Between the necktie and the scarf exists another way of closing the collar that has nothing to do with bow ties. I’m not being coy; this accessory has multiple and varying names, and a general disagreement of size and function. Is a bandana smaller than a neckerchief? Is the neck cloth a catch-all term for anything worn inside the shirt? An ascot is certainly different; like a tie, it is shaped to achieve a particular effect. But the unisex, unstructured, large square of cloth is what I find the most beguiling.
I prefer the term neckerchief because it suggests utility rather than mere decoration—precisely the distinction I find important as concerns handkerchieves as opposed to pocket squares. Of course if someone is crying, or a minor spill needs mopping, whipping off a neckerchief hardly seems the most sensible option. So what are they for? On casual occasions in cool weather, a silk or wool neckerchief provides a very effective barrier to drafts. In summer, a lawn (fine cotton) or linen neckerchief is a glorified sweat band. I can almost see some readers recoiling, but that’s life when it's hot. Better a saturated square of cotton than rivulets of sweat collecting about the neck. Plus they launder.
This identification of utility should alleviate any timidity in wearing one, but it doesn’t. Neckerchiefs are still rather conspicuous, even when worn neatly tucked beneath nothing more noticeable than a polo collar. This is because the effect of wearing anything around the neck is always decorative. The dullest woolen scarf, soberly arranged, is going to reveal something about its wearer, so what hope does lilac linen have for not attracting attention? As a countermeasure, I limit my neckerchiefs to muted colors and quiet patterns, allowing the presence of something less familiar to win most of the style points.
The knot(s) are important too. True, there are more than one, but really only the reef knot matters. I realize this sounds narrow, but more elaborate knots are either going to exaggerate the presence of your neckerchief, or invite unwelcome associations to boy scouts (who use a cute little ring to cinch theirs), or chefs (whose traditional four-in-hand produces an awkward, protruding nub). To tie a reef, first transform the neckerchief from a square into a long strip (known as a pli de base) by folding two opposite corners of the square so they overlap, and folding the remainder in two inch intervals. Give the result a few twists if you’d like. Put it around your neck, the left end a little longer than the right end. Thread the left end over and under the right end, and then the right over and under the left. The points should protrude from the knot in opposite directions. Fiddle and tuck the excess.
Of course women may do whatever they like with a neckerchief, a point made famously well by Grace Kelly who was once photographed using a silk square as a sling following an injured arm. Carré de soie, the large, painstakingly printed foulards most notably produced by Hermès are at the top of this amorphous category of accessory. I imagine either sex occasionally admires items from the other’s wardrobe; I have caught my own wife locked in some mixture of admiration and longing as she held a pair of my sensible brogues. She has a few nice bags, but nothing tempts me more than her modest collection of carré de soie. They are vibrant and dense—alive with spring and heft. More than once, I’ve stood open-necked before them, wondering if I could get away with one of the more subtle prints slipped beneath a collar.