Mirna Cvitan Černelić: Tie - a symbolic speech of a fashion accessory, 2021

Dirk Bogarde, postcard, publisher and color: '' Studio '', Sombor, 1960s (photo: private archive t.v.)

Tie - a symbolic speech of a fashion accessory


Mirna Cvitan Černelić


Like every single segment of the clothing composition, the tie, with its shape, the place it occupies within it, forms an integral part of the whole and also contributes to the formation of a complex system loaded with meanings. Embedded in the aesthetic, social, political frameworks of the time in which it appears, as one of the bearers of the signs of the era, it has always been subject to the dictates of the dynamics of their changes and transformations.

In its long history, the tie, as an indispensable element of men's clothing and a distinct attribute of masculinity, has been exposed to numerous changes of form, transfers of place and role in society, and thus changes of meaning, as well as questions of its origin and opening to numerous interpretations and reinterpretations. .

Its original function was related to the equipment of soldiers: Roman legionaries in the form of a scarf called a focala for the purpose of protection against excessive sweating or cold. We also recognize it in Chinese warriors from the 3rd century BC, and in the 17th century. it was also worn by members of the Croatian cavalry regiment called "Royal cravate" in the service of the King of the Sun. It was soon accepted at court, from where it quickly spread throughout Europe and thus marked its first transfer from the military to the civilian domain and from the regional to the wider European context (Cvitan Černelić, 2006). It was a turning point in the necktie’s entry into the realm of fashion.

As a fashion object of the high nobility, subordinated to the dictates of court etiquette, therefore socially determined, from a functional object, the tie grows into a status symbol of the court elite and thus becomes a sign of social distinction. The cult object, accompanied by rituals of binding, has taken on a clear aesthetic role in the overall clothing composition: it is the focal point that brings together, summarizes all the playfulness of the Baroque form.



  Butterfly bow tie, evening tie version, 1942 (photo: private archive t.v.)


The second major transfer from the symbol of the aristocrat to the symbol of the citizen, the tie recorded in the 19th century. with the rise and dominance of civil society that symbolically expresses its success through a suit characterized by purity of lines and form and absence of color. The only dynamic and dominant emphasis remains the tie, and the ways of tying it and transforming pieces of predominantly white (or black) starched fabric into a complex tangle of folds and final knot, become an act of creative freedom of the individual, as a means of affirming personality. Numerous manuals, among which the one attributed to Balzac stands out, recommend various ways of tying a tie. Each type, each character corresponds to a certain node: mathematique, a la Byron, sentimentale, orientale, americaine…. (Cvitan Černelić, Ibid.). A successful businessman-citizen with a tie as a sign of distinction clearly stands out among other "lower" social strata.

As an attribute of masculinity, ties are attributed erotic connotations. Considered a phallus symbol because of its place and shape (Loschek, 1993) it is the subject of numerous rituals. For example, during the Cologne Carnival, women, armed with scissors, cut men's ties along the way. (Ibid.), Or in our country, there is a wedding custom of cutting or throwing the groom's tie. Gestures in which obvious examples of symbolic castration can be recognized.

Correctly tied tie also symbolizes social correctness, and any negligence or rejection of the tie was considered a deviation and violation of the norms of social order. By rejecting the tie, the Sankilotists, the Sixties, the children of flowers, expressed rebellion against society and social norms. It was a clear symbolic gesture of liberation from the imposed conventions and the established order.

As a symbol of political affiliation, especially in parliaments, the obligatory tie was until recently strictly defined by a dress code emphasizing the importance and seriousness of the position, and the color of the tie, motifs and patterns expressed attitude and commitment. As in all segments in the field of clothing, since the 1970s, strict rules have gradually relaxed and allowed greater freedoms. Despite the concessions, in the midst of a long conservative tradition such as England, resistance to exemption from conventions is still quite strong and the issue of wearing or not wearing a tie is the scene of conflict between conservative and liberal views. Tie messages are often used as a means of political propaganda.

The tie also finds its place in certain groups: among pupils, students, athletes, members of clubs, at the same time marking the affiliation, but also the distinction from other groups.



Women with Ties, Zagreb, around 1930, Photo Ronaji, Senta (photo: private archive t.v.)


Although the tie belongs exclusively to the domain of the male world, women have not resisted the challenge of penetrating their space. During the struggle for emancipation in the 19th and 20th centuries, and the gradual conquest of areas that were considered areas of exclusively male activity (sports, science, art), accepting due to labor shortages and the most difficult men's jobs, especially during and after World War I, women appropriated until then exclusively male elements of clothing: trousers, tie, two-piece suit. (Chaille, 1994). The tie has thus become a symbol of the struggle for equality and freedom. Here are just a few: George Sand, Colette, Coco Chanel…. Changing these gender attributes today is a very common confirmation of the acquired self-awareness of successful women, or, most often on the music scene, it comes down to a pure game of identity change (Madonna).

 The extent to which the tie is also a cultural symbol shows the attitude towards it in Islamic countries where it is considered a symbol of Western culture and is therefore, as in Iran after the 1979 revolution, banned by law. The most recent example is the events in Afghanistan. But in contrast, Kemal Ataturk, in the midst of major reforms and the Occidentalization of Turkey, issued a law in 1924 on the mandatory wearing of a tie and a Western suit.

The suit in both the twentieth and much of the twenty-first century retains the austerity and purity of the line, and the shape of the tie, which remains the dominant accent, changes. It took its present shape in 1924 thanks to the invention of the diagonal cut by Jesse Langsdorf (Chaille, ibid.). This new simplified form opened up completely new possibilities for creative expression. Wrinkles have given way to surfaces that are activated by highlighting the properties of the material, playing with glossy or matte surfaces, color, patterns, geometric or figurative. Thus, the tie as a new medium presented a completely new challenge for designers and many artists (Picasso, Dufy, Dali, Magritte….) who thus elevate it to the level of a work of art. In contrast, some fashion designers reach for the artwork, such as V. Westwood, reproducing it on the surface of the tie. 

With the constant unchanged place and role as the dominant accent of the suit, the tie opens and gives great freedom of choice by which it marks one's own personality and identity. But at the same time, as an individual, immersed in society, he adopts the signs of the collective imaginary. This ambivalence of the tie, belonging at the same time to the domain of individual and collective discovery, reveals a whole range of new meanings and thus necessarily imposes the need for new questions in the context of modernity.

 The moment when involvement in the collective imaginary prevails, by transferring from the individual to the collective that prevails, leaving the original place and growing into a symbol attributed to collective or national identity (Čapo Žmegač, 2008), the tie encounters slippery ground that "enriched" and upgraded narrative discourses easily slide towards the realm of constructed identity, or are transformed into the medium of performative play.

Given the layering and complexity of meaning and their dynamics, the tie always raises new questions and the need for constant questioning in the context of changes in contemporary social reality but also new views on the historical circumstances of its transformations.





CHAILLE  Francois, 1994;  La grande histoire de la cravate, Flammarion, Paris

CVITAN ČERNELIĆ, Mirna, 2006: Tie; Croatica, ed. Budak, Profil, Zagreb

ČAPO ŽMEGAČ, Jasna, 2008: Do you know that the tie originates from Croats? ; Croatian Review 4, Matica hrvatska, Zagreb

LOSCHEK, Ingrid,1993: Accessoires,  symbolik und Geschichte, Bruckmann, Munchen




* The text was produced within the project Fashion in Transition: Fashion and Clothing in the Early 1990s in Croatia, 2021.

* The project was supported by the Ministry of Culture and Media of the Republic of Croatia, the City Office for Culture of the City of Zagreb, for 2021.

* Photos: Private archives t.v.