The tie gets a bad rep. It’s associated with board rooms and formality and the type of office job that requires navigating a dull grey labyrinth of cubicles. There’s a reason that the phrase “loosening one’s tie” exists, and why it’s shorthand for relaxing and having a good time. Ties are symbolic of all that is inherently stuffy and snooty.
For what it’s worth, I think all of that is patently ridiculous. Everyone from Groucho Marx to Aziz Ansari regularly donned ties at no cost to their sense of levity—if anything, it made them seem even sharper—and there’s no reason they can’t be a way to show off a little irreverence and, fuck it, “pizzaz.” The real problem with ties is that, with all of their symbolic formality, many people just don’t know how to choose and wear them. Often, they can feel like an afterthought—or, worse, an overthought—that will not only make you look awkward, but maybe even a little square.
It doesn’t have to be that way! There’s a way to wear ties regularly and still project a sense of fun and lightness, or even just get you through a fancy event with some flair. Here’s how to do it.
The biggest hurdle to adopting the tie lifestyle is often, understandably, the price tag, but there are solutions. If you’re the kind of person who wants a variety of different ties for every conceivable occasion—weddings, high school musicals, a relaxed Saturday game of horseshoes—you’ll want to get a bunch of them, and for that, I’ll direct you to The Tie Bar. The majority of their ties run around $19.99, and, as long as you take care of them, they’re surprisingly durable. They’ve also got an impressive array of patterns and colors. The bargain shopper will also want to consult Penguin, Ben Sherman and, believe it or not, the J. Crew Factory Outlet. If your wallet is a little fatter, Gant Rugger are consistently crushing the menswear game, and is the one place I frequently window-shop and sigh longingly. If you’re just looking for essentials, a navy-blue solid, one wool, one bright pattern (preferably in linen), and one knit are the staples to get you started.
Like basically any other piece of clothing, what you wear around your neck is going to vary from season to season. The good thing is, the way it changes is pretty much in line with the way all of your clothes change. So, in the same way you wouldn’t wear a goose-down parka in the middle of July, you’re not going to wrap a thick piece of wool around your neck in the summer, either. A quick breakdown:
Spring/Summer. In short, it’s a binary equation. In the spring and summer, when the sun is out, you want lightness: Linens, cottons, and even silks are the ways to go. Color-wise, the same rules apply: Light blues, light yellows, pinks, lavenders, florals, and light plaids say, “Hello, I may be wearing a tie, but I also enjoy warm weather. Can you please hand me one of those frosty beverages?” Or something like that. Also, small patterns work: Little anchors (because summer, boats, etc.), birds, and tiny stars all have the kind of playfulness and laid-back attitude that go great with the season.
Winter: This season, because it is terrible, requires a lot more insulation. Wools and knits are your go-to’s here, as are darker colors and denser patterns. Think greys, dark blues, browns, big/blocky plaids, and larger patterns. Unless you’re going to a formal event, try to stay away from a solid black tie—they tend to be too severe against nearly any color shirt you wear. It’s the kind of tie that’s supposed to go with everything, but really goes with nothing. If you’re going for a black tie, you’ll want to soften it in some way—make it a black knit with horizontal white stripes, or a black-and-grey plaid—or better yet, opt for dark blue, which conveys the same effect, but doesn’t feel as brutal. You can use stripes to break up the numbing monotony of winter’s darker colors: Thick, diagonal stripes on a solid background are a good way to do that.
Fall: Here, your best bet is the full College English Professor, heavy on plaids, browns, oranges, olives, rust, and light grey. If you look at yourself in the mirror and suddenly feel like having a glass of bourbon, you’re probably on the right track. You can go a little brighter than you would in winter, but don’t get carried away. If you’re wearing a plaid tie, and one of the colors in that tie is bright orange, it’s best to make sure the other colors are browns or deep greens to mute the effect.
Fashion over the last few years has generally favored the narrow tie, and I’m inclined to agree with the trend. Wider ties tend to make you look like Uncle Morty at the baby’s first birthday party after one too many Michelobs, especially if you have a bit of a belly. A skinny tie paired with a fitted blazer gives the effect of a series of sharp, clean lines and is a no-lose proposition. If you want to be daring, you can venture into the land of the bow tie, but this, I must confess, is something I haven’t figured out how to effectively pull off. The safest options there? Spring lawn parties or formal events, with a bright, splashy one for the former and a dark, reserved one for the latter.
There are two levels to successful tie-sporting. The first is easy: Opposites attract. Pairing a solid shirt with a solid tie generally telegraphs to everyone who sees you that you’re a tie novice. It’s obviously not the end of the world, but solid shirts should be your blank canvas that allow you to wear slightly louder, more interesting ties. For maximum effect, a solid shirt should be combined with a patterned tie.
In general, the tie’s overall color scheme should contrast with the shirt in some way. If you wanted to get really scientific about it, you’d Google the color wheel and try to make sure your shirt and tie combination are opposite each other. To keep it simple, just employ a simple rule of hot and cold (again with the opposites). Blues, greens, and purples are all “cold” colors, while reds, oranges, and yellows are all “hot.” Try to keep your shirt on one end of the scale and your tie on the other. Ideally, the color of your tie will be somewhat darker than the color of your shirt; wearing a dark shirt with a bright tie is going to make you look like a Lite Brite.
If you’re going for a more outrageous pattern in your tie, you’re going to want to ground it in some way. What you’re looking for here are “anchor colors.” So if you’re wearing a standard light blue shirt, it’s generally a good idea to make sure that color shows up somewhere in the patterned tie you’re putting on. So a light-blue shirt with a bold plaid tie that has a trace amount of light blue with some yellow and pink is a home run.
Under no circumstances should you wear a tie that matches the color of your shirt, or a tie that’s only a slightly different shade of your shirt color. We all quietly endured the Regis Millionaire years, and let us never speak of them again.
If you’ve gotten this far, there’s only one more place to go: patterns on patterns. Fuck received wisdom: There is an effective, eye-catching way to clash your shirts and ties, and it’s all about knowing colors and proportions. Once again, think in opposites. If your shirt has a small pattern—small gingham, small flowers, small peace signs (although I hope to God you don’t own a shirt with small peace signs on it)—you want the pattern in your tie to be big and blocky. Go for big horizontal stripes, or big diagonal stripes all generally going in a direction that’s not in line with the direction of the pattern of the shirt. (If you’re wearing that hideous all-over peace-sign monstrosity, this is one place you’re in the clear, since they’re likely not arranged in a certain direction, except the direction of universal love or something.)
I’d avoid a plaid tie on a checkered shirt, but it can be done — just make sure the plaids on one of them are oversized, and the plaids on the other are small. And again, anchor colors: If you can find a trace color that’s in both the shirt and tie in a small amount, that’s going to lessen the optic disarray of your clash. A shirt with thin vertical stripes gets big horizontal stripes—always—or plaids. The reverse is true: A big, blocky plaid shirt gets a tie with a tiny design, like a super-taut gingham or tiny polka-dots.
Like everything, there are exceptions to all of these rules. As I write this, I’m wearing a pale blue shirt with a dark blue tie, which is normally a “no,” but the tie has bold green stripes in it, which lessens the effect. So, the TL;DR version? Opposites always, in both patterns and colors. Hots go with colds, and burn that peace-sign shirt. I shudder to think of the event where it might be appropriate.
J. Edward Keyes is a Brooklyn-based writer and editor. He owns over sixty ties, because he is a maniac. Follow him on Twitter @keyescore.
Image by Tara Jacoby.
Adequate Man is Deadspin’s new self-improvement blog, dedicated to making you just good enough at everything. Suggestions for future topics are welcome below.