Almost every man’s formal wardrobe would have one or a collection of rep ties – those colorful diagonally striped cravats that have hung from the most stylish of necks since the last century. In America, they are a universal, democratic fixture of fashion. In England, however, rep ties present a knottier problem. The wrong tie worn around the wrong neck can cause nothing less than a small scandal.
The rep (or “repp”) tie – named after the weave of silk traditionally used in its making – traces a dual heritage, to both playing fields and battlefields. In the 1880s, British schools adopted official colors, which made their way onto not only ties (hence, “old school ties”) but caps and blazers as well. At the same time, the British army began to shed its colorful tunics for practical khakis, reducing fashion appeal but also visibility to enemy snipers. A safer place to sport one’s regimental colors was quickly found.
By the early 1920s, drinking societies, athletic teams, and private clubs own striped tie, ranging from the right proper blue and gold of London’s Canning Club to the garish buff-red- brown- -gray-and-black combination of the Harlequin Football Club. Sometimes the story behind the tie is as colorful as the tie itself. One afternoon in the 1920s, for example, the actor Norman Forbes Robertson wore a salmon-and-cucumber number to lunch at London’s exclusive Garrick Club, joking that it was the official club tie. So many members wanted one that the club formally adopted it. The I Zingari Cricket Club boasts the colors black, red, and gold, symbolizing the motto “Out of darkness, through fire, into light.” The orange-black-blue-and-yellow tie worn by the old boys of Wellington College takes its hues from the ribbon of the Crimean War medal.
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The popularity of the rep tie in American shores began in the 1920s, when it started to appear in Ivy League wardrobes. The Prince of Wales, who wore the maroon-and-blue tie of the Foot Guards, undoubtedly inspired many imitators, as he so often did. It remains one of the most popular rep ties in America, along with those of the Royal Air Force (deep red, navy, and silvery white), Eton College (black and light blue) and the 2nd Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders (green, navy, yellow and burgundy).
The induction of the rep tie in the American wardrobe did not find favor back in England, however, where school, club and military affiliations are grave matters indeed. “An Englishman simply would not think of wearing the tie of a group to which he did not belong” explains Christopher McKenna, proprietor of T.M. Lewin and Sons of Jermin street, London. Although the shop is the most famous rep-tie supplier in Great Britain, not a single sample is on display. “We keep them all locked away in the back now. Before, I had too many arguments with tourists—I must say, quite a lot of Americans—who came in and wanted to buy a Marylebone Cricket Club tie or a Garrick Club tie. I’d ask them for identification, and when they said they weren’t members, I’d apologize and tell them I couldn’t sell them the tie. Then they would say, ‘You have to sell it to me, you have it on display, and I’d have to explain that’s not the law in this country. This would go on for hours,” he says with a sigh in an interview for a magazine.
Other shops are not so scrupulous and have drawn the fire of regimental commanders who disapprove of their colors’ being turned into fashion statements. Indeed, the 3,000 different ties carried in its shop are but half the total manufactured by Lewin. Many clubs and regiments don’t allow even the discriminating McKenna to stock their ties in his shop but rather handle the distribution themselves, to make absolutely certain that they adorn only the necks of members.
Once, one could tell an American tie from its British counterpart because the stripes of the British version descended from the left; nowadays the diagonal direction is merely an aesthetic choice to be made by the designer. And, of course, sometimes a striped tie is just a striped tie; not every set of colors has an organization behind it. But the ties associated with regiments and clubs have always been the ones with a special aura.