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The Politics of the Bow Tie

I would love to see more academics with bow ties. The idea of playfulness does not negate the seriousness of our business, which is to generate ideas that connect a variety of aspects of the social and natural universe.

John Philipp Baesler

I am a history professor who loves to wear bow ties. Not so long ago, these two facts about myself would have gone together like peanut butter and jelly. Today, as I look around the academic world and beyond, not anymore. Why does this bother me so much? And should it bother you?

I realize that what really bothers me is the decline of the value of the liberal arts in America, and as a consequence the decline in social status of the liberal arts professor. Chalk it up to my personal vanity. Who doesn’t like to be admired? The real question is what, as a professor, you want to be admired for. For example, it’s a worthy cause to fight back against the relentless attacks on academia—what I define as the institutionalized pursuit of knowledge for its own sake—in the name of neo-liberal efficiency, which sees education as a profit center and a conveyer belt toward the needs of current economic interests. I consider myself a soldier in this cause. A soldier in uniform...and matching socks.

Together with the tweedy sport coat (including rawhide elbow patches) and a pipe either hanging loosely from the mouth or being appropriated as a pointer during a discussion, the bow tie used to be a vital part of the uniform the American academic. Think of historians such as Richard Hofstadter or Daniel J. Boorstin. There were also political scientist Kenneth Waltz, computer pioneer Presper Eckert, sexologist Alfred Kinsey, economist Murray Rothbart, politician and sociologist Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and fictional archaeologist Indiana Jones, to name a few. This is the way many of us still imagine a professor. I think that’s one reason I like to wear bow ties when I teach my classes. It’s a signal to my environment that I mean business and that I’m loving it.

I am thinking about attributes of mind that we might expect from a professor: airy aloofness, a sense of mischievousness, courage to explore ideas, pride in your profession, a certain sense of refined masculinity. That is because wearing bow ties requires purpose and skill. After all, a bow tie is not an easy garment. Its shape is complex. Whoever puts one on signals that he made a conscious decision that morning, putting on a piece of apparel that’s difficult to tie and will draw judgment from others. It’s impossible to disappear in the crowd with a bow tie. Most important, wearing a bow tie takes an attitude of playfulness.

Maybe that’s why I would love to see more academics with bow ties. We should be experts of the general, meaning that it’s our skill to play around with concepts and evidence. The idea of playfulness does not negate the seriousness of our business, which is to generate ideas that connect a variety of aspects of the social and natural universe. In our global neo-liberal world, in which the dream of limitless individuality is only a thin veneer under which lingers cut-throat competition, playing with ideas and embracing surprise and imperfection can be very political. It can be an assertion of individual agency. We always have the power to re-invent ourselves and our surroundings according to values and ideas we generated ourselves. If we consciously and vigorously assert our right to define ourselves on our own terms, then—and only then—can wearing a bow tie be a political statement.

Another word that comes to mind when I think of bow ties is “style.” Notice how Arthur Schlesinger Jr., another historian famous for wearing bow ties, explained his love for the bow tie that started during his college days at Harvard in the mid-1930s:

“Many men I admired wore bow ties—Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Harry Truman, Humphrey Bogart, Groucho Marx. Bow ties are not only neat and suggestive of insouciance; they have in addition one inestimable advantage, especially for sloppy eaters. It is impossible, or at least it requires extreme agility, to spill anything on a bow tie. A spill on a four-in-hand tie ruins it forever; dry cleaning never restores a tie to its primary innocence. The same spill falling on a shirtfront is easily erased by dipping a napkin in a glass of water and wiping the spot away.”

What crossover appeal: The mighty and powerful (Churchill), the suave and cool (Bogart) and the irreverent (Marx)—all tied together with a bow! (And yes, it is splendidly geeky to wear a garment because one is afraid of stains). Style used to be part of a number of possible constructions of manliness. So what about the style of the bow tie today?

This is where desperation sets in for me. For one, there is the hipster look with bow tie (often in combination with the lumber jack beard and shirt). This look strikes me as a tad apolitical. Looking dandyish is great, but I have a creeping suspicion that it’s much less subversive than many hipsters think (I will get back to that point shortly). What is infinitely worse, however, is that the conservative movement has taken over the bow tie. When I think of iconic bow tie wearers with an intellectual flair of the last few decades, people who come to mind are conservative journalists such as George Will or Tucker Carlson. And the look apparently caught on: The online magazine The Wire featured large numbers of bow ties during the 2014 CPAC meeting of young conservative activists. Worst of all, right-wing con man Glenn Beck has been brandishing the bow in recent years as part of the teacher persona he performs in front of a chalkboard. “Clownish” is an apt description of this bow tie style, and not because of Pee-wee Herman. I suspect that conservatives have embraced the bow tie as a conscious class statement, since it can look very preppy when combined with a blazer, and because they love the idea of being “square,” which in turn reinforces their self-image as rebels against the “liberal mainstream.”

In fact, during his famous 2004 appearance on CNN’s Crossfire, Jon Stewart, as part of his cri du coeur about the overblown theatrics and lack of genuineness in cable TV’s political shows, mocked Carlson for wearing a bow tie. Anybody over ten who wore a bow tie, according to Stewart, did not deserve to be taken seriously. Being mocked by Jon Stewart, of course, is a death sentence for cultural credibility. Carlson eventually stopped wearing them. In February 2014, the pundit confessed, “if you wear a bow tie, it’s like [wearing] a middle finger around your neck; you're just inviting scorn and ridicule...the number of people screaming the F-word at wore me down after a while so I gave in and became conventional.” In other words, in the public mind bow ties have become associated with condescending, clownish blowhards on TV. They have taken sides in the polarization of American politics and culture to the point where even one of its major participants decided it was too much. What is left for the bow tie between apolitical hipsters and hyper-political squares? Where did my heroes with bow ties go?

Admittedly, things aren’t as gloomy as I am suggesting. Bill Nye the Science Guy, for example, has been fighting the good fight against climate deniers and other anti-intellectuals while proudly sporting bow ties. Former Supreme Court justice John Paul Stevens also deserves an honorable mention here. More power to them! Yet I can’t help but wonder if the politics of the academic left makes it harder to wear bow ties. We are still suspicious of the bow tie style.

Why is that? What happened between Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Glenn Beck? Well, the Sixties happened. To many activists in the various counter-cultural movements that arose from roughly 1963 to 1974, formal attire symbolized the power of a system reeking of racism, militarism, and sexism. Men in suits oversaw America’s corporate machine and the Vietnam War. Therefore, a suit was the uniform of the Organization Man that had to be thrown away in a dramatic gesture of defiance. Young men rebelled against what historian David Kuchta calls “masculine renunciation” in men’s fashion. The three-piece suit had transitioned from flamboyant, colorful styles in the seventeenth and eighteenth century to the plain, muted style we associate with bourgeois values of modesty and understatement. Ties became the strictly contained place for experiments in color and patterns. “Opposition to luxury and effeminacy”, Kuchta argues, therefore drove male fashion with the onset of industrialization. The flower boy of the 1960s saw renunciation as stifling. He wanted to explore his authentic self in all its glory.

Tragically, the Sixties in America threw out the baby of the formal suit with the bath water of elegance. Formal elegance was replaced by...blandness. I am reminded of this every time I visit my family in Germany. Some years ago, while attending a conference, I took a few American colleagues shopping for souvenirs in downtown Frankfurt. As we sauntered through a department store, one fellow historian expressed disbelief at the variety of colors and patterns offered in the men’s clothing section. “At home, the only colors we know are blue and red” he quipped. Polo shirt and khaki pants are now standard issue for American men. It’s a simple outfit that fits most occasions. It does not ask for anything. In short, it’s deadly boring. The fact that in American commercials these days men are often portrayed as formless, childlike slobs also doesn’t help, I suspect.

It seems that of all features of the bourgeois men’s suit, the bow tie took the hardest hit. In her history of the tie, fashion writer Sarah Gibbings notes that by the 1980s, the bow tie became associated with “mad professors and noisy advertising men... Most men lacked the courage or the patience” to wear it. I suspect the reason for this phenomenon was that when wearing a bow tie, one could not claim to simply put on formal attire because one had to. Again, it’s not possible to quickly slip on a bow tie in the morning and go off unnoticed. So while the counter-cultural sensitivity of the 1960s may have allowed men to grudgingly return to the suit-and-tie outfit for professional purposes and during weddings, one still wasn’t allowed to signify that one enjoyed dressing up.

However, this was plain silliness. The problem here is that renouncing fashion inevitably also becomes fashionable. As historian David Steigerwald convincingly shows, the Sixties inaugurated a postmodern sensitivity in America, where “all traditions were dissolved.” The rejection of systems as per se totalitarian, and form itself as oppressive to experience, led to suspicion toward almost all aspects of modern culture, including its distinction between art and life, institutions such as universities, and political liberalism. What was left was the anti-hero, who was loyal to nothing, including—and this irony only became visible with time—the Revolution itself. And so, consumer culture returned through the backdoor, selling us mass-produced authenticity in the form of anti-fashionable fashion and electronic gadgets that furnish us the illusion of self-expression. As it turned out, the “conquest of cool” (in Thomas Frank’s memorable phrase) proved that cultural change did not make political change redundant.

In fact, I would argue that in postmodern America, it is lack of stylish attire that marks privilege. Those who already have power don’t need to signal their aspirations through their clothes. That would explain why women in the public eye are still judged so much harsher on their appearance than men. As for academia, I remember attending a lecture by Cornel West a few years back when I was still in graduate school. The university auditorium was packed with, what seemed to me, every single African American faculty member. As I looked around, I thought to myself, “I have never seen a room full of so many well-dressed people.” I took away the lesson that it’s easy to attack the “politics of respectability” when one does not have to take extra care to wear clothing that signals to the world that one deserves to be taken seriously.

And yet, for many academics I consider political allies, formal attire—and ties in particular—appear to be the embodiment of everything they are against. In a recent article, anthropologist David Graeber, well known for his public defense of the Occupy Wall Street movement, admitted, “Some people (me, for instance) put a great deal of energy into organizing their lives so that they’ll never have to wear a tie.” Because it puts the final touch on the “suit” and because of its restrictions on breathing, to Graeber, putting on a tie feels like “a gesture of submission, a reluctant pledge of allegiance to everything the suit is supposed to represent.” What the suit represents for Graeber is conformity and male power hidden behind unassuming clothes. Only the tie stands out, emphasizing—you guessed it—the power of the penis. “Couldn’t we say that a tie is really a symbolic displacement of the penis, only an intellectualized penis, dangling not from one’s crotch but from one’s head, chosen from among an almost infinite variety of other ties by an act of mental will?” Since bow ties don’t fit this Freudian argument, Graeber simply assumes that “men who wear bow ties are universally taken to be nerds... True, a bow tie could be taken for a pair of testicles. But even so, bow ties are small, and they point in entirely the wrong direction.”

I don’t find this line of thought convincing. For one, if wearing bow ties makes one an unmanly nerd, then Humphrey Bogart never got that memo. But more seriously, why should formal attire, understood as clothing whose meaning for specific occasions is widely understood and agreed upon in a culture, represent only power and conformity? It is true that an expensive suit can represent the power of class. But so does the $150 designer polo shirt, which, one could argue, hides social power much more effectively than a suit. As for conformity, none of the bow tie-loving academics I listed above were conformists in their fields. Alfred Kinsey, for example, became one of the most hated men in 1950s America when he published his findings on the sexual behavior of Americans. The conservative witch-hunts killed him in 1956 when his heart gave out prematurely.

Moreover, and this is a crucial argument in favor of clothes that fit certain conventions, we human beings have a rich inner life incomparable to any other animal. Our consciousness is fully reflexive, which means that we see ourselves as we relate to others and to our environment. In other words: we know that we see, know that others see us, and know that all of this takes place in a social environment. This opens us to constant threats of embarrassment and ridicule. Formal rules of social behavior—including attire—are therefore much more than stifling systems of power. Because we are both subject of and object in our environment (what philosopher Helmuth Plessner called our “ex-centric positionality”), social rules provide a necessary respite from our fear of ridicule. Therefore, we sometimes need to hide behind uniform and convention (Plessner even talks of a “right to remain hidden”), just as we need to express our inner life. Hiding and showing, in short, form a productive dialectic.

Given the paradox of unfashionable fashion and the dialectic of hiding and showing, it is almost quaint to associate, as Graeber does, the formal suit with power in our postmodern society, especially when it comes to corporate power. Yes, there are the Wall Street tycoons with their power suits. But this is power in the open, widely understood by everyone as such. Yet what about the supposedly informal, flexible, horizontal workplace of the high tech industry, where work and leisure are supposed to blend into each other? A quick google image search shows that while Bill Gates and Larry Schmidt apparently like to wear suit and tie, they are in no way married to formal attire; Steve Jobs’s iconic outfit was jeans and black turtleneck; Mark Zuckerberg is definitely a t-shirt guy; Jeff Bezos’s preferred look is “business casual” with sport coat and shirt, but definitely without the need for a tie; the same goes for Larry Paige and Sergey Brin. In short, none of these titans of the New Economy is wearing the classic formal suit with tie. Casual attire and ruthless economic ambition apparently go all too well together.

All of which is to say: Since we live in the silicon cage of postmodernity, why not embrace a more playful style again? For men (and women) on the left, stylish wardrobe does not indicate that we “sold out” to the system. Formal clothes do not hurt one’s authenticity one bit. To me, wearing a bow tie is a way to signal a belief that academia is still a place apart, a place with its own values, my values, and I am proud to show it. Needless to say, since no style is inherently connected to a certain politics, embracing non-style (think of Slavoj Zizek) is also great. As long as we don’t just go along and make ourselves comfortably numb, anything goes.

Oh, and did I mention that I love bow ties?

John Philipp Baesler teaches the history of US foreign relations at Saginaw Valley State University in Michigan. A native of Germany, he is fascinated with trans-Atlantic relations in their political, cultural, and military dimensions.

Copyright © John Philipp Baesler. All rights reserved.