Among the collection of cheap regimentals, novelty and sock ties that were part of my elementary school rotation was a cache of hand-me-downs in neat little patterns. These had come from my brother’s wardrobe—cast-offs, I suspect, as the 1980s moved from the prep ideal to the more exuberant expressions for which the decade is usually remembered. I wore them sparingly, savoring the lively hand and pleasing arrangements of color: robin’s egg and cream on a buff ground, or silver and pine layered on deep navy. Years later I learned these were foulards, not exactly an exotic style of necktie, but a classification that still manages to evade most people’s immediate grasp.
I think the word—foulard—and its complex associations are to blame. As one might suspect, the origin is French, but past that etymology becomes foggy. The most credible theory suggests the term is related to fulling—a traditional process of cleaning and thickening common to many textiles. In any event, foulard, then and now, is a quality silk twill that, because of its even consistency, responds well to dye—particularly small set patterns in two or more colors. And this is where the trouble begins: the latter becomes conflated with the former and the result is metonymy—foulard means to various people silk twill and/or any silk with a small repeating pattern. Further confusing things, to the French a foulard is a silk scarf (think Hermes’ famous prints), but that same fabled house refers to its men’s iconic print ties not as foulards, but silk twills.
Don’t be discouraged though; foulards (for our purposes neatly printed silk neckties) are worth whatever linguistic hurdles they present. While I adore hefty woven silk ties, cashmere, challis, grenadines and knits, I occasionally flirt with offloading them all in favor of a well-edited collection of sensible foulards. Somehow neatly printed silk strikes the most consistent chord: tidy, unpretentious, rich, sober, endlessly versatile. That last characteristic is especially important: by varying the scale or number of colors in a foulard, the effect can be dramatically altered. Large patterns in complex color arrangements are casual—better with flannels and tweed and perfection with dress-stripe shirts. Neater patterns limited to two colors, say small silver florets arranged on a navy ground, can seem quite formal—even effectively standing-in for more formal woven ties.
The pursuit and acquisition of fistfuls of foulards can be foolhardy though. The effect of wearing one is so consistent as to make a vast wardrobe of foulards unhelpful. I’m not in the habit prescribing numbers of things, but I imagine half a dozen foulards in various scales and in similar color combinations of navy, red, green, light blue and buff would be enough to avoid monotony. You will have chosen correctly if, in a dozen years or so, they are discovered by someone and still hold their appeal.