architectural genius. The bow ties in the collection provide a glimpse into Gropius’ personal taste, his connection to Harvard, and his thoughts about the small accessory that makes a big statement.

This article in the Harvard Gazette provides vivid photos of the lively patterned ties, as well as some background about how the ties made the trip from closet to display case. Shortly after his death in 1969, Gropius’ widow Ise gave the six ties to Chester E. Nagel, friend, collaborator, and former student of Gropius at Harvard, where the architect began teaching in 1937. The “brilliant little butterflies,” she wrote in a letter to Nagel, “were Grope’s only vanity.”

Though bow ties were common neckwear at the time Gropius wore them, his taste was nuanced and unconventional, and the article speculates that he saw the wearing of bow ties as an expression of joi de vivre:

The ties indicate that Gropius preferred natural materials (in this case, cotton) and straight bow ties rather than varieties with ends that resemble “bat wings” or “thistles,” and that he liked ties with a dash of color. Perhaps that last illustrates the architect’s desire “to make beauty a basic requirement of life,” as Nagel wrote in an essay on Gropius, “to make of living a joy.”

The article continues to enumerate the contemporary connotations of the bow tie, some of which are contradictory, others quite alluring:

Bow ties today, in a cinematic context, denote the well-turned rake, the professor, or sometimes the skinny-necked nerd. In an earlier age, they signified the architect, the professor (again), the well-educated man with a streak of rebellion, or the well-dressed archconservative.

A small testament to a man of giant influence, the bow ties are currently on display to provide inspiration to students of architecture, fans of modernist design, and well-turned, well-educated rebels. — ZD

23 Comments on "Bowed To Joy: Harvard Displays Architect Walter Gropius’ Bow Ties"

  1. Harvard Bow Tie Hall of Fame must also include professor, historian, JFK advisor Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.

  2. James Liddy | March 23, 2014 at 6:59 am |

    Most people have a negative connotation about bow-tie wearers. Same with facial hair. If that is part of one’s flair, so be it, but it puts one at a disadvantage from the start.

  3. I reckon that’s the point, Libby.

  4. Bow ties look so stupid, you better be extremely smart if you’re wearing one.

  5. Vern Trotter | March 23, 2014 at 11:24 pm |

    I began wearing bow ties as soon as I started university in 1957. A roommate was an architect and wore one because, obviously, they did not get into his plane of work on the draft board like a four in hand would. Most draftsmen/architects wore them for that reason.

    I was also influenced by public figures like Allen Dulles, Christian Herter, John P. Marquand. Not by Winston Churchill in that regard, although in many other ways. I think because of his ample girth, while the former were svelte.

    Bow ties were emblematic of a patrician class and were resented by the hoi polloi and plebian types in cities like Boston, even to this day. In case of a bar brawl, they were more difficult for your opponent to engage and were easy to discard. I began to wear them nearly all the time in the late 1970’s when the Brooks OCBD lost the collar roll. It does not matter with a bow.

    I just received a catalogue from Beau Ties Ltd. in Vermont. They offer to convert your old long neckties, any fabric, into bows
    for $35 each. True serendipity!

    A recent catalogue from Beau Ties Ltd., states they will convert

  6. Interesting bit of history about Gropius! I’ve only ever known him through his buildings in the Boston area – JFK gov. building and some on the Harvard campus.

    Though I’m fond of bow ties, they seem not to be accepted in all fields. It’s a shame they aren’t worn more commonly.

  7. Funny, bow ties were also popular among factory supervisors and deliverymen.

  8. Back in the mid 1970’s, bow ties made a sort of comeback. I recall buying a couple and wearing them once in a while. My aunt, a real bargain hunter, gave me bows (some really hideous) for gifts for years, well into the 1980’s. She must have bought them on clearance for pennies. I still have a nice burgundy butterfly foulard she gave me back then. Only wore it a few times in the last 35 years.

    In the last couple years, I’ve seen bows in most men’s stores, but I never see anyone wearing them.

  9. Ah, Le Corbusier. I can’t hear that name without thinking of the great essay on him by Theodore Dalrymple, The Architect as Totalitarian: Le Corbusier’s baleful influence. It starts like this: “Le Corbusier was to architecture what Pol Pot was to social reform,” and only gets better from there.

    As for Gropius, his infamous door handle is a symphony in confusion: pull or push to open? Any door handle that doesn’t tell you at a glance whether to push or pull is an abject failure. He may have mouthed the Modernist mantra “form follows function,” but his handle strays far from that ideal. Besides, as Roger Scruton has observed about the idea form follows function, “…if you consider only utility, the things you build will soon be useless.” (From his brilliant BBC documentary, Why Beauty Matters.)

    But I like some of Gropius’ bow ties, and I like his expression of his personal style through them.

  10. I’m from the South and bows have a much different acceptance down here.

  11. I am starting to feel that despite there being an additional writer on-hand, there is less content on the site compared to previous months. Am I wrong or off-base?

  12. In addition to Beau Ties (who will charge a one-time design fee if you want anything other than their predetermined designs), you can also get any long tie converted into a bow tie by The Cordial Churchman, a literal Mom & Pop business (he’s a pastor, hence the name). Their main business is their own line of bow ties, and they do not charge extra for custom widths or shapes.

    Full disclosure: I am a satisfied repeat customer, no more.

  13. J.I. Rodale | March 25, 2014 at 10:24 am |


    Factory supervisors and deliverymen wore clip-on bowties (or bowties held on by an elastic band).

    New England patricians, college professors, and Southern gentlemen knew how to tie them. Many still do.

  14. @Henry, what is the website or other info for The Cordial Churchman?

  15. JWK,

    Seriously? You couldn’t type that into your search bar, or add a “.com” after it?

  16. Cranky Yankee | March 25, 2014 at 4:24 pm |

    My favorite bow ties come from Drakes of London. Great patterns and they get the size and proportion just right. None of those ridiculous, oversized butterflies.

  17. @DPG

    We stick pretty closely to an every-other-day schedule, same as always.

  18. The brilliant little butterflies were Grope’s only vanity? White God No. 1’s entire work was vanity.

  19. Gropius “preferred natural materials” like concrete and glass. He inspired a half a century of public housing design. He had hideous taste in bow ties. Every time I hear or read his name I think of this song.

  20. MAC, I always think of the same song, too.

    The modernist infatuation with “natural” concrete and glass have given us decades of ugly, inhuman buildings that only get more hideous with age. It is a happy coincidence that the French term for raw, unfinished concrete gave rise to the term Brutalism, because the buildings are brutally ugly and brutal to our psyches.

  21. ‘@Dan – thanks for your helpful comment; if I was as astute as you I guess I May have thought of that but I was interested in hearing more about it from Henry.

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