I wear a bow tie, even though John T. Molloy -- he's the one who wrote "Dress for Success" -- says that people don't trust men who wear bow ties, and think they're sneaky.
I don't believe Molloy. I associate bow ties with many things -- Abraham Lincoln, chauffeurs, Pee-wee Herman, tuxedos, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and the gags you buy at the magic store that squirt water -- but I do not associate them with the word "sneaky."
Nor, I might add, do I associate them with the bow ties businesswomen wear, the floppy ones that are supposed to make them look dignified. Actually what bow ties make them look like is middle management. This is fine -- there are people who aspire to be middle management, just as there must be people who aspire to be copilots or viola players. But they have nothing to do with what bow ties make men look like.
What bow ties make men look like is smart.
Look at Arthur Schlesinger, the Harvard historian who was part of John F. Kennedy's New Frontier. He never wears anything but a bow tie. This is why the average person probably thinks Schlesinger is smart. For some reason, in a country that cares very little whether you wrote a three-volume history entitled "The Age of Roosevelt," people will strike up conversations with bow-tied men on elevators and say with amazement: "You tied that yourself?"
It was once pointed out to Schlesinger in an interview that he always wore a bow tie.
"Do I?" he said. "I suppose I do." It was clear he felt a little embarrassed about it. Or maybe he was afraid the interviewer was about to act like those people in elevators, and compliment him for being so smart.
Now I wear bow ties myself, and like Schlesinger, I've learned that it does no good to point out to those people in elevators that it is precisely as easy to tie a bow tie as a regular tie, and what's more, you don't even have to decide between knots, i.e., four-in-hand or Windsor. (In case you never worried about it, the Windsor knot is fatter and more symmetrical than a four-in-hand -- more of a 1950s look, more Eisenhower era, which is to say pre-Kennedy and pre-Schlesinger. Less sneaky, possibly.)
Kennedy never wore a bow tie, except with formal clothes, which didn't have nearly as much impact as the fact that he never wore a hat. That just about ruined the men's hat business in this country, the way the men's undershirt business went down the tube when "It Happened One Night" came out and Clark Gable took off his shirt to reveal nothing but beefy chest underneath.
I believe there's an early song-and-dance movie that has Clark Gable as a hoofer wearing a bow tie, but he looks ridiculous, not because he's beefy or wearing a bow tie, but because he dances so badly. Still, this is why a lot of men are afraid to wear bow ties -- they think they'll look ridiculous, like Pee-wee Herman, or, arguably, like Arthur Schlesinger, who also doesn't do much of a song-and-dance routine.
It does happen to be a little ridiculous that bow ties make people think you're smart. It's like being admired because you know how to sharpen a knife or drive a stick-shift car, one of those forgotten arts that people associate with some kind of lost American maleness, like that of Clark Gable.
In fact, many people greet a bow tie with a sad, tight little smile of nostalgia and say, "I had an uncle who wore bow ties." You get the feeling this uncle probably smoked good Havana cigars and knew how to build bookshelves, too.
Most people who know how to tie them learned, in fact, from some patriarchal figure. It has to be someone you trust, in any case, because the best way to learn is from someone who comes right up behind you, wraps his arms around your shoulders and hold your hands so he can move your fingers through the whole routine. It doesn't take any particular physical grace, just a certain intimacy.
I learned from my father, who was one of the clumsiest men who ever lived. Gentle, but clumsy. He was so clumsy he just about put himself out of the bow-tie business completely one day when he was fixing my bow and arrow with a jackknife. He sliced into the top of his left middle finger, and the nerves went dead. He said the worst part was that he couldn't tie a bow tie anymore because he couldn't find "the hole."
To tie a bow tie you don't have to be smart, but you do have to be able to find "the hole," which comes right after you double the inside flap of the bow tie up and bring the outside around to tuck it under.
Fortunately, my father recovered and wore bow ties again, and tied mine when I started going to those dances where you wore tuxedos, dances where my mother got me the invitation and I didn't know anybody but I had to go anyway. My father tied my bow tie for the first one.
By the end of the dance I knew how to tie it myself. I learned the hard way. I learned when some beefy type of about 18, probably a boarding school kid, told me my tie was crooked, that he'd straighten it for me, and then he jerked the ends and it fell down my shirtfront.
This was a joke, like the joke they played on new boys at a school I went to. You'd get a square of jello with whipped cream on top, and the guy next to you would hold his hand over it and exclaim: "This jello is hot!"
Naturally, you'd put your hand over your jello, and then he'd smack it into the whipped cream. You wonder if Clark Gable, John Kennedy or Arthur Schlesinger were ever on either end of a joke like that. Or middle-management businesswomen, for that matter. Or John Molloy, for all his constant lookout for "sneakiness."
In any case, I learned to tie that bow tie myself that night, and you don't forget how -- it's like driving a stick-shift in that regard. The only trick is to be sure not to tie it too well. If you do, people will think it's one of those pretied bow ties that comes with an elastic neckstrap, and looks like Pee-wee Herman's.
I have a beefy friend, though, of the kind who untied my bow tie those many years ago, and I feel a certain smugness about the fact that he wears a pretied bow tie. He bought it in France, where they pretie them not very well.
Trust the French to know the trick -- a whole nation as smart as Arthur Schlesinger, John Kennedy and me. After all, it takes a lot of brains to understand that if you tie a bow tie too well, people will think you're too dumb to tie it badly. And if that's what they think, what's the point of wearing a bow tie at all -- unless you're just out to look sneaky?