I remember the first time that I had to wear a tie, I was 13 and it was for a friend’s Bar Mitzvah. Up until then I had only worn clip-ons, because my mom felt that buying a tie for elementary school graduations was a waste of money (and she was correct). When I saw my dad leave for work every morning, he was always wearing a suit and tie. When you’re little your dad is just this surreal figure, and you notice every little thing. My dad always wore his tie perfectly, never loosened it, always with a full Windsor knot. And so, when it was time to finally wear my first real tie, I went to ask my dad to show me how to tie a tie.
Of course, me being all of 13 and my dad trying to teach me the most complicated knot did not end well. My knot ended up being the size of my fist and a mess. So, after a few more times of letting me try, my dad put the tie around his neck and tied it, then he loosened it and put it around my neck and tightened it.
And so for the rest of my middle school life, that was the deal, whenever I needed to tie a tie, I’d go to my dad, he’d tie it for me, loosen it, then I’d slip it on. When I got back home from whatever I needed a tie for, I would carefully loosen the tie, and hang it so the next time I had to wear it, I wouldn’t have to go to my dad again. Every once in a while, I’d practice tying ties, because it just had a certain mystique, as if it were some mystical gateway to manhood. Once I got to high school, I started tying my own ties, the knots looks terrible, but at least they were my own.
A brief aside: There are three acceptable knots, a four-in-hand, a half-Windsor, and the Windsor knot. As Sir Ian Fleming wrote,
“It was tied with a Windsor knot. Bond mistrusted anyone who tied his tie with a Windsor knot. It showed too much vanity. It was often the mark of a cad.”
-Ian Fleming (From Russia With Love, Chapter 25)
This goes triple for those ridiculous knots that people have been trying to make happen.
In college, I had gotten the act down pat, and by the time I was in grad school and doing my administrative residency, I could tie a tie in the dark, blindfolded, and get it right (and no, I have not been in that situation). I had adopted the four-in-hand as my go to knot, simple, a bit unrefined, but it looked just right slightly loosened, which is the first thing I would do as soon as I got off work. One day, I was visiting a friend, and he had all his ties still tied, hanging on a hangar in his closet. I told him that I used to do that when I was thirteen, he told me that he still didn’t know how to tie a tie. Apparently all those ties were tied by his father and he carefully put them on and took them off, lest he lose use of that tie altogether.
Maybe I assigned too much weight to the simple act of tying a tie, but for me, it always seemed inherently masculine. It’s something that’s passed down father to son. My dad taught me, and one day, I’ll teach my son. It’s striking how many lessons can be drawn between that simple act. There’s no magic behind it, it’s simply tying a knot, but the devil is in the details. Anyone can tell you how to do it, but in order to perfect it, it has to be done over and over again, to the point where it becomes routine. Practice doesn’t make perfect, perfect practice makes perfect. And yes, you can always have someone else do it for you, but growing up means learning to do things, even the seemingly insignificant things, on your own.
And so, whenever I tie a tie, the end of it just hits the top of my belt, the knot sits squarely below my Adam’s apple, and the dimple sits right in the middle, just like I was taught, 15 years ago.
Now, I just have to figure how to tie a fucking bow tie when I wear a tux.