Earning My Stripes

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

17 Comments on "Earning My Stripes"

  1. Charlottesville | April 16, 2019 at 5:06 pm |

    Delightful piece, Mr. Williams; well written and insightful. I would love to hear more Anglo-Ivy observations from you. The blue and orange colors of our local university tie were appropriated from the scarf of the Grosvenor Rowing Club in England, at least so said The Wall Street Journal recently. I sometimes wear the Virginia tie, as well as the blue and white stripe of Washington & Lee University, but doubt that many people would make the connection outside of the local community.

  2. whiskeydent | April 16, 2019 at 5:44 pm |

    Ben Silver has an incredible inventory of these ties with the names of their schools, clubs or military units.

  3. @Charlottesville

    When at UNC, ’68-’75, I often wore a “UVa stripe” tie, just because I liked it. Neither I nor anyone else that I recall made the association. However, in later years, when I found out that stripes often “meant something” to someone out there, I sort of gave up on them. I will say it’s unlikely that I’ll run across, e.g., a member of the Queen’s Own Border Bushwhackers or the like.

  4. Ezra Cornell | April 16, 2019 at 8:54 pm |

    Excellent and thoughtful piece! I thoroughly enjoyed it, and encourage the author to contribute more.

  5. Chris Rickstone | April 17, 2019 at 2:04 am |

    Mr. Williams,
    Would we be correct in assuming that rather than
    “Did you go to Harrow school?” “No, I went to Harrods department store”,
    the actual verbal exchange was:
    “Did you go to Harrow?” “No, I went to Harrods”

  6. Looking forward to Mark Williams’ next piece.

  7. Ken Pollock | April 17, 2019 at 12:01 pm |

    Nearly the same thing happened to me less than a month ago. My wife and I were at Wyndham’s Theatre in London, seeing the play, “The Price.” I was wearing a maroon tie with white stripes. At intermission, an elderly gentlemen walked up to me and inquired: “Duke of Wellington’s Regiment?” I responded: “No, Brooks Brothers.” He looked somewhat surprised and disappointed. He then simply turned and walked away.

  8. Charlottesville | April 17, 2019 at 2:47 pm |

    NCJack – Whether you think of it as a UVA tie, an Auburn tie, a Grosvenor Rowing Club tie or just an attractive stripe, I hope you will continue to wear the blue and orange in good health. I think it goes quite well with a navy blazer and white, blue or blue & white striped OCBD.

  9. Regimental and university stripes always seem to spur debate. I often wear my high school, college, and university ties, but have avoided the Ben Silver regimental collection even though I find some of the patterns really attractive. Although would only be an issue in the UK, seems very “fashion blogger-esque” to wear a regimental stripe that hasn’t been earned.

  10. The Earl of Iredell | April 17, 2019 at 4:33 pm |

    Striped ties can be fun. I have a nice orange-and-black alternating stripe from Ben Silver (the stripes are equal width, about half an inch each, and go British left to right). When I wear this tie, I invariable get the question “Did you go to Princeton?” I did not. The colors are those of my Prep. I feel that this legitimately entitles me to wear the tie without guilt. Moreover, one of my cousins (three times removed, at least) was president of Princeton (as well as president of the United States). Occasionally the colors are mistaken for those of UVA or associated (correctly, I think) with Clemson or the Bengals. The point being that there are only so many attractive color combinations to go around, and one never knows what might turn up . . .

  11. You never get any of this trouble with a nice foulard!

  12. Old School Tie | April 18, 2019 at 8:54 am |

    Given the huge number of institutions worldwide with their “own” tie, and given the limited number of colours and permutations available, when all is said and done a stripped tie, wherever it was sourced, is going to be the official tie of somewhere or other. My own old school tie, which is much admired at reunions and meet-ups is, in fact, from RL. It just happens to be a very close iteration of the (what I consider to be but may not actually be at all) original. In any case, if I buy a striped tie then it will always be a close copy of ones I already have from school or university. Ancient Madder is always the better choice when you cannot decide.

  13. The Italians also produce a lot of striped ties, but they design them in a way that they don’t look much like club or regimental ties. Brioni, Barbera, etc. It’s a different take on stripes: all aesthetic, no baggage.

  14. I like ties as much as the rest of you, but postings like this seem to be of another, more quaint era. You see, I live in “flyover” country and in these parts only security guards wear ties. (Always navy and burgundy stripes. Always!) Even most lawyers and bankers that I come across don’t wear them. I’ve thinned my tie collection down to about 24, but I sometimes wonder if that’s about 20 too many.

  15. @Don- one more reason to avoid the flyovers.

  16. elder prep | April 20, 2019 at 9:50 pm |

    To date, I haven’t encounterd anyone wearing the green and yellow (the management prefers ‘gold’) striped tie of George Mason U, my undergrad school. However, I will admit the combination is a bit startling. I was saved from satorial uniqueness by my grad school colors of UVA.

  17. I have noticed on the TV Show, Blue Bloods…Commissioner Reagan wears a tie that looks remarkably like a Royal Marines tie…I thought perhaps because he
    Is character was a US Marine ..maybe a nod…or not ..perhaps sheer coincidence.

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