MU art professor has eye for the tie

Friday, October 17, 2008 | 3:00 p.m. CDT; updated 11:15 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, October 21, 2008
Michael Yonan holds a homemade tie given to him by his colleague Kristin Schwain. Most of Yonan's ties come from flea markets or antique shops, and he rarely spends more than a few dollars on them.

COLUMBIA —  Michael Yonan collects vintage ties, something evident pretty much every day as he teaches art history at MU. On a subdued day, Yonan might wear a chocolate brown shirt and a matching brown tie with thin orange stripes. Nothing too wide, maybe 3 inches at its widest. 

On a wilder day, he might sport a tomato-red shirt paired with a wide polyester tie striped in red, maroon and pink.


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Yonan isn't certain, but he estimates he has at least 200 ties. Last year, he made it through all of first semester and half of the second without wearing a single tie more than once.  

"I feel I’m preserving these ties from being destroyed," Yonan said, "so that future generations can see what these ties looked like."

He said he just fell into the hobby. "I like to go to junk shops, antique malls, places like that ... I just kept coming across really interesting, beautifully made, creatively designed old ties."

Yonan has found he's not alone. "If you go online you will find a surprisingly large community of people out there buying ties," he said, adding he has never bought a tie online because he doesn't really know what he's getting beforehand, and they are usually overpriced. "Just going to the Salvation Army in town you find really interesting old ties."  

Yonan said most of his collection is of post-World War II neckties. They started out wider in the 1940s. Then came the 1950s: "They were pencil-thin with reserved, constrained decor," he said.   

Early in the 1960s, the thin tie was still the thing. But as the decade grew wilder so did neckties. 

"I think the early 1970s in particular was the golden age of the American necktie," Yonan said. He thinks the years from 1969 to 1976 were the absolute best. "They would deliberately pair up patterns that kind of clashed with each other, and I really like that."

"Ties from the '70s can be incredibly strange and wonderful," Yonan said. "The thought that in some point in our history this" — he gestured to a bright green and orange tie, almost 4 inches across at its widest — "is something that a typical business man would wear is really interesting."  

Yonan said that in the 1970s, the husband would wear a tie made from the same fabric as his wife's dress, and they would go to a dinner party together and have matching outfits.

One of the earliest forms of the necktie was the solitaire, a band that would go around the neck and then up to the pigtail of the wig. The solitaire was first introduced in the mid-18th century, around the time wigs went from full-bottomed to wigs with a pigtail.

"It was seen more of a wig retainer than it was as neckware, but it's still considered an early necktie," said Laurel Wilson, a professor in MU's department of textile and apparel management and curator of the Missouri Historic Costume and Textile Collection.

"Neckties really haven’t been used all that long," Wilson said. "The earliest neckties were actually cravats. They were first seen around the very end of the 16th century."

A cravat can be tied many different ways, but at its core it is a simple band of cloth tied around the neck. Its original purpose was as a bib to wipe one's face and keep shirts clean. The cravat was a popular form of men's neckware until the end of the 19th century, which is when the first bow ties and contemporary neckties started to emerge. Bow ties and long neckties have stayed at the forefront of men's fashion ever since.    

"The teens (of the 20th century) is when we really start to see a necktie," Wilson said. "In the beginning, neckties were much shorter than they are today, usually tucked into a man's vest." 

The necktie finally reached its longer, current form sometime in the 1940s, though, she said, long neck ties could be seen as early as the mid-1930s.

It's not just the choice of a tie that makes a statement; how it's knotted is a matter of personal style. Yonan prefers a four-in-hand knot, popular because of its clean triangular shape and ease of tying. Because most of his ties come from the 1970s, and those ties tend to be thicker, the four-in-hand produces the desired knot, not too big and not too small.  

Other knots include the half-Windsor and Windsor. The half-Windsor is a more complex knot than the four-in-hand. It produces a similar shape to that of the four-in-hand but is a larger knot. The Windsor can be difficult to tie because of its size. One of the more complex knots, it requires nine folds to complete.

But there are many other ways to tie a tie. Thomas Fink and Yong Mao used a mathematical formula to determine how many knots could be tied that still left enough length to be worn. The result was a 1999 book, "The 85 Ways to Tie a Tie."

Yonan finds the evolution of the preferred knot interesting. "In the early part of this decade," he said, "they were making fatter, wider ties again and they were tying them in the full Windsor knots, and you would see men with these huge knots around their neck. ... Now, if you consult a men's fashion magazine, you will see them with thinner ties, tied with really small knots." 

Yonan is fascinated by what is considered acceptable in men's fashion.  

"Men's fashion, particularly in America, is pretty restricted in a business sense. It tends to be fairly conservative and it tends to be fairly uniform," he said. "One of the few ways a man can project a little bit of individuality into what he is wearing is through his necktie." 

Yonan also appreciates the necktie in a deeper social context.  

"Ties reflect culture in a particularly interesting way — more specifically, American culture," he said. "One of the reasons these early 1970s ties are so wild is they reflect the cultural tendencies associated with the women's movement and the early 1970s sexual revolution; they capture the openness of the culture."  

Included in his collection are a few hand-painted ties, a custom needlepoint tie and, in the spirit of the '70s, ties with signs of the Zodiac on them. Yonan said he looks for ties with group affiliations — "a Shriner's tie or an Odd Fellow's tie" — but he hasn't found one yet. 

Current necktie fashion tends to be eclectic. Gucci's and Rag and Bone's spring 2009 collections offer mostly long, thinner ties. Dolce & Gabbana unveiled some more long, thin ties for spring but also a good number of bow ties at its show this summer. Versace's 2009 collection offers mostly scarves as neckware.   

Wilson said she thinks we're seeing the demise of the necktie.

"Due to the computer, you don't see people face-to-face as much; you do business over the computer, so you don't dress up as much," Wilson said. "It may be that in another 20 years, men's neckties will go the way of the cravat."

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