The Black Knit Tie, The Great Neutralizer

Geoffrey Wolff’s novel “The Final Club” has frequently been quoted here for its insightful sartorial observations, including on the importance of understatement in the Ivy wardrobe (contextual understatement, that is, with go-to-hell clothes being another matter entirely). The reason the sack cut became the default jacket style for the Ivy League Look was because it was the sartorial expression of the quality of understatement that the Eastern Establishment value. It also provided the air of casualness (as opposed to razor-sharp boulevardier tailoring) that resonated with young men on college campuses, whose tastes shaped so much of the look.

Here’s a  passage from Wolff’s book, which is set at Princeton in the late ’50s:

Booth’s houndstooth, cut for his father on Savile Row by Huntsman during the Battle of Britain, was pinched at the waist; the boy rescued his presentation from foppery with a black knit tie and faded blue canvas Top-Sider sneakers, spattered by specks of bronze boat-bottom paint.

The passage got me thinking, but not about the character’s British-tailored jacket, which had to be rescued by “correct” Ivy items, but by the rescuing items themselves, specifically the black knit tie, which is essentially the only black item that ever achieved undisputed correctness in the Ivy wardrobe. So I asked Richard Press if he had any anecdotes or insight on how this one black item became an Ivy staple, saying it might make for a good column. Richard pointed out that he’d already done it.

Yes, we’re now at the point in the blog’s lifecycle where we come up with great ideas only to find we already did them 200 posts ago.

But the topic is worth visiting again in order to make the point that the severity of the black knit makes it a great neutralizer. So here’s a gallery of images, some of which have appeared previously on the site but never together, that together form a kind of visual ode to this neckwear classic.

Above, Paul Newman with inexplicable leather trim on breast pocket. Below, James Stewart:

The painter Jacob Lawrence:

From one of our early posts based on the LIFE archives:

“Take Ivy” author Shiro Ito:

Moving on to less celebrated tie wearers, here’s black-knit devotee P. Sears Schoonmaker:

Random web forum personality:

Joe from An Affordable Wardrobe, who’s also used the black knit to neutralize a Blackwatch sportcoat:

Me at the Easter Parade a couple of years ago:

I’ve been on a wool challis kick all this season, but I pulled out a black knit yesterday to inaugurate a new olive herringbone jacket.

Contrasting restraint and flamboyance (I couldn’t seem to find a less loaded term), is one of the keys, I think, to stylish dressing, and few items express restraint more than the black knit tie. — CC

Disclaimer: It’s possible some of the ties pictured above are actually navy.

21 Comments on "The Black Knit Tie, The Great Neutralizer"

  1. Nothing looks better with a grey/charcoal tweed jacket.

    Unfortunately Brooks Brothers have no knit ties at all and Lands’ End have none in black.
    (LE used to have them in 100% silk and 50% wool + 50% mohair as well).

    J. Press to the rescue:

  2. Re: Paul Newman; that is quite a unique jacket. Besides the strange leather trim on the breast pocket, there seems to a matching leather welt on the upper edge of the lower pocket flaps.

    More to the period; here we have another 2-button cuff.

  3. Maybe the only item that is acceptable in black.

  4. What a coincidence, I happened to being wearing a Rooster black knit today. I’m the original owner, somehow it survived all my life changes, moves, years of not wearing ties, etc.over the past 40 or so years since I bought it.

  5. Brooks had an assortment of knit ties when I was last there a couple of weeks ago.

  6. D.B. McWeeberton | February 14, 2013 at 5:28 pm |

    Also the tie of choice of James Bond in Ian Fleming’s novels (I think it’s made an occasional appearance in the movies).

  7. The various Bonds have indeed worn knit ties in both black and navy in the both the original novels and in the films.

    Bond also frequently wears solid black and navy grenadine ties. These look at first glance somewhat like knit ties although the texture is finer as they are woven rather than knit. In the movies, they are hard to tell apart unless the bottom is visible.

    The grenadine is more formal, having a conventional lining and pointed tip.

  8. James Redhouse | February 14, 2013 at 9:41 pm |

    Am I the only Trad who thinks that black loafers look far better with gray trousers than cordovan/burgundy/oxblood ones do? The same goes for black wingtips or bluchers with gray suits.

  9. My late father had 2 narrow black knit ties. I wore them in high school (1960’s) with a small collar shirt and a small tie bar. Don’t know what ever happened to them.

    If Newman wore them, they had to be good.

  10. @James Redhouse

    With regard to neckties and shoes: black is beautiful.

    With regard to trousers, shirts, blazers: God forbid!

  11. @Tabor Kid

    Most of us unfortunate mortals live in places where Brooks Brothers stores don’t exist and have to depend on the Web for our purchases.

    I should have said that their website doesn’t offer any knit ties.

  12. @Lexicologue

    Thanks for the link. I only remember the solid colors, but then I was just a young teen when they were popular.

  13. The disclaimer is appreciated; I had one myself, and some of my friends did, in navy. So we never had to subvert the Ivy norm of eschewing black.

  14. I’ve been wearing knit ties for the last year or so, and I confess myself a convert. I do not own one in black, but I do have a navy blue and a hunter green. I prefer the navy with grey and lovat tweeds, glen plaid, and seersucker, and the hunter looks swell with navy blazers and brown tweeds. Both look equally natty with my cotton poplin suit for summer dress occasions.

  15. Roger Sack | April 13, 2021 at 3:14 pm |

    No just an Ivy staple, Jack Webb, iconic 50s TV detective always
    wore a black (or dark) knit tie in character:

  16. I can empathize with the difficulty in finding new topics to write about. When I was at a start-up, I ended up writing over 1,200 posts for our corporate blog. Which led to the following COVID joke.

    So I got my COVID vaccine last week. The morning after getting it, I woke up and found that my arms and neck were unexpected sore.

    I called my doctor, and asked if that was a reaction to the vaccine that I should worry about.

    “No,” he said, “that’s just from carrying your marketing department for so many years.”

  17. Way back in the 70s I had one each in dark brown and the classic Black. It’s an ever so cool accesory to spiffy up wearing a sports jacket or even a leather one. An essential piece for every man and I still have them today.!!!

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