How to Wear a Bow Tie: Lessons from Pee-Wee Herman

National Bow Tie Day is Friday 28th August this year. But wearing a bow tie can be a style minefield. Jason, the Bespoke Tailoring Consultant at our Edinburgh studio, offers a few tips on how to wear a bow tie so you look more Pitti than pitiful.

Few things have suffered from the shifting fashions of sartorial style as much as the bow ties. Along with flared trousers, bow ties have found themselves at both the pinnacle of style and in the bargain bins of out-dated fashion. 

The shoe designer Manolo Blahnik has a taste for bow ties. Winston Churchill had a penchant for a loosely knotted bow tie. James Bond is rarely far from his bow tie. But there again, neither is Stan Laurel, Liberace, Donald Duck, Mary Poppins and a whole colony of Playboy Bunny Girls.

And, of course, the iconic Pee-wee Herman. 

The actor Paul Reubens has made Pee-wee’s bow tie firmly part of his character’s iconography. The stiffly knotted, red bow tie is used to tell us a lot about Pee-wee, his culture, and comedy. But even if we don’t want to use 1980s comedy icons as our style benchmarks, there’s still a lot we can learn from the way Pee-wee wears his bow tie. 

Don’t wear a toy tie

Unless you are a seven-year-old whose only job is to look cute while eating cake at a family party, never opt for a pre-tied bow tie. You learned to tie your own shoes, blow your own nose and don’t need to ask to go to the bathroom, so I think we can accept that the only reason not to learn to tie your bow tie is apathy. You’re not the man-child Pee-wee, you’re a grown-up so dress yourself. 

The natural unevenness of a hand-tied bow tie makes the tie interesting, gives it individual personality and brings attention to your face. In the right context, it beckons your significant other to playfully straighten it with a knowing smile. 

A pre-tied bow tie at a black-tie event will make it clear you bought your tie last minute from the only shop left open. If at the end of an evening, James Bond can’t pull off opening his shirt and leaving an unclipped, self-tie bow tie hanging around his collar – the chances are neither can you. 

Size Matters

Pee-wee wears a teeny-tiny bow tie. It’s all part of the comic effect. Although he has a range of red bow ties, if you look at them closely, for most of them the width is such that the outsides finish at about the middle of his eyes. 

You would be wise to be confident that yours is bigger than Pee-Wee’s. Aim for your bow tie to be wide enough to finish somewhere vertically aligned with the outside corner of your eyes and the width of your face. 

Any wider the effect once again becomes out-of-proportion and begins to look less Pee-wee and more Pinky Lee or Liberace.

Your bow-tie should be deep enough that it covers most of the collar on your shirt, but unless you are going to a particularly swanky dinner event there is little call for a large drooping butterfly-shaped bow-tie. Stick with a standard bat-wing shaped bow tie – especially during the daylight hours. 

Be Careful with the Colour

Unless you are the kind of person who puts on unmatching socks for the work Christmas party and goes around telling everyone, ‘I’m crazy me!’, the use of a bow tie to add another ‘feature’ to your attire is probably worth avoiding. Do not confuse pattern-mixing with personality!  

Your colours and patterns should be congruous with the rest of your attire. As a general rule, pair a boldly patterned bow tie with a more plain shirt. If you are wearing similar patterns (stripes, for example) make sure you are mixing a large scale pattern with a smaller one. If you are pattern mixing (e.g. paisley bow tie with striped shirt) make sure the patterns have similar scales. 

As with your other neckties, it is considered poor form to match your bow tie with your pocket square unless you are looking to create the look of someone who makes the most of the buy-one-get-one-free offers in the cheaper parts of eBay. This, at least, is something Pee-wee gets right. 

As you start your bow tie-wearing journey, you would do well to play safe by picking out a colour or tone from your jacket and having that as a primary colour for your bow tie. Pee-wee’s bright red bow tie bears no relationship to his grey glen check suit.  Unlike Pee-wee, your bow tie shouldn’t shout – especially if it has nothing to say. 

A Waistcoat is Your Friend

Moving from a standard necktie to a bow tie can be a little bit of a shock. All of a sudden there’s a lot of empty, unbroken space down the front of your shirt. 

All this space is useful if you are a waiter or doctor and don’t want your tie dragging in things it shouldn’t, but for the rest of us it can seem a big helping of empty. 

To deal with his, some guys decide to crank-up the kooky and add a lively pair of braces (which were originally meant to be underwear). 

However, a more moderate way to deal with this is to wear your bow tie with a waistcoat. The waistcoat will frame your bow tie, integrating it into your outfit. 

Pee-wee’s bow tie sits isolated in the lonely sea of his whiter-than-white shirt. It is an island of colour in his outfit which not only draws our initial attention but makes it difficult to notice anything else. 

Worn right, with a little thought and attention, wearing a bow tie can add flair to your outfit. When done well, it carries with it an aura of individualism and even a touch of the professorial intellect. As with neckties, it allows experimentation with colours and textures to add interest to your wardrobe. 

Few things in the gentleman’s wardrobe will demonstrate your sartorial confidence than your mastery in wearing a bow tie. Use the tips above to develop and explore your own bow tie style and make your mark as the dapper bow tie guy.

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