Once at a conference, as I was chatting with colleagues during a tea break, a fellow attendee came over. “Sorry to bother you,” he said, “but I couldn’t help noticing your tie. Did you go to Harrow school?”
“No, I went to Harrods department store,” I replied, and showed him the label.
He gave a half-hearted chuckle and made a little desultory small talk, but he soon sidled off. No doubt he was disappointed both by my attempt at humor and by his mistaking me for a former pupil of Harrow, the public (or elite private) school in Greater London. In Britain it’s still the case that former pupils of the public schools like Harrow and Eton occasionally wear “old school tie.” Thus, across a crowded room, that stranger took my tie for the genuine, old Harrovian article. It sported silver diagonal stripes (running wearer’s left to right) over a navy background, but beside a vague resemblance, there was no link to the school. The only time I’ve been to Harrow was when I took a wrong London Underground train.
I recount this story because it illustrates a major difference between the US and the UK when it comes to wearing striped ties. I’m aware that in the US there are many institutions with their own specific ties to denote membership. However, in the United Kingdom the striped tie is, so to speak, woven more deeply into the culture. Here, the striped tie as a signifier of membership has a long and continuing tradition. This largely began with the Victorians and Edwardians, since our forebears were great classifiers and organizers. They also took full advantage of contemporary advances in clothing production. At a time when many new schools, regiments, clubs, and sundry organizations were taking their place among established ones, they all wanted to distinguish themselves from each other. Thus the colorful striped tie, with its vast potential for customization, became a form of sartorial shorthand to signify the school one had attended, the club one belonged to, the regiment one served in, the cricket team one played for, and much, much more besides.
By the early 1900s, Brooks Brothers had noticed the striped tie’s wider popularity in Britain. Stripes were mainstream, a fashionable look no longer the sole preserve of institutions, clubs and other groups. Spying a sales opportunity, the clothier spawned a new tradition stateside. According to its website, “With the introduction of the reverse-stripe rep tie in 1902 […] we boldly separated form from meaning by inverting the direction of the stripes, to instead go from right to left. This act of fashion rebellion gave birth to a new style icon.” Perhaps the reversal was also a practical aid to save the American in London from having to explain how he’d never been to Harrow, or in the Household Cavalry, or a member of the Marylebone Cricket Club, and so on and so forth.
(Incidentally, not all British military ties have diagonal stripes sloping from the wearer’s left to right. Some follow the US fashion, which I mention just in case a gent with a military air expresses interest in your rep tie the next time you are strolling down Piccadilly.)
Back in the UK the trend continued, as we see reflected in the following claim from the Daily Mail newspaper’s fashion columnist in March 1934, writing about Cambridge University fashion trends:
Everyone is wearing club ties, of which there are four hundred distinct varieties […] for as soon as a group of undergraduates get together, the first thing they do is to choose a tie and form a club. One shop has a stock of 600 separate club ties to choose from.
The tradition of the tie as institutional symbol continues in the present day. Here in the United Kingdom, the overwhelming majority of school pupils (at both government and privately funded institutions) wear a uniform. Most of us progress from what we call primary to secondary school at the age of eleven, and when we do we don the school tie. And the typical design of this accessory? Left to right diagonal stripes, in best British tradition. For instance, my school’s tie was chocolate brown with thin gold stripes. In the same earthy shade of brown came the hard-wearing polyester school blazer (said jacket being the other typical feature of UK secondary school uniform). Unsurprisingly, a lack of demand meant that matching brown polyester trousers were never easy to come by, so my school allowed us to wear grey instead.
After five years of wearing a striped tie every day at school, could it be that a certain ennui sets in? Add to this the ever-present need to avoid pre-existing designs that are associated with a specific institution, and the result is that the range of striped ties offered for sale in most British shops is relatively restricted, predictable and unexciting.
I was indifferent to the striped tie’s charms for years, having only the aforementioned blue and silver item in the wardrobe. But people change, and maybe I’m more open to different ideas as I get older. Learning more about the Ivy look has certainly given me an alternative perspective on striped ties. Seeing images of them worn in the US shows how easily they can grace any smart outfit. In other words, they’re not just for the classroom or the club. — MARK WILLIAMS