The Somewhat Mysterious Evolution of Men’s Neckcloths, by Sharon Lathan

The Somewhat Mysterious Evolution of Men’s Neckcloths, by Sharon Lathan

*click to read the article by Sven Raphael Schneider

For we who adore the Regency and the unique fashions of the era, high on the list is the cravat. Whether tied to perfection, removed for some dramatic purpose, or in any state in between, no other article of a gentleman’s ensemble impacts we females quite as profoundly as the cravat. Yet it isn’t only our fluttering hearts that are effected by a lily-white cravat on a well-dressed man. History reveals that males on down through the ages have accepted the importance of what is now simply referred to as a “tie.”

An article from 2016 in Gentleman’s Gazette (click image to the right) briefly covers the ancient history of men’s neckwear and scarves. I encourage all who are interested in this topic to click over to read, but for today I am going to zero in on the immediate evolution to the Regency cravat we are most familiar with.

 

As the referenced article above notes, men wearing varied sorts of neckwear or scarves can be seen in carvings, paintings, etc. for centuries and in many cultures. What almost all of these examples have in common is the social status of the men shown. Whether royalty or some other elite government position, men in religious orders, or officers in the military, ornamental neckwear appeared to be worn to signify one’s status or accomplishments. What we don’t tend to see, however, is a universal “must-have” aspect to a particular neckwear-type for ALL men within a culture. This shift begins, gradually, with the advent of the ruff.

The ruff was worn by men, women and children, evolving from the small fabric ruffle at the drawstring neck of the shirt or chemise. Almost a bib, the separate ruff or ruffled chemise, was a practical and changeable pieces of cloth that could be laundered separately after keeping the wearer’s doublet or gown from becoming soiled at the neckline with food or any other particles (including sweat). As is typical, in time even a practical garment will become a fashion statement! As the examples seen below reveal, a ruff did come in a variety of styles, although the style we most associate the name “ruff” with are the two on the far right.

 

 

Yes, they look a tad ridiculous to us, but not so to those in the 15th-17th centuries. The ruff symbolized aristocracy, literally holding heads and chins high to demonstrate importance and that the men wearing them did not need to work drastically. The stiffness of the garment forced an upright posture, adding to the appearance of wealth and status. The care necessary to keep the ruff white and heavily starched was also a sign of wealth. Then, in the early 16th century, lace was invented. It would remain rare and exorbitantly priced for a long while, so having a ruff trimmed with lace or made entirely of lace was the pinnacle symbol of prestige.

All this to say, the average working man might have worn a poor imitation of a “limp ruff” or “falling band” (like those to the left in the image above) for practical purposes, but few would have bothered as a fashion statement. Nor would they be considered undressed if not attired with a ruff. In fact, the elaborate nature of the ruff was seen as a symbol of offensive excess to the rising Puritanical philosophies of the 1500s. In 1583, Puritan pamphleteer Philip Stubbes decried “great and monstrous ruffs” that “stand a full quarter of a yarde (and more) from their necks”. This may seem an exaggeration, although with the improved production of English starch in the 1560s and the addition of wire frames beneath called a supportasse or underpropper, the ruff attained ridiculous heights of grandeur!

Ana de Velasco y Girón (1585-1607), Duchess of Braganza
Sir Thomas Cornwallis (1519–1604)

After looking at the above paintings, it might seem a no-brainer for men to eventually swing toward a neck garment a wee bit more practical, comfortable, and (dare-I-say?) masculine. Then again, males and females through time have sacrificed comfort and practicality in the name of fashion.

So what turned the tide from crazy big ruffs to the slim cravat?

In 1618, Sweden and France joined forces against the Habsburg Empire, resulting in a war that lasted thirty years. Mercenaries from Croatia, Hungary and Bosnia (all known as Croats) were enlisted into a regiment supporting King Louis XIII and Cardinal Richelieu against the Duc de Guise and the Queen Mother, Marie de Medici. Being mercenaries, many of them also battled against the French, especially in Flanders, under the command of Ottavio Piccolomini, a Florentine mercenary paid by the Habsburgs.

The unusual, picturesque scarves distinctively knotted at the Croats’ necks were a part of their battle dress and the only form of identification because they did not wear established uniforms. The fabrics that were used ranged from the coarse cloths of enlisted soldiers to the fine linens and silks of the officers, but in all cases they were draped and tied loosely without the need of heavy starching. On the battlefield this was certainly an advantage! They were elegant and easy to wear, plus they were more visible beneath the thick, long hair men wore in those days.

16th century Croatian soldier wearing a “cravat”
Ivan Gunduli (1589-1638), a Baroque poet from Croatia wearing a cravat in a 1622 portrait
CRAVAT
1650s, from French cravate (17c.) literally “Croatian,” from German Krabate, from Serbo-Croatian Hrvat “a Croat”

As noted above, the Croats fought on both sides of the battlefield, so it muddies the waters when it comes to exclusively thanking the French or the Germans for adopting the new fashion statement. According to historians, both armies were enraptured by the style and swiftly adopted the trend. Nevertheless, it does seem clear that the French brought the cravat to the world at large.

The French were especially fascinated by the look and readily switched from the old-fashioned starched linen ruff to the new loose linen and muslin cravat. Sealing the fashion deal was King Louis XIV of France establishing the cravat as the royal neckwear of choice. The court even employed a cravat-maker (cravatier) who delivered a few cravats to the king on a daily basis so he could choose the one that suited him most. Royal favor is always a sure-fire way to create a trend, and this instance was no different.

Louis XIV, c1700

 

As for merry ole England, following the trends from France has always been the norm, so inevitably the style would have crossing the Channel. Historians, however, trace the cravat entering and exploding upon English fashion directly to the return of Charles II in 1660 after years of exile in France.

“A cravatte is another kind of adornment for the neck being nothing else but a long towel put about the Collar, and so tyed before with a Bow Knott; this is the original of all such Wearings; but now by the Art and Inventions of the seamsters, there is so many new ways of making them, that it would be a task to name, much more to describe them”.

Charles II of England

Obviously, the cravats worn by Louis and Charles in these portraits (and almost literally all their portraits) aren’t exactly what we envision donning the manly neck of Mr. Darcy. Indeed, the cravat would continue to undergo several evolutions before the Regency proper.

Early cravats, particularly those worn by the French where the best lace was made, were almost always entirely made of lace, which was light and easy to manipulate. Since the main point of transitioning from the heavy and hard ruff to the cravat was relaxed ease and comfort while maintaining beauty and opulence finding a balance was essential.

Enter the Steinkirk

As the 17th century drew to a close, the final battle of the lesser-known Nine Years’ War between France and the Netherlands (among other nations) was fought at Steenkerque on August 3, 1692. It was an extremely bloody battle, but would soon fade from memory amid the numerous prior battles as well as those to come in the centuries ahead. Strangely, the main immortalization from the battle is the origin of the “Steinkirk” tie, as explained in Voltaire’s 1751 “Age of Louis XIV” (Vol. 1, 214). Voltaire noted that the French victory in the battle was attributed to a group of French princes who had hurried to assemble their troops:

“The men at that time wore lace-cravats, which took up some time and pains to adjust. The princes having dressed themsevles in a hurry, threw these cravats negligently about their necks. [After the battle] The ladies wore handkerchiefs made in this fashion, which they called Steinkirks. Every new toy was a Steinkirk.”

 

The cravats worn by the monarchs above are closer to a Steinkirk than the cravats familiar to Regency Era buffs. The portraits to the right are two more examples of Steinkirks from the 1700s. If not made wholly of lace, cravats during this century often were edged with lace and adorned with ribbon, tassels, embroidery, etc. The base fabric could be linen, cotton, or silk. Wealthy gentlemen went all out on their cravats in so far as fabric and adornments, but no matter how fancy, the look was casual, loose comfort. What this meant is that for the first time in neckwear history, the common man could also be stylish, formal, and elegant.

The Steinkirk would remain popular for men and women through the 1720s, replaced by the stock, a simple high collar made of horsehair, whale bone, pig bristle or wood covered in cloth. As such it was very uncomfortable to wear yet easy to put on, unlike a cravat, since it was one piece. It also was easily replaceable and was more resistant to soiling, making it very advantageous for the working man and middle class gentlemen. Perhaps in a desire to bring back the retro-styling of the ruff’s elongated and rigid neck, the stocks worn by the wealthy were starched to within an inch of its life and grew to heights of such extremes that it reached the ears. A man couldn’t turn his head without moving his whole body when wearing such extreme stocks. Below are five examples of extant stocks.

 

Modern jabots

When looking at portraits from the Georgian Era (and beyond, since stocks didn’t completely disappear for over a century) it is nearly impossible to be certain if the man is wearing a stock as opposed to a neckcloth alone over a high shirt collar. Most stocks either had an attached bow or additional fabric to tie into a knot. Or, if a simple stock serving as a foundation, the stock was given a bit more style with a lacy or frilly jabot (see modern costuming examples to the right). Another option was a long fabric neckcloth (or, the cravat, as it would be in the Regency) wound over and around the stock to increase the volume and tied into an elaborate knot. Still another option were the pre-formed and folded stocks, like the extant example below, worn with a shirt that had a ruffle sewn at the front.

 

The common thread with all these neckwear variations is the opulence of fabrics, lace, ruffles, and other adornments. As the 1700s drew near the end, fashion for men’s neckwear reached new heights of ludicrousness with the Macaroni. Described as a man who “exceeded the ordinary bounds of fashion,” the macaroni is an interesting phenomenon I do not have the time to delve into here. Similar to those called a “dandy”, the macaroni was extreme in every way. Much of the macaroni’s outrageousness was rejected by the more reserved Englishmen, especially with the entrance of men’s fashion maverick Beau Brummell who advocated for refined, well-tailored, and sophisticated attire. What did remain from the macaroni sense of style was the elaborate manner of knotting the basic cravat.

And on that enticing note, this blog comes to a close.
I hear your moans of sadness, but be calm, friends. I shall return next month with a blog 100% focused on the Regency cravat, including details on the types of knots and how to tie them.
Something to look forward to! I hope you enjoyed this bit of history. Comments are always welcome!

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[…] I promised, today is a followup to my blog last month on The Somewhat Mysterious Evolution of Men’s Neckcloths. Click over to read a very brief history of men’s neckwear over time, particularly the eras […]

Linny B
Linny B
January 25, 2021 10:59 PM

Very interesting post! So many stories have various characters removing, tugging, or loosening their cravats.
Thank you for sharing and including so many pictures.

darcybennett
January 23, 2021 5:25 PM

Interesting post as I have often wondered about the ruff and the cravat.

carylkane
carylkane
January 21, 2021 7:33 PM

Sharon, Thank you for the fascinating post!

Jennifer Redlarczyk
Jennifer Redlarczyk
January 20, 2021 10:46 AM

Love this article. My husband says wearing a tie is like wearing a noose. I can’t imagine how it must have felt with the elaborate knots of the Regency.

J. W. Garrett
J. W. Garrett
January 19, 2021 7:45 PM

I love these posts. I hate to say men were vane… however, some of those looked very uncomfortable. I suppose they suffered for fashion just as their female counterparts did. Thanks for sharing, stay safe, and healthy.

Gianna Thomas
AuAu
January 19, 2021 4:46 PM

Great post, Sharon. It’s amazing what people will wear at times. And, yes, I love the Regency cravats and look forward to learning more about them. 🙂

Teresa Broderick
Teresa Broderick
January 19, 2021 3:48 PM

I would never have survived the period of the Ruff. I can’t bear anything up around my neck. I hardly ever even wear necklaces. Scarves are a definite no no!! Great post!!

Riana Everly
AuAu
January 19, 2021 9:44 AM

The lengths people go to for fashion never fails to amaze me. Next time I hear someone complaining about his tie, I’ll suggest that he could always wear a ruff or a stock instead. But I have to admit, as silly or crazy as some of the styles look, there is still something very elegant about them, isn’t there?
Looking forward to next month’s post.

cindie snyder
cindie snyder
January 19, 2021 9:19 AM

Interesting post! Some of those people look like they can hardly move with those big collars!lol Cravats seem a little less restrictive compared to those big things!

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