Editor’s Note: First, THANK YOU to James Grant who threw in a great story while I am finishing up my family’s medical issues. Second, the site is still not repaired so apologies for only one image but this is such a great piece you probably won’t mind.
When I was a boy, I once asked my father why I had to wear a tie to church? Without much hesitation, he said: “Because we are Presbyterians, and Presbyterians have standards and discipline.” That was about what I expected. Over the course of many years, my father used that old “standards and discipline” mantra many times. Perhaps most effectively, I think, when he was addressing his Tennessee National Guard company. “Men: We are Company K of the 278thInfantry Regimental Combat Team. We have standards and discipline!”
Don’t get me wrong. My father was a great guy, my mentor, my friend, and my best man. Moreover, I have occasionally caught myself using that same “standards and discipline” justification with my own daughter, Betsy.
I have always had a thing for ties. During my career in the furniture industry, there was an old adage: “Fabric sells upholstery and color sells fabric.” You could say the same about ties. In my first submission to Ivy Style, I detailed my metamorphosis to the Southern Collegiate Style during the summer before my junior year in high school. My friend, George, took me to Bill King Clothiers in Bristol, Virginia, a shop which catered to a college and young adult clientele. My first purchase was a pair of Bass Weejuns® for $11.95.
The second purchase was a regimental stripe or college tie – navy stripe on deep red. I think I paid $5.95 for that tie. I wore it with a navy blazer and khakis, but it looked great with a Carolina blue Gant shirt and my Haspel gray seersucker sack suit. That tie served me well for many years. I do not recall how long it lasted, but somewhere along the line, I had to toss it out. I have not conducted any empirical research on this, but it is my considered opinion that a tie can only withstand so many beer spills. I bought another tie just like it, which I still wear today.
Over the years, I have had many similar striped ties in a variety of colors. Most of them are still hanging on my “active” rack, although they are thread-bare or frayed at the edges. Others have been discarded, having succumbed to the rigors of a life well spent.
The last tie I purchased was at Windsor, England, in November 2019. It was a wool Scottish tartan tie in a setting, which is coincidentally the tartan of the 1st Strathspey Fencible Regiment, recruited and led by Colonel Sir James Grant in 1793. And yes, that is also my name. DNA evidence, however, clearly shows that I am not related to Sir James, although it would be pretty cool if I were.
When I was stationed in England in the U.S. Air Force, I drove over to Cambridge University on one of my days off. I thought the university town would be a great place to buy college ties. Au Contraire!
There was a dignified men’s shop right across the street from Great St. Mary’s Church, King’s College, but they would not sell the “old school ties” unless you were a student or alumnus of the college. Undeterred, I walked down the street several blocks to a less-prosperous looking shop with a more pragmatic salesclerk. He agreed to sell me three or four ties – as long as I promised NOT to wear them in Cambridge. I immediately crossed my fingers and assured the nice man that I was heading back to the States that very week and would only wear them after I returned home.
Unfortunately, that minor coup proved to be a Pyrrhic victory. When I got back to base, I donned one of the ties, and to my regret, it was about two inches too short, using the simplest knot I could contrive. Those ties must have been designed for little boys – definitely not for a lanky 6’4” air force sergeant.
I was told by an aficionado of style, Mr. Kent Brewer of H. Stockton in Atlanta, that a gentleman’s tie should just cover the belt buckle – never above and certainly never below in
Trumpian fashion. Sometimes you just have to tie the thing two or three times until you get it right. Kent Brewer was a true gentleman and a great salesman, and he always remembered my name, even though I was certainly not among his more affluent customers. Even after we moved to North
Carolina, my wife could place a phone order with Kent, and he always got it right. Another purchase proved to be more successful, although I had no hand in it. On this occasion, I was with friends – an older couple, Mr. and Mrs. Talcott Williams, who had taken a poor American boy under their wings. We were having a pint in a pub near Piccadilly in London and the lady left for a few minutes. When she returned, she said she wanted to buy me something and asked me to accompany her down the street to a men’s clothing shop. The name of the shop was John Ericson Ltd., 37 Jermyn Street, St. James. When we got there, my lady friend had selected a good-looking Royal Air Force officer’s tie. Apparently, the clothier had questioned my bona fides – sort of like the situation in Cambridge with the college ties. The gentleman asked if I was an RAF officer. I said no, but after crossing my fingers, I told him I was an American Air Force officer, stationed at RAF Chicksands, in Bedfordshire. I introduced myself as “Left-tenant Grant.” He thought for a moment, mumbled something about wanting to accommodate “our American guests,” and said he would put the tie in a bag for me. My lady friend pulled a £20 note from her handbag. (The rate of exchange in those days was £1/0 = $2.40). I do not know how much that tie actually cost, but it was expensive. I still wear it with great pride today – 52 years later. And when I do, I think fondly of my benefactor, Mrs. Helena Williams of Carlton, Bedfordshire.
On another occasion, Mr. and Mrs. Williams took me to the horse races at Newmarket. Talcott Williams was a graduate of Wesleyan College in Middletown, Connecticut. He served as a U.S. Army officer in the South Pacific in World War II. (In fact, he has the distinction of being one of the last horsemen in the U.S. Army Cavalry.) After the war, he went to Oxford to study English literature, where he met his wife, Helena. Talcott remained in England and taught literature at a boarding school in Northamptonshire.
In the bar at the Newmarket racecourse, I commented on Talcott’s attractive silk foulard tie. He mentioned that he had purchased it at an exclusive shop called Edouard (pronounced A doo-ar) on Regent Street in London. It was a misty, cold, gusty day on the racecourse – typical British weather. As the afternoon progressed, I noticed Talcott wiping his nose on that beautiful tie. Needless to say, I made a mental note not to accept any gifts of ties from him.
On another one of my weekend jaunts, I visited Oxford University. And as I was wont to do in those days, I went into a public house and ordered a pint. I noticed that there were many neatly-knotted ties – perhaps a hundred or more – tacked to the wall near the bar. The display was spectacular and very colorful. The innkeeper seemed to know what school, college, regiment, or club each tie represented. It was fascinating to hear him regale anyone who would listen about their provenance.
My all-time favorite tie was purchased during fall semester 1966 at a store on Cumberland Avenue in Knoxville, Tennessee. Over the course of my career, I have become almost completely impervious to a salesman’s pitch, but when I was in college, I was not quite so hardened. The store manager was a great salesman and took the time to explain how the buyer had hand-selected this particular tie for the discerning young gentleman who wanted to portray his school spirit in a definitive, tasteful way. He was careful to point out that the bold orange and the thin white stripes represented the colors of the University of Tennessee, and the thin green stripe was meant to portray the beautiful sward of Bermuda grass on the floor of Neyland Stadium, and the navy stripe was juxtaposed to the orange to provide contrast, while also representing the university’s handsome navy and orange band uniforms. He was really smooth and did the two things all good salesmen do. (1) He made me feel like I was the most important customer that had ever entered his store, and (2) he convinced me that I just had to fork out $7.99 for that beautiful orange and blue tie. And for once, I am glad the salesman prevailed. That was the best and the longest-lasting tie I ever owned. Although it is frayed and tattered, I would not hesitate to wear it today – 56 years after I purchased it.
I hardly ever wear ties these days. I have been retired since 2009, so I almost never dress up. And believe it or not, there was a period in my life – perhaps twenty-five years or so – that I did not even own a pair of blue jeans. Somehow it seems like a sad commentary on what I have become when I admit that I wear jeans just about every day now – sometimes with a rumpled J. Press shirt, tartan tie, and a 3-button, natural shoulder navy blazer. The notable exception being the occasional pair of cotton khakis, with 1¾ inch cuffs, of course, which are in keeping with the “standards and discipline” of the Southern Collegiate Style.
Nunc est Bibendum.
James H. Grant,
Hickory, North Carolina