Tie textures and formality

A few weeks a reader asked for a post on what makes a tie more or less formal, smart or not.

It’s a very relevant question. Few men today wear ties, but when they do, they rarely want them to be as smart as the traditional foulards and Macclesfield weaves. Understanding how to dress down a tie (or, for the right occasion, up) is important.

The four elements

The elements that make a tie more or less formal are very similar to those that affect suits, shoes or handkerchiefs. Brighter colours and bolder patterns are less smart; smooth texture and dark tones are more.

Just like a strongly patterned, woollen jacket is less formal than a plain suit in smooth worsted, so a cashmere tie with a big club stripe is less formal than a navy repp.

The four dominant elements here are: tone, colour, texture and pattern. Of these, texture is often the most important in a tie – partly because it is the most subtle and easy to miss.

In the image at the top of this post, I have shown five ties that have greater texture from left to right. They are: printed silk, woven silk, grenadine, tussah and knitted silk.

Screen Shot 2015-09-24 at 14.09.08

All things being even, they would therefore go from more to less formal, left to right.

The first two have a pattern, however, which sets them apart, and are slightly different shades of blue. The printed silk (left) has a slightly larger pattern (less formal) but is a darker shade of blue (more formal).

The difference between these two is tiny, but the important thing to realise is that all three things – texture, pattern, colour – make a difference as well as texture.

If there were to be an order to the different textures, it would look something like:

  1. Satin
  2. Printed silk
  3. Woven silk
  4. Grenadine
  5. Tussah
  6. Knitted silk
  7. Most wools and linens
  8. Shantung

[I am mixing up different terms for the sake of clarity and brevity. Some of these are also weaves, of course, and I’m omitting types of weave as well as types of grenadine.]

You could argue about the list, but it’s essentially an objective judgment of the same thing: how textured, how smooth or not, is the material? This is largely important because it affects the way light is absorbed or reflected.

Formality in diagrammatic form

Below is a diagram showing pattern together with the three other elements – tone, colour, texture and pattern – that should be considered.

Tie formality

Again, there are things we’re leaving out here, such as finishes on the silk or wool/cotton, but the same principles generally apply.

An important point on pattern is that it matters both how big it is, and how fancy. So a club stripe is a large, dominant pattern; but it’s simplicity makes it relatively formal. A paisley, on the other hand, is usually quite informal even at a lower scale.

Deciding whether two ties with widely different readings on these scales is largely pointless. Is a (muted) pink tie with a large (but simple) pattern smarter than a (strong) blue tie with a (small) fancy pattern? It doesn’t really matter.

The important thing is that if you want to know which tie to wear to a formal event and which informal, you have four elements to consider.

A satin tie is often great for an evening event because of its sheen (but is smarter in navy than in yellow). A grenadine, in navy or black, is perhaps the most versatile of all ties because its texture sits in the middle of the spectrum.

Reader (I think you were anonymous) I hope that helps.

All ties from Drakes

46 Comments

  1. I think you’ve demonstrated quite well , by the many parameters, the difficulty choosing the right tie can be.
    I find this particularly diffcult when most of us have for example a Tweed suit but a a collection of ties all brought to match against worsted suits.
    What about brands like Boglioli , that try to bridge the gap between formal and informal. Is it a case of only a knitted tie ?

  2. Simon Crompton

    Knitted, or wools, or matte effects like madder…

  3. Ivor Tiddler

    Simon,
    Which manufacturers do you recommend tie wise? And is there a big difference in quality between the “best” and the more common Duchamp type ones (as perennially seen on tv presenters)?
    Thanks,
    Ivor

  4. Simon Crompton

    Not a big difference no… You need a slip stitch and dye and discharge printing is nice but that’s it

  5. Are these ties part of your collection?

  6. Simon Crompton

    No, though I do have most of them

  7. I will definitely use that “chart” as a cheat sheet. I have been trying to pick a tie for my wedding recently and trying to find one it the right shade, but thathas some texture that’s not too informal for a groom, but not so smooth and formal that it is not really for me. (Or without trying to look like I have bought a wedding tie and pocket square set from the high street)
    You have helped me shot list this:- http://www.drakes.com/online-shop/ties/classic/untipped-silk-tussah-8cm-tie-3413

  8. Simon Crompton

    Nice. I’d go further down the tone chart – paler, less colour – for a wedding but that’s just me

  9. Unfortunately someone decided years ago that it is a good idea to let brides chose a colour and a theme which everyone else has to work with… !

  10. Simon Crompton

    Ah well. Never used to happen back in the day.
    You should be sharp, serious and monotone. Colour in the boutonniere at most (but small!)

  11. Bertie Wooster

    1. I assume tone refers to the shade e.g. light blue vs dark blue
    2. What is the difference between a foulard tie and a Macclesfield or Spitalfields tie
    Many thanks

  12. Simon Crompton

    1. Yep
    2. A foulard is typically a printed silk. The other two are wovens

  13. A nice guide.
    I have a fairly simple tie collection and tend to wear sport coats most of the time at work.
    I consider a suit a relatively formal garment and usually choose a relatively formal tie.
    With sport coats my ties are more patterned (if the coat doesn’t feature a lot of pattern) or a single colour tie in a less formal texture (i.e. knitted) if the sport coat features a strong pattern.

  14. Adam, not sure how formal your wedding is but the tussah silk option looks rather casual to me. Drakes make a lovely grenadine in that color, which I think will look a lot smarter without being too shiny: http://www.drakes.com/online-shop/ties/classic/handrolled-woven-large-knot-grenadine-solid-8cm-silk-tie

  15. Thank you. I have also seen that one. It was originally first choice but when we looked at the colours in the shop it wasn’t quite right (brides eh?) but a bespoke option might actually be the solution. It’s not particularly formal.

  16. Very good article; little to argue with.

  17. Hi Simon, can you comment on the formality of various tipping styles (self-tipped, untipped, etc.)? I work in a formal business environment, and would assume that untipped ties are more casual.

  18. Simon Crompton

    They are, as generally are lightweight linings, but they’re relatively small things compared to what’s discussed above

  19. What exactly do you mean by formal? Properly formal daywear – such as a morning suit – generally demands a light coloured tie. See e.g. http://www.thegentlemansjournal.com/the-best-dressed-royals-at-royal-ascot/. Formal evening wear of course demands a bow tie (textured white being the most formal). Plain black ties are worn by gangsters.

  20. Simon Crompton

    Formality is a scale, not an absolute. It is similar to smartness, but that’s a broader, vaguer term. Formality implies far more consideration of the place and occasion
    Formal daywear is not what we are talking about here

  21. Nice guide Simon, the four elements is a beautiful way to explain this. In terms of pattern for a necktie formal to informal; plain, spotted, foulard, striped, checked, paisley, large patterns etc. but I have a question; why is it that in many circumstances a foulard looks more compatible with a formal suit than say a plain tie? Is this purely a European taste (as Obama/US businessmen nearly always wears plain colours). Is it that plain ties often look ather dull against a formal worsted background. Would you add style as the fifth element – I ask as spotted ties were popular in the 80’s – less so now vs. plain & foulard- so though more formal less fashionable.

  22. Simon Crompton

    It’s a good point. Small, discrete spots or geometric patterns can sometimes look more formal than plains. But it’s often the fact that such small patterns are printed silks – the most formal end of my texture spectrum.
    Style would eg far too vague a term for a fifth element. If I would add anything, it would be a sense of tradition – ie places or occasions where certainties are traditionally worn. But again, it’s a separate question as to how smart or formal a tie is, which is what we’re addressing here

  23. Good article simon
    I do wonder, though, where a man should look if he doesnt want to spend £100 on a tie? Drakes, Hermes and the such are lovely but where would you go if you wanted to spend less than that, but better than a natty CT number?

  24. Simon Crompton

    Have you tried online shops such as Viola Milano and Shibumi? I can recommend both

  25. VM have added a number of “true” 7-folds over the last few days (the forest green one is particularly fine for formal business-wear). Shibumi also have a small number of formal “truel 7-folds, although also intriguingly at the other end of the spectrum, a 7-fold shantung grenadine…..

  26. This post gave me the very satisfying sense that as a regular PS reader, somehow I have learned this already. I love these parameters of formality. Are they all equal? My sense is that colour and pattern are baseline parameters that directly respond to occasion and setting, whereas tone and texture are, in a way, secondary variations that allow for some dandification. The latter two are are less easily picked up by the uninitiated (knit ties apart perhaps, but they also have an unusual shape).

  27. Simon Crompton

    Good point Richard, yes I’d say those are slightly more important, but the others are easily ignored and shouldn’t be.
    Pleased the PS academy is working…

  28. PS academy! … There is the next books title!

  29. Hi Simon,
    Thank you so much for this very very useful post! I think I was among those who wished such a post. Expectedly, this will help me to overhaul my tiny collection of ties! I’ve already read this post three times, and it’s still not enough! I Wonder whether it’s not entirely premised on an understanding of occasion and time that has remained implicit in your explaination. Hence for all those, like myself, who still struggle to grasp the inner logic of this post, perhaps really worth considering would be then one, hopefully in the near future, dedicaded to that damn notion of occasion, whose sense according to Bruce Boyer has been indeed lost.
    Last but not least, relying exclusively on their looks, how would you scale up the 5 ties displayed in The Merchant Fox’ ad?
    Thanks again for this post, Simon! The journey continues!
    John

  30. Nick Inkster

    Tom
    Have a look at Michelsons website. Their ties are stupidly cheap for the quality.

  31. Personally, I just open the wardrobe. Grab a tie. Put on. Swap for another if necessary. Charts are for trainspotters! X

  32. Hi Simon,
    Eventually, I do realize that one part of my previous comment or rather question (about scaling the ties in the ad) was squarely irrelevant, for “deciding whether two ties with widely different readings on these scales is largely pointless”!!!
    While rereading your post it dawned on me that I happen to have a vintage woven silk tie (with a light blue as background and dark navy small geometric patterns) made by Pierre Cardin (Modèle deposé) , which surprisingly enough I have never ever worn with brown shoes, and yet with no rule or whatever other than merely esthetic reason in mind. Hence this new question: the case of satin ties aside, I guess, is there any relation between smartness of ties and shoes color? It’s a bit off topic, but I hope it could make sense in this context that sounds to me highly analytical!
    John

  33. Simon Crompton

    Only in the way that they are all linked through formality John. And perhaps the colour and tone are particularly relevant when considering the colour of other things you are wearing.

  34. Specific I know but what about a plain navy repp tie, with hand-rolled edges, with a grey herringbone tweed sportscoat?

  35. Simon Crompton

    Sounds fine. If anything the tie risks being too smart for the jacket, but it depends on the smartness of the jacket (affected by, as with the tie, similar things like colour, size of herringbone, finish on the wool etc)

  36. Simon Crompton

    Should be fine. The jacket is darker than it could be, which is nice, but the slightly rougher wool and patch pockets etc make it rather casual.

  37. I would include width and shape as well.
    A 7cm tie looks more informal than a 8.5cm tie.
    And a straight shape 8cm tie looks more informal than a half bottle 8cm tie.
    Though everything is related somehow. You would not make a foulard tie in 6cm width, or a knitted cotton tie in 9cm. Just as you would not wear a 9cm tie with a less formal slim suit.

  38. Hi Simon
    Another great article, anything with a diagram is a winner for me! I love ties they seem to be the one areas of menswear that allows the wearer to demonstrate some personality, without enduring office wide ridicule! The problem I find is that my tie collection is never big enough, plain and patterned/printed ties in several colours in 3 or 4 textures ends up as a pretty big number. While Drakes have done and continue to do some great business from me, I do wonder if you could do an article on the 5 or 10 most useful ties? I know you are a big fan of the navy grenadine and as the owner of a finca, a grossa and a donegal style grossa I agree, but how can I avoid owning 50+ ties?
    Best
    Rob

  39. I’m somewhat surprised that you place most wool ties so low down on the list, particularly given your fairly recent outing of the green wool tie from Shibumi
    What jacket fabrics can you actually wear shantung with? I have two Drakes shantung ties which both look great, i’d argue fairly summery, but never found anything to wear them with. I had thought they’d be a good match with my ill fated hopsack jacket but as per my previous comments that turned out more formal (smoother/slightly shiny) than I wanted so not a good match to the informality of the tie. I am not convinced the textures work with my 9oz linen and there are season/weight issues with my 16oz tweed

  40. Hey Simon, as probably many guys I almost exclusively own printed Silk ties (mostly Hermes) and some woven silk (mostly Brioni, no “complex” weaves but rather larger woven in patterns). I wear those almost daily in the office. Now reading your site and browsing a bit through shops I didn’t know existed before I’d like to expand into different materials. I bought a woven brown wool/silk mix with a herringbone pattern as well as a simple navy grenadine tie, however I find it a bit difficult to make sense of the different weaves/materials against each other. For example woven wool and cashmere looks almost identical to me as does less irregular shantung silk. Tussah appears to be much more rustic and probably office-incompatible. Finally knitted-silk looks somewhat comparable to grenadine, but probably is not. The interesting thing is that for example Drake’s does *not* produce them in England, but instead explicitly mentions German and Suisse craftsmanship. Do you happen to know who does them from Drake’s?
    Best rgds!

  41. Simon Crompton

    Good points, maybe worth a bigger piece at some point

  42. Simon Crompton

    Could be lovely, but have to be styled carefully (what it’s worn with)

  43. Could you give some pointers? Which combinations would you avoid? Which could go well?
    (Work for me is quite traditional as in dark suit everybody. For the weekend I would describe my wardrobe as gravitating towards “country”, as in lots of knits, corduroy, unstructured sportscoats etc.)

  44. Simon Crompton

    It’s a very big question, but generally colours that you wear anyway (navy, grey) will be easiest to wear, followed by dark colours or monochrome (burgundy, dark green, cream)

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