- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 7, 2009

As Father’s Day approaches, millions of Americans are considering a necktie as a gift for dad. This essential male accessory is one of the few fashion items to remain unchanged for centuries, as revealed in a playful exhibit at the Embassy of Italy.

“Italian Knots” traces the history of the tie from the 1600s to the present through costume-dressed mannequins and designs by European fashion stars. From elegantly striped ascots to a Bart Simpson-decorated tie, the show’s artifacts reveal the lengths to which men will go to make a fashion statement through strips of fabric.

Even the least likely to wear a tie, including Mahatma Gandhi, the Marx Brothers and Fred Flintstone, took pride in their neckwear, as shown in the photographic portraits accompanying the exhibit.

Advancements in tie designs are closely associated with France and England, but today Italy is a leading producer of ties and the silk fabrics from which they are made. One of the sponsors of the show, the Italian company Diana, manufactures ties by leading European designers, from Courreges to Moschino.

The first known existence of fabric wrapping the neck was in the military. Classical antiquities depict ancient Roman legionnaires as wearing a scarf called a “focale” to protect against chafing from a metal helmet.

In China, the fashion dates back to the third century B.C. The famous terra-cotta statues representing the imperial army of the emperor are sculpted with pieces of cloth tied around their necks.

Modern versions of such adornment originated with France’s King Louis XIV, who popularized the cravat during the 17th century. He took inspiration from neckwear worn by the Croatian soldiers serving as mercenary troops during the Thirty Years’ War.

From these embellishments, the tie became simpler in design. As shown through a series of reproductions in the exhibit, the lacy jabot of the 1700s gave way to the loosely knotted bow ties and ascots of the 1800s.

Longer designs made from fabric cut on the bias, allowing the tie to fall evenly from the knot, became popular in the 1900s. An American, Jesse Langsdorf, patented this modern look, but he is only briefly mentioned in the exhibit catalog.

In addition to its shape, neckwear changed according to the way it was tied. The pre-knotted designs of the Victorian age gave way to the four-in-hand knot, still popular today, and the 1930s’ Windsor knot, named after Britain’s Duke of Windsor.

The exhibit is particularly strong in showing European ties from 1950 onward. The great Italian designers represented include Gianni Versace, Giorgio Armani and Gianfranco Ferre.

An entire case is given over to the far less elegant neckwear created by Roman designer Alberto Valentini, who is considered the “Salvador Dali of the tie,” according to the catalog. Made of denim, plastic and upholstery fabric, his fat novelty ties are the least appealing in the show.

Broad and skinny, patterned and plain, the variety of designs in the exhibit suggests there is still room for invention in this most commonplace of apparel.

WHAT: “Italian Knots: Evolution, Language and Style of the Tie”

WHERE: Embassy of Italy, 3000 Whitehaven St. NW

WHEN: 10 a.m. to noon and 2 to 4 p.m. Monday to Friday, through July 2

ADMISSION: Free (ID required)

PHONE: 202/518-0998, Ext. 1

WEB SITE: www.iicwashington.esteri.it

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