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Edwin Booth's Necktie

Updated: Dec 23, 2020


About two months before New York shut down, HBO asked me to create neckwear for its new drama The Gilded Age. Produced by Julian Fellowes of Downton Abbey fame, the series takes place in 1880s New York City, and besides Cynthia Nixon, the stars of the show are the sets and the costumes. 

Fortunately I did not have to travel far for inspiration. All I had to do was to walk into The Players, ask Eddie to mix me a Martini, and delve into our amazing art collection. Because of its breadth and depth, the collection basically tells the history of American neckwear from the early 1800s to the present. My focus, however, was on the Gilded Age --- and what could be more Gilded Age than John Singer Sargent?

When Sargent painted his portrait of Edwin Booth in 1890, neckwear had been standardized in four basic categories: bow tie, scarf, ascot, and long tie. Each style could be tied in numerous ways with complicated twists and folds. If you did it incorrectly, polite society would snicker and sneer. Oscar Wilde was not joking when he stated that “A well-tied tie is the first serious step in life” in his play A Woman Of No Importance (1893).

Gentlemen's neckwear c. 1887.

Since there were so many different ways of tying a knot and because the penalty of doing it wrong was so severe, it was common to wear a pre-tied tie. In fact, there was a whole industry devoted to creating such ties. And most of them looked so good that it was difficult to tell the difference between a necktie that was pre-tied and one that was self-tied.

What, then, is Mr. Booth wearing in this portrait? My guess is that he decided on a long tie with what was then called a sailor’s knot. I feel certain he was familiar with pre-tied ties: on stage, that's probably all he wore. For the portrait, however, I like to think he tied this tie himself. 

Carl Rutberg, Ph.D, is the Creative Director of Lindman New York, a full-service neckwear company, as well as adjunct professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT), where he teaches courses on American history, culture, and fashion.  He serves on the Membership and Communication Committees.

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