The Ties That Bind – Communication Through Neckwear | Brunswick Group
Brunswick Review Issue 2

The Ties That Bind – Communication Through Neckwear

What a man wears around his neck may be more than decorative – in Britain at least it can demonstrate kinship with a sporting, educational or military group.

Written by: James Furber, Farrer & Co

In his 1948 collection Every Idle Dream, the British golfer and essayist Bernard Darwin writes convincingly of a link between the heraldic colors of the Middle Ages and the use of colored ties to indicate allegiance to a school, university, regiment or club.

Such heraldic colors were first worn as hat bands in the 19th century, a phenomenon still seen in London on those distinctive Panama hats denoting membership of the MCC (Marylebone Cricket Club). But it was with the advent of neckwear in its current form in the 1920s that the wearing of colored ties to demonstrate kinship with a social or educational group was firmly established.

Ties of this kind are a very British invention. American institutions founded on British principles often issue them (although the signet ring is a more common manifestation of having been at a particular school or college).Continental Europeans are typically particular about their neckwear, but a Christian Dior- or Chanel-designed tie is nothing more than the expression of a well-dressed man.

Exeter College, Oxford, is said to have been the first organization (in 1880) to produce a colored tie or cravat, comprising ribbons taken from student boaters. Around that time it was becoming necessary to establish colors or combinations of colors that you could call “your own”. Eton College and Westminster School, for example, both wanted pale pink and decided that a boat race on the Tideway was the best way to determine the rival claims. Westminster won and Eton had to settle for pale blue. 

Military ties are invariably characterized by strong hues, reflecting the bright uniforms of previous centuries. The tie of the Brigade of Guards, for example, is dark blue and red, indicating the blue blood of royalty and the red blood of the fighting men. 

The great London clubs for the most part do not have ties, the most notable exception being the Garrick: after the MCC, this must surely be the most worn and noted club tie in the English capital. Its pink and light blue colors conspicuously adorn the necks of actors, barristers, judges and other practitioners of the creative and imaginative arts (including writers and politicians).

Like the Garrick, many schools, universities and colleges have two versions. In some cases, one of these will have the institution’s colors and the other a shield or other heraldic sign. In other cases, it is merely a different arrangement of colors – a more sober crested “town” tie to be worn with similar more sober town attire and a brighter “country” alternative indicating that the weekend is either on its way or has arrived. 

Such variety has spawned multiple similarities between ties of different meaning, creating frequent confusion when used as a means of communication. The Old Uppinghamian school tie, for example, bears a more than passing resemblance to that of the Free Foresters Cricket Club.

The unwary can also fall foul of transatlantic differences. The stripes of a traditional British club tie are higher on the left-hand side, moving down diagonally to the right – but in the United States where Brooks Brothers does a roaring trade in the British look the stripes are cut in the opposite way. English club men wandering through Manhattan are known to be responsible for several cases of mistaken identity.

Some ties appear regularly at certain times of the year. The first day of a Lords “Test” match will bring out MCC ties all over London as wearers broadcast the message on their way to work that they have no intention of staying in the office much past 10:30am so that they can be at the ground in time for an 11:00am start. At other major sporting events, the members of the clubs involved (the All England Club for Wimbledon tennis or the Royal & Ancient for the Open golf) will don their ties as a matter of course, attracting sometimes envious looks from those outside these privileged elites. 

Occasions on which there is no getting out of wearing a tie (a formal wedding, for instance) are especially interesting for students of this sartorial art. Such events evoke in people a desire to wear the tie of which they are most proud, a decision which speaks volumes about the individual if observers have inside knowledge of the options that might have been discarded. 

Old Etonians tend to look upon their own tie as superior to anything else in the neckwear line and interestingly eschew club ties as a class if they are not wearing their own. The tie of the Hawks’ Club (the Cambridge sporting club) is seen much more frequently than that of its Oxford counterpart, the Vincent’s. Perhaps that is because the latter can be confused with the Royal Navy by those who cannot remember whether the crown on such a tie should be silver or gold.

Ties, of course, can be used to good advantage in tight situations. The late Robert Warren, Executive Editor of the News of the World, would when called upon to defend his paper in court in defamation cases wear his “Wavy Navy” (Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve) tie. He was confident that the judge in question, and possibly some of the jury, would take note and realize that Robert, known for many years as “the Admiral,” had been prepared to lay down his life in the service of Queen and country.

There are many other opportunities for ties to make a positive impression, notably at job interviews. Thorough research can establish the antecedents of a particular interviewer, prompting a shrewd interviewee to pick a tie that demonstrates shared allegiance to school, university or sporting institution.

The joy of multiple club membership, another characteristic of the British sporting classes, can produce odd results when it comes to ties. The story goes that four famous cricket clubs were competing one weekend in the English county of Kent – the Eton Ramblers against I Zingari on the Saturday and the Free Foresters against the Butterflies on the Sunday. One might assume that 44 people (four teams of 11) were involved – but while there were 44 ties (and cricket sweaters) on display over the two days the fixtures in fact only required 22 players. It was simply a matter of everyone changing their allegiance (and tie) from one day to the next. 

What of the future? Some say the younger generation, who often decline to wear ties at all, are no longer interested in neckwear as a form of personal communication. We will see. The recent increase in the sale of “school” and “club” socks is perhaps a sign of a new trend in Britain to display social and sporting affiliations on the ankle. 

James Furber is Senior Partner of Farrer & Co, a law firm based in London. He is eligible to wear the ties of the Old Westminsters, Gonville and Caius College (striped, coat of arms and summer order), the Cambridge Hawks’ Club, the Old Stymies’ golfing society (Cambridge), Farrers’ Sporting, the Royal and Ancient Golf Club, Royal St George’s Golf Club (stripes and crest), Royal West Norfolk Golf Club, Royal Blackheath Golf Club, Old Westminster Golfing Society, London Solicitors’ Golfing Society, Company of Farrer Golfers (striped and crested), Estates Golfing Society, The Oystercatchers, TAGS, Duchy of Cornwall and Barts Hospital Golden Oldies. Despite this extensive wardrobe he also enjoys the informality of an open-necked shirt.


The digerati are open at the neck, traditionalists don ties. Simple enough, isn’t it? Well, no, actually.

The night before a major property company presented its latest results recently, management and key advisors spent a good ten minutes discussing whether they would wear ties the next day. In previous years the company’s executives had gone for the informal look: would analysts and journalists interpret ties as evidence of a new conservatism, an attempt to cover up bad results, a change of company strategy? Or would they merely think, perhaps, the chief executive looked rather smart? The tie vote won, just.

Sir Richard Branson’s reluctance to wear a tie has long been an element of his personal brand. With the arrival of the internet, a new generation of bosses decided to wear their shirts with open necks too. For many fashion commentators, this is a mistake. They point out that many collars are cut specifically to be worn with ties, that many necks look better covered with a silk knot. 

The move to cast off ties has led to other confusion, most notably when Gerald Levin, the 60-year-old CEO of Time Warner, went without his tie for his company’s marriage to AOL. Did he know that Steve Case, the AOL Chairman and CEO, would dress up for the day, appearing next to him on the platform in dark blue suit and red tie? The move has come to symbolize the difficulties that a normally buttoned-down publisher was to find living with a freewheeling internet entrepreneur.

As the property company executives realized, putting on a tie can be as big a statement as removing it. A Financial Times correspondent was fascinated to find the founder of Facebook, a man normally in sandals and T-shirt, looking formal when they met for lunch: “Mark Zuckerberg is wearing a tie.” The piece went on to explain why: “In Silicon Valley, where jeans and open-necked shirt are de rigueur, Mr. Zuckerberg’s neckwear stands out. Mr. Zuckerberg says wearing the tie is a way to send a signal to his (nearly all tieless) 900 employees that this is a critical year for Facebook’s development.”

Kim Fletcher is Managing Director of Trinity Management Communications, part of the Brunswick Group.