What a man wears around his neck may
be more than decorative – in Britain at
least it can demonstrate kinship with a
sporting, educational or military group.
In his 1948 collection Every Idle Dream, the British golfer and essayist Bernard Darwin writes convincingly of a link between the heraldic colors of the Middle Ages and the use of colored ties to indicate allegiance to a school, university, regiment or club.
Such heraldic colors were first worn as hat bands in the 19th century, a phenomenon still seen in London on those distinctive Panama hats denoting membership of the MCC (Marylebone Cricket Club). But it was with the advent of neckwear in its current form in the 1920s that the wearing of colored ties to demonstrate kinship with a social or educational group was firmly established.
Ties of this kind are a very British invention. American institutions founded on British principles often issue them (although the signet ring is a more common manifestation of having been at a particular school or college).Continental Europeans are typically particular about their neckwear, but a Christian Dior- or Chanel-designed tie is nothing more than the expression of a well-dressed man.
Exeter College, Oxford, is said to have been the first organization (in 1880) to produce a colored tie or cravat, comprising ribbons taken from student boaters. Around that time it was becoming necessary to establish colors or combinations of colors that you could call “your own”. Eton College and Westminster School, for example, both wanted pale pink and decided that a boat race on the Tideway was the best way to determine the rival claims. Westminster won and Eton had to settle for pale blue.
Military ties are invariably characterized by strong hues, reflecting the bright uniforms of previous centuries. The tie of the Brigade of Guards, for example, is dark blue and red, indicating the blue blood of royalty and the red blood of the fighting men.
The great London clubs for the most part do not have ties, the most notable exception being the Garrick: after the MCC, this must surely be the most worn and noted club tie in the English capital. Its pink and light blue colors conspicuously adorn the necks of actors, barristers, judges and other practitioners of the creative and imaginative arts (including writers and politicians).
Like the Garrick, many schools, universities and colleges have two versions. In some cases, one of these will have the institution’s colors and the other a shield or other heraldic sign. In other cases, it is merely a different arrangement of colors – a more sober crested “town” tie to be worn with similar more sober town attire and a brighter “country” alternative indicating that the weekend is either on its way or has arrived.
Such variety has spawned multiple similarities between ties of different meaning, creating frequent confusion when used as a means of communication. The Old Uppinghamian school tie, for example, bears a more than passing resemblance to that of the Free Foresters Cricket Club.