From lounge lizards to cravat crusaders
By Simon Brooke
Published: March 5 2004 20:25 | Last Updated: March 5 2004 20:25
There can be few items of clothing that have been ridiculed so mercilessly and banished for so long to fashion Siberia as the cravat. Damned as the accessory of choice for lounge lizards, dodgy colonels and amateur theatre productions, the cravat has had a hard time of it since being discarded at the beginning of the last century in favour of the less flamboyant tie.
It is hardly surprising that modern men have rejected a look whose chief sponsors would seem to include Terri Thomas and Bertie Wooster. Only men like Aristotle Onassis, Gianni Agnelli or Conrad Hilton, who were so wealthy that either no one dared tell them or who knew but didn't care, would have been sporting such an extravagant accessory.
But now the cravat is coming in from the cold. On the cravat crusade are Jude Law, Tom Ford at Yves Saint Laurent, Ewan McGregor, Guy Ritchie and Nick Moran, and assorted retailers. "Bring back the cravat," demands Jeremy Hackett of Hackett, one of the main sponsors of the revival. "It's about time people started taking an interest in the cravat again. It's a great half-way house between the casual look and a return to the tie."
Hackett has a range of red and white spotted cravats in its spring collection. The owner's advice on how to avoid the "anyone-for-tennis?" pitfall is to keep it relaxed. "It looks better loose - hanging down a bit rather than neatly tied or completely straight. That way it looks quite artistic, quite Bohemian."
Despite its absurd image in recent years, the cravat has a long, distinguished and stylish history. It first emerged during the 17th century when France recruited legions of mercenaries to fight in the Thirty-Years war. Among them were Croatians who sported colourful neckerchiefs to contrast with their drab uniforms and the mud that covered them.
The French soldiers adopted this snazzy look and before long the trend had spread to the court of Louis XIV and eventually throughout Europe. During the 1800s, these neck scarves became longer and narrower and men began to tie them until, in 1924, an American named Jesse Langsdorf patented what has become the modern tie.
The cravat has always been stronger in Europe than Britain and America. In Scandinavian countries, cravats are increasingly popular as a substitute for ties and scarves. "Cravats are stylish and trendy especially when worn loosely," says Ann-Britt Myers of Swedish designer Eton Shirts which is also offering cravats this season. She advises wearing a cravat with a plain white shirt and jeans as "the best antidote to the Bertie Wooster look". It also means you can experiment with a stronger pattern. "We have lots of bold designs such as stripes and colours including hot pinks, pistachio green and lilac, which are part of the new look for cravats," says Myers.
But it has traditionally been Latin men with their natural sartorial adventurousness and self-confidence who have carried off the cravat with greater panache than British blokes in recent decades.
At its autumn/winter shows, Hermès featured men in cravats in patterns and coloured drawings on the signature Hermès designs. Again bright colours and strong patterns here suggest that the cravat is becoming less self-effacing.
Dark, understated colours will always work for the traditional British wearer but if you've got the colouring - and the nerve - you go for some pretty striking effects.
"It makes for a very smart look with a smoking jacket instead of a black tie," says a Hermès spokeswoman. "It's slightly decadent, slightly louche, but lots of men can get away with it."
Angelo Galasso, designer at quirky Italian label Interno8, says: "I'd advise men to wear one in a plain pattern in strong contrast to the colour of the outfit." Keep it simple is the message from one continental cravat expert to a nervous British man considering this accessory.
"By contrasting colours," he adds, "it can soften a formal suit or make a casual suit more elegant, but it should always be 100 per cent pure silk."
Nascent cravat wearers, take note.