Recently I taught my dad how to tie a bow tie. It was his birthday. Mine too, actually. His 70th, my 41st. I wore a bow tie to the party with a snazzy vest, and as a gift I gave him a bow tie and taught him how to tie it. Here’s why this was a big deal.
I was aware that my mother would not like my choice of clothing. She prefers me to keep to the feminine side of the clothesline when dressing up, and the bow tie and vest had me way past the neutral zone. Though usually able to keep her comments to herself, my mother cannot refrain from communicating her distaste in other ways: a cockeyed look, a slight grimace, a sigh. But I have lately been making some discoveries about who I am, unearthing some long suppressed yearnings, and it has changed how I dress. I am trying to be true to myself, and to do that, I have had to stop seeking my mother’s approval
In my last post, I wrote that when I was young, my father taught me how to tie a necktie, and how I carried this treasured knowledge through my life until I was finally able to come out as a gentlebutch and dapperQ. On this journey of self/rediscovery, the necktie has been the focus of most of my outfits and shopping trips. So when the bow tie started popping up on the hipster scene last year I was intrigued.
The bow tie remains an almost exclusively male accessory, perhaps because there is no compromising with it. No way to winkingly sex it up, wearing it loose with an open shirt collar to frame exposed cleavage. Either you wear it right, done up tight to the neck, or you wear it untied and hanging loose around your neck like an inebriated groomsman at a wedding reception. (Or you wear it topless accompanied by bunny ears and tail, but let’s not go there, shall we?) The bow tie is actually quite emasculating. It draws the eyes up to the head rather than pointing aggressively to the genitals. This is why, I think, it has had its most enduring popularity amongst academics. “Trust me,” it seems to say, “my best feature is up here between my ears.”
I really liked the nerdy aesthetic of it. “Smart, sexy, gender playful”, it said to me. I knew I could rock that look. In keeping with my taste in neckties, I wanted to find a vintage bow tie. I had seen and ignored many of them in my previous necktie shopping trips so I was certain I could find them now. I was wrong. It was as if all of a sudden everyone had the same idea and, poof, there were none to be found anywhere. I blame Mad Men. However, after many fruitless phone calls, I found one store in another city where a man had just brought in half his collection. Perfect. I went, I perused, I bought three.
Okay, so I knew I could pull it off. What I didn’t know was how put it on. How to tie it, that is. (Because there’s no way a clip-on was going to grace this neck.) Tying a bow tie seems to be a preciously held men’s secret akin to membership in the Masons. I have seen written instructions, graphic instructions and numerous instructional videos, and they all make sense up to a certain point and then it’s like, “Turn around three times, spit, cross your fingers and there! It’s done!” Hunh?
Lucky for me, my (mostly femme) girlfriend used to work in a vintage clothing store and was endowed with the privilege of passing the secret knowledge on to worthy young men. I guess this boi measured up. She wrapped her arms around me and showed me the mysterious bit that happens behind the scenes when creating the perfect bow. (There’s this little hole at the back that you have to find and poke your finger into and then pull part of the tie through. Stop smirking.) When I turned around to face her after getting the tie just right, she gasped a little and had to catch herself as her knees went weak. (Now I like to surprise her by showing up at her door wearing one just to see her reaction.)
A few weeks ago, armed with the confidence of my girlfriend’s weak knees, I wore a bow tie to my dad’s birthday party. It was my party too, but it was his big birthday and his friends had been invited. He opened his gift, a really lovely blue bow tie I bought at Macy’s when on vacation in NYC, and then I brought him to the living room mirror and I taught him how to tie it. I taught my brother too. My brother borrowed mine and my dad used his new one and they practiced until they got it. I even gave them tips on pairing it with v-neck sweaters and vests. (Considering my brother’s delight at this newfound knowledge, I am getting him one for xmas.) My dad’s friends were impressed too. None of them knew how to tie one either.
So the story has come full circle. My father taught me, I taught him. A lovely package with a bow on top, so to speak. I don’t know if it means as much to my dad as it does to me that his daughter taught this thing to him. I think, more than anything I am proud of myself for wearing my good clothes, regardless of what my mother might think. (I chose to assume my mother would be just fine and didn’t go looking for any evidence to the contrary.) I shared with my dad a part of me that he may not have expected, a part that has certainly never been celebrated. It was a precious gift for me to give, a fragile thing close to my heart, and I think he may have had an inkling of that.