Hail to the neckerchief
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The cravat, or Ascot if you prefer, is an expressive garment. When worn like Edward Fox in The Day of the Jackal, it exudes icy sociopathic elegance; whereas when tied around the wing collar and spilling down the shirtfront like Charles Gray in the Rocky Horror Picture Show, it lends an air of pompous camp, the perfect foil for a cigarette holder and velvet jacket.
But it was not until 1982 that the cravat reached its apotheosis in the best of the Ustinov-era Poirot films. In Evil Under The Sun, Roddy McDowall exploits the dramatic potential of polka-dot silk to its very limits. His trick is to use a generous silk scarf, folded over itself, to fill the gap at the front of whatever he is wearing, replacing shirt and tie altogether: the carmine with a white spot works equally well under a double-breasted pinstripe suit as with a white shawl-collar cardigan. His striped and spotted dressing gown worn with sailor’s hat and billowing white scarf is a masterpiece; and I urge you to examine his short blue-spot bandana that brings out the best in Breton top and jolly roger T-shirt alike.
The cravat might have carried on in this blameless way, adding a relaxed touch to formal looks or dressing up a casual ensemble, had this innocent item of neckwear not been skewered by the merciless Steve Coogan who cast it as the cornerstone of Alan Partridge’s holiday look. He described it as: “The classic English gentleman abroad: it’s David Niven. It’s Stewart Granger. It’s Nigel Havers. It’s a green blazer. The look? ‘Imperial Leisure’. Offset the look with those four old reliables: cravat, hat, summer spectacles and, for a touch of class, the Alan Partridge blazer badge.” Castigated to international laughing stock, the cravat joined action slacks and string-back driving gloves in the dustbin of taste.
But just as gin – once the most blazered and bourgeois of boozes – has been restored to full fashion, the cravat too has found its way back into modern life. “We’ve always made them but we’re selling them again better than we’ve done for many years,” says Drake’s creative director Michael Hill of silk squares, foulard scarves and cravats.
As tailoring has relaxed, the formality of the cravat has softened. “I think it’s probably a little less buttoned-up and a little less stuffy than it used to be,” adds Hill. “There’s a slightly looser, more casual way of wearing it: a lot of guys carry it as a little bit of an accessory or prop, and it is a great way of adding colour.”
In Europe, though, the cravat hasn’t suffered the same ebb and flow in popularity. In Paris, Charvet, for example, has consistently done a good trade in the style. “Years ago, most guys were wearing them in a classic way and today it is a younger customer who wears them. I think that is because of the designs that we do,” says director Anne-Marie Colban. “We choose very large designs for our Ascots – we want to bring colour and a graphic effect.”
As well as Ascots, she has found a new audience for large silk squares, folded in on themselves point to point. “We have three fairly new ways of wearing them – some people wear them as a scarf, others wear them conventionally just folded, and you can tie them as a tie as well. Tucked into an unbuttoned shirt like a scarf, it also looks very nice on younger people.” And all without a hint of a blazer badge.