The Tied Man’s Burden

Last Friday, writing in the Wall Street Journal, Joseph Epstein offered a defense of the bow tie. Perhaps you weren’t aware that the bow tie was under assault, but Epstein cites three attacks, one from David Foster Wallace and two from Nicholson Baker. In each case, the attack consists of a passing phrase—mentions of “snobbishness and bow-tied anality” (Wallace), a “polymathic bowtie wearer” (Baker), and a “chronic bowtie wearer” (Baker again).

Okay, so what exactly is the case against the bow tie? Since neither Wallace nor Baker actually made one, Epstein sketches it out himself: Enemies of the bow tie apparently believe that it connotes a fussy formality, that its wearer is “overly precise, cold-blooded, unimaginative, pompous and, let us for good measure throw in, mean-spirited. That’s a lot of negative qualities to attribute to a bit of colorful cloth tied around a fellow’s neck, but there it is.”

Yes, there it is, a critique completely invented by Epstein himself. But never mind the source—the point is that Epstein simply will not take “all this animus” lying down and notes that it amounts to “an attack on formality itself.” In this way the phantom assault on the bow tie becomes a skirmish in a larger war, leading Epstein to lament the increasingly casual attire on display at, for instance, the Academy Awards and the Tavern Club in Chicago. Then he takes a curious turn. He is no conformist, he declares, but is really “happiest going against the flow” and is faintly amused “at all those poor stiffs who fail to grasp the subtle wit to be found in a bow tie.”

Now, I’ve known a few men with excellent taste in clothing, formal and otherwise, who can get away with the occasional bow tie as just one more facet of a large and complicated wardrobe. But the same cannot be said of the vast majority of bow-tie wearers, and particularly the chronic ones. What those folks are up to isn’t really so subtle at all. Epstein’s protestations to the contrary, the truth is that there’s nothing so flattering in contemporary American life as coming under fire for being one of those gosh-darned nonconformists.

This is particularly so among those who hold the most conventional views imaginable on topics up to and including the importance of looking spiffy. In the absence of actual eccentricities of the sort that really do inspire animus, the bow tie is a useful short cut. It is a stunt accessory, with the sole function of drawing attention to the supposedly maverick and “against the flow” worldview of its wearer. Its true analogue is the kid with the green mohawk and safety-pinned shirt complaining that everyone is staring at him all the time. The bow tie, in short, is the nose ring of the conservative.

Moreover, the particular beauty of expressing your individuality by sporting a bow tie—as opposed to, say, wearing your pants backwards—is that the secret of your devilish nonmainstreamness will be perfectly obvious and instantly understood by everyone. No one can possibly misunderstand the message, and that’s important. That way you can be certain that you’ll inspire only the sort of disapproval that actually enhances your individualist credibility—even if, sometimes, you have to make up that disapproval yourself.