When writing recently about school uniforms, I mentioned the centrepiece of school-going wardrobes across the globe: the regimental tie. They have long served as sartorial standard-bearers for such private institutions as schools, universities, and social clubs; subtly and stylishly signalling membership to those in the know.
Regimental ties – those with diagonal stripes running from the left shoulder down and to the right — derive, as their name suggests, from military origins where a regiment’s colours would be carried into battle as both rallying call and means of identification. In fact, the orientation of the stripes is said to come from these marshal roots, since they run from ‘heart to sword’. From the 1920s neckties bearing regimental colours made their way from military uniforms into regular wardrobes as soldiers returning to civilian life wore their uniforms on formal occasions.
Perhaps the most famous instance of a military tie entering public fashion is that of the Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII and then Duke of Windsor after his abdication) on his first official visit to America in the early twentieth century. The Prince’s raiments caused as much of a stir in the media as did his royalty. So taken was the American public with his tie — one bearing the blue and maroon strypes of the Grenadier Guard — that it became Brooks Brothers’ best-selling colour combo.
It is in fact Brooks Brothers that brought the regimental tie to North American shores, although restyled as the rep tie (spelt variously with one or two ‘p’s and named not for its repetitive pattern, but rather for the recurring ribs woven in the silk fabric). The key difference? The stripes on a rep tie run from right to left.
From here reps would become a staple of Ivy style and thoroughly enter the mainstream, even to the point where they have largely been disentangled from the strict denotation of their origins. Formerly in Britain wearing a tie representing a specific regiment or other group you weren’t a part of would have been considered a breach of etiquette, perhaps even a disciplinary matter. Although those days might not be entirely over…
The American writer David Coggins in Men and Style recounts an occasion on which he wore a favourite tie — a dark blue Polo number with light blue diagonal stripes — to a dinner in London with his girlfriend’s father. Having dressed to impress, he shrivelled when the old man said:
‘”I wasn’t aware you had attended Eton.” He himself, as well as his sons, had indeed attended Eton. And he was very aware indeed (as he would have said) that I had not come anywhere near the storied walls of the school founded in 1440.’David Coggins
Mr Coggins might have defended himself by reminding his Etonian interlocutor that the striped tie has been the subject of fluid reinterpretation since its earliest days. In 1880 students at Exeter College, Oxford started wearing the ribbons from their straw boaters around their necks. Ties in the college colours duly followed.
Finally, there is the famous anecdote about the Garrick Club (whose esteemed members range from Thackeray, Dickens, and Trollope to Eliot, Wodehouse, and Olivier). The actor Norman Forbes-Robertson was lunching at the club when someone asked about the pale-pink and green tie he had on. He quipped that it was the official club tie. Not long after, it became just that.
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