The Ultimate Guide to Matching Shirt and Bow Tie
When you picture a bow tie, do you think of early 20th-century gentleman's fashion? You may be surprised to learn that the bow tie style actually originated in the 17th century among Croatian mercenaries. They wore a scarf material to hold their shirts together at the collar. The French upper class picked up the style, transforming it into the modern bow tie. And in 1886, Pierre Lorillard V invented the tuxedo which gave birth to the black-tie attire we know today.
But today’s bow tie fashion differs from older fashions. Bow ties with many different colors and patterns have entered the fashion scene, but pulling these looks off requires careful planning and execution. Mixing colors or patterns that clash will make you look clownish and, ultimately, out of style. And we know you want to look dapper in your bow tie. That’s why we’ve put together this guide on pairing shirts with bow ties.
Before anything else, make sure you’re not trying to match your outfit to a bow tie. You should always match a bow tie to the outfit. That may be a bit of a bummer for you guys who’ve picked up a daring bow tie without thinking of the outfit you’ll pair it with. But don’t worry, if you can’t find anything in your closet to pair with your bow tie, you can always pick up a new shirt. (C’mon man, every respectable dude has a white shirt that he can pair with a funky bow tie.)
Alright, let’s break this down into steps:
First: Choose the shirt that you’re going to wear. (This may also be a good time to pick out your suit if you haven’t already, but if it’s a neutral color, you don’t need to worry about matching the bow tie.)
Second: This is where it gets tricky because the second step is choosing your bow tie, so I’m going to break this step into a couple of additional steps.
A: Choose the type of bow tie you will wear. You have three options: Self-Tie, Pre-Tied & Clip-On. If you’re a self-respecting man, you will never, EVER wear a clip-on bow tie. Clip-ons are only appropriate for children dabbling in fashion. Pre-tied may be appropriate in a casual setting, but when you wear a pre-tied bow tie, you run the risk of looking cheap. Be aware of the image you’re going to give. If you’re a true gentleman, you will always choose the self-tie, and you will know how to tie it properly.
B: Consider the event you will be attending (or not attending) to help guide your decision. If you’re going to a formal or semi-formal event, you should know whether it is black tie or white tie – your bow tie will need to match the event. For both black and white tie occasions, you should wear a crisp white shirt (yes, even with a white tie).
If you will be attending an informal event, you can experiment more with your colors, patterns, and textures. Just keep the nature of the event in mind – if it’s conservative you’ll want your outfit to match that tone.
C: Now, we can start playing with bow tie shapes/sizes. There are five common bow tie shapes. The most common are the butterfly and the batwing. I recommend sticking with one of these two shapes, but if you’re feeling daring, and the outfit allows, you can experiment with the other three shapes.
Ultimately, you want to make sure that the shape and style of the bow tie doesn’t distract from the main feature: you! It should accentuate your overall look, not drown it. (This is one reason why I strongly discourage flamboyant and over-sized bow ties.)
D: Texture and fabric are super important! Choosing the fabric will largely depend on the time of year and the rest of your outfit. Dense fabrics, such as tweed and wool, should be reserved for colder, winter months (this goes for suit material AND bow tie material). Lighter fabrics, like cotton, should be worn in warmer, summer months (please don’t wear heavy, dense fabrics in the heat!).
As for texture, you’ll want to make sure it doesn’t clash with the texture of your overall outfit. Pairing too many textures diminishes your outfit’s elegance. This doesn’t mean that every part of your outfit has to be the same material, but you should make sure that every piece has a similar fiber structure. The one exception to this is with your shirt: a cotton shirt can be paired with any texture jacket and bow tie.
E: Okay, so colors. This is a pretty simple one, especially if you are familiar with the color wheel. If you have a white or black shirt, you’re safe to use any color (and pattern) as long as it’s appropriate for the occasion (and it doesn’t clash with your jacket color). Pairing colors is a little bit trickier, but this is where the color wheel comes in. I recommend sticking with complementary, analogous, or split complementary colors.
Look at the color of the shirt you’ve chosen, then choose a solid color bow tie in one of these color pairings. Remember: Your shirt color should be lighter than your bow tie for the best contrast. The only exception to this rule is when you are wearing a solid dark shirt, like navy blue or black. For patterns and colors go to step F.
Note: You can choose a bow tie in the same color (darker shade) than your shirt, as long as the bow tie still stands out.
F: Patterns add a fun twist to your outfit, but they must be paired with care. Patterned bow ties always pair well with solid colored shirts and suits, but you’ll want to pay attention to color. Pick a bow tie whose pattern color matches or complements the color of your shirt. The background color of your bow tie should NOT be the same color as your shirt; it needs to contrast with the primary color of your shirt.
And for the final challenge: mixing patterns. The best thing to remember is to choose a shirt and bow tie with different size patterns and NEVER pair a shirt with a same pattern bow tie. You want to create a nice contrast, not an overbearing one, and you don’t want your bow tie to get lost in your shirt.
Some final tips before I send you on your way:
- Never match your bow tie to your pocket square. Doing so makes your outfit look cheap.
- Shiny bow ties are best for formal occasions, while matte bow ties are casual.
- Fashion experts say it is acceptable to pair a fun bow tie with a sweater, as long as the sweater is over a nice, collared shirt.
- Don’t pair boldly-colored bow ties with boldly-colored shirts.
- Don’t do extreme contrasts that create optical illusions or are harsh to look at. No one will want to be around you. Seriously.
Congratulations! You now have the knowledge you need to look like the handsome, dapper gentleman you are.