Seeing the Light

    My favorite style dictums—rules, if such a thing as style could be governed—are those that seemingly, and sometimes blatantly, contradict with other principles of dress.  I’m not referring to matters of opinion; one peacock is always going to disagree with another over sleeve length.  And the current fixation with artful dishevelment—or sprezzatura—is self-defeating because, like irony, the instant the notion is acknowledged its foundation goes poof.  Instead I refer to the hiccup in logic—the disconnect that some fusty tradition creates.  Take the opera pump, the very pinnacle of men’s footwear formality.  We may all agree on the pump’s courtly lineage, and there’s no disputing the slender and elegant line wearing a pair creates.  But we can also agree that even the best pumps are merely loafers with stapled-on silk bows and glued soles—likely the least expensive pair of shoes in the well-dressed man’s wardrobe.  

    And if that keeps some men up at night, imagine what the light-colored tie does?  The one rather dependable rule for neckwear is this: a tie should be much darker than the shirt.  This perhaps was, or should have been, the very first thing taught to every tie-wearing man.  Happily, adhering to the rule is easy as most earnest attempts at pairing tie and shirt seem to naturally abide.  But exceptions—magnificent ones, I might add—exist.  

    The wedding tie is a specific thing, rather than a concept, as most current stylists would have it.  Consequently, an image search turns up very few true examples.  Instead what fills my monitor are anything but: madras, regimentals, knits.  Strictly speaking, a wedding tie is a densely woven silk in a black and white pattern that resolves to silver or gray from a few yards away.  The traditionally small patterns are shepherd’s check, houndstooth and glen plaid, all running on the bias.  I prefer less stringent examples where navy is substituted for black and the pattern is larger.  As a side effect though, a tie like this displays quite a bit of white silk, and the result is a rather light tie.  So what shirt?  Strangely, and for reasons that contradict the aforementioned logic of ties being darker than shirts, my preferred pairing for this type of festive tie is a blue broadcloth shirt—something that reads slightly darker than the tie.  The effect is irrefutably formal, elegant and, I suspect because of the abundance of white, happy.


    The other way of flouting convention is with a buff or palest-yellow tie.  These are largely connoisseur’s items; the majority of printed silk features motifs in lighter color combinations laid over darker grounds, likely for reasons of versatility and ease of pairing.  But the reverse—a lighter ground with a more saturated motif—can be very handsome.  Enter the dress stripe shirt—the fail-safe pairing for most foulards.  On the surface, the problem seems to be that a pale buff foulard will be too light for anything other than a white shirt, let alone a saturated striped shirt.  But the pairing works, somehow amplifying the dark stripes and setting the buff silk aglow.  

    These are happy discoveries, but come with a caution: the light tie can go quickly and dramatically wrong.  The wedding tie with lots of white in the pattern should really be reserved for festive occasions where at least some of the celebration is during the day.  And pale foulards are happy and casual, but almost never look right in the evening.  Perhaps that is the uniting principle: most occasions call for a tie that’s darker than the shirt, but a small collection of pale ties should occasionally see the light.