A Geek’s Guide to Picking the Right Tie

Resist, my friends – resist the urge to pick up that 8-bit tie (although it is awesome…maybe you can wear it in like-minded company) or wear the striped one that has colors that don’t exist in nature with your solid-color suit. Resist, my fellow geeks, the urge to raid your father’s closet and come out with a tie that looks like it belongs in a Beach Boys retrospective.

Modern times call for modern dress, and while our fathers and older brothers may have certainly been “cuttin’ a rug” in their high-water pants and waist-length coats, if you want to be a sharp-dressed geek, you would do well to pick the right attire for the right situation. You’ve got a brain in your head that can impress at any cocktail party; why not look impressive to match? There’s a lot of ground to cover here, but let’s get you started with something simple: the right tie.

There are a couple of different thinks to consider when you’re choosing a tie to purchase versus choosing a tie to wear out one night. Let’s start with the hypothetical you, standing in a clothing store, completely confused as to what you should buy. Now pretend I’m there with you. I know: you feel better already.

Most clothing stores sadly don’t have anyone around anymore who can help you pick out the right tie for you, and that’s kind of a shame. Let’s pretend you’re at a relatively large Ray Ban outlet clothing store – not one that specializes in formalwear, where you might find someone with some taste who can help you out. Now, now. That’s partially because us geeks probably wouldn’t initially think to go to a formalwear store or would balk at spending the dough, but partially a suggestion as well – if you have a decent formalwear shop in the area, definitely head there! Usually the staff there will be more than happy to give you advice!

In any event, let’s pretend you’re in a Target or a JC Penney or somewhere like that – some mall anchor store where you’re not about to break the bank, or you thought to yourself “I could use a new tie” as you’re wandering back past the small appliances but get distracted on the way to the electronics section. Yes, I know you – I’m the same way. But in front of you is a wide array of ties, all different colors and styles. There are only three things you need to be concerned with at this stage:

  1. Color
    You will see ties made with colors that probably don’t exist naturally, made with freakish chemical dyes that are almost neon in brightness and probably emit their own light on some freakish wavelength far off the side of the electromagnetic spectrum. Try to pick a color that’s somewhat neutral and works with the clothes you see yourself wearing it in.

    What, is that too vague? Here, let me be specific: if you’re going to wear a tie with a shirt, the color of your shirt should be somewhere in the tie if it’s a patterned tie (more on that in a moment) and if it’s not, at least make sure the colors of the tie are somewhere approximate in the same color family. That means no yellow ties with bright red shirts, or pink and blue paisley with…well, anything. You can do better.

    If you have a bunch of plain white shirts in your closet, try a nice blue tie. You have some freedom with red – you can go bright blue like a dark powder, or you can even go navy. Whatever you do, stay away from colors that are garish and entirely too bright. If you look at yourself in the mirror and your attention goes straight to your tie because it just seems to glow, your tie color is too bright. If you have a black shirt, then you can break out the brighter colors, like a nice red or even something more daring like a deep purple.

  2. Pattern
    The first thing you should know about patterned ties is that you don’t have to have one. You will never ever go wrong with a solid color tie, unless that color is way off. Solid color ties are not only classy and elegant in their minimalism, they’re also easier to pick out and match up with your clothing. That simplicity comes at a price though; with ties that have multiple colors and accents in them, you have the freedom of picking a color that may be a little overwhelming but has accents or stripes that match your slacks perfectly for example, like a navy blue tie on a white shirt with charcoal stripes across.

    Speaking of patterns, ties naturally come in all sorts – stripes, polka dots, paisley, even accented colors in a grid. The trick here is to restrain yourself and not go overboard while still expressing yourself. You don’t need to get the tie that’s essentially patterned after the first level 1-1 in Super Mario Bros. 3 – although that tie would be a huge hit with me personally, it’s probably not something you’d want to show up to your company holiday party wearing unless you work at a far more geek-friendly company than most of us do.

    Stick to simple patterns – diagonal stripes, grids, small dots or patterns that aren’t horrifically visible to anyone but the person you’re chatting with at the moment. Steer clear of super-loud patterns like paisley (seriously, paisley should have died in the 80s) or ties where the pattern makes out something, like a designer’s custom art, or some abstract logo or scene that you have to turn the tie over to get the full effect of. No one’s going to walk up to you during a semiformal party, comment on your tie, and actually expect you to go into detail. The rules? Stay simple, stay elegant, stay zen, and you’ll stay classy.

  3. Material
    This is probably the most overlooked part of choosing the right tie. Ties come in just about every modern material you’ll find other clothes made of; you can find cotton ties (although I wouldn’t really recommend them), silk ties (beautiful, but often incredibly expensive for a look that can be obtained for less), polyester ties (cheap, easy to care for, but not always a good match for your shirts), and of course, blends of the above (what I would personally suggest you look out for).

    I’m a huge fan of silk blends; you get the masculine look but delicate feel of silk, but you also get the sheen of polyester with all of the benefits of polyester being easy to care for. Best of all, the material is light – much lighter than cotton – and won’t feel like you’re wearing a noose around your neck while you’re Gafas Ray Ban outlet out on the town. Most big box stores and clothing stores carry silk/polyester or silk/polyester/cotton blends, some of them even have some ties with rayon tossed in there. In any event, the lovely thing about blends is that your dry cleaner can deal with them, or you can spritz them with a little water and iron them down to keep them fresh between infrequent wearings.

    I’m not a material Nazi, I won’t scold you for wearing a specific material, but I will suggest that some of the more popular blends tend to go with just about any type of shirt you may wear. This is one of those situations where you’re better off buying two or three blend ties and keeping them for multiple occasions than trying to go all out and buying a single tie of a specific fabric to match a shirt of a different fabric. Save yourself the hassle – you’ll look fine, spend less, be able to wear them over and over again, and still look good next to that guy from sales who always wears designer clothes, or the dude at your high school reunion who clearly bought the duds he’s wearing the night before the reception.

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Listen, you don’t have to take my word for this here, and you don’t have to print out this article and take it with you to your local retailer when you go shopping, although I’d be flattered if you did. Find yourself a nice men’s store in your area – where I live I can choose between names like JoS. A. Bank and Men’s Wearhouse – even the local big and tall store, Casual Male XL, often have people working there who are not only talented but more than happy to help you make a clothing decision that doesn’t make you look like a reject from an old episode of Sanford and Son. I would suggest shopping online, but there’s something for seeing and touching the fabric of a tie until you’re familiar enough with materials and patterns to safely shop on the Web.

When I bought my first suit, I went to a gentleman working the Men’s section in my local JC Penney store. He was incredibly fashion conscious and even the short conversations I had with him while he took my measurements and helped me pick out the style of suit that I liked shaped my perception of menswear to this day. He was the one who taught me that in most cases, solid jewel colored shirts are safe bets, and patterned dress shirts (which I’ll address in a later article) should be approached with care, because they can go from classy to kitschy really quickly. He was the one who taught me the importance of picking a tie that not only matches your shirt but also your slacks and your belt, and picking a belt that matches your shoes. I know, I’m out of this article’s depth, but I’m here for the long haul – we’ll hit these topics another time. In any event, he’s long gone from the JC Penney, but his advice sticks with me. Find someone like him.

That person will take your measurements, ask you what colors you like and shirts you own, and help you find a tie to match – whether they take the easy way out and suggest the standard, always reliable and applicable black tie, or suggest you go a little crazy with a silver and navy striped tie over a blended gray shirt, they can lend a hand and give you some good ideas of what will make you look good. And remember, it is about looking good, not proving your geekiness with a fun tie, or giving up and believing you can’t look good (because dammit you can) and just raiding your dad’s closet. Trust me, when you put on something that looks good, you’ll know it in your head, you’ll feel it in your gut, and you’ll be proud that you knew how to pick it out yourself – just one more weapon in your intellectual arsenal – now you can look and talk the part at any occasion.

Author Description

Alan Henry

There are 5 comments. Add yours

  1. 8th December 2009 | LoserGeek says:
    I hope you see fit to revisit this topic, as I feel there are some significant options which you may have overlooked: 1. Clip-on vs knotted. Is clip-on ever an acceptable option? 2. Appropriate length for a necktie. 3. What width is currently in vogue? 4. Thrift stores & yard sales: is it necessary to spend forty bucks on a stupid piece of colored cloth from a "clothier"? 5. What's the word on bow ties? 6. What's the word on bolo ties? 7. Tie clips or tie tacks? What are they for, when are they used, where to find them? Also, regarding actually wearing a necktie: 1. What knot to use? How to learn to tie a necktie? I mean, dude, I'm a geek! It's not like I have some hot chick sensuously knotting or un-knotting my tie for me like in the movies! 2. In what situations is it appropriate, or even "cool" to casually loosen a necktie? In doing so, is it okay to unbutton the top button of the dress shirt? Can a tie be removed in a social setting... other than behind closed doors, which will only happen in my frikkin dreams, 'cuz I'm a geek of the socially inept & lives in my mom's basement variety, so I don't think even a tie is gonna help in that regard. 3. Is it okay to leave a knotted tie tied when removing it, so we don't have to fuss with it each time? 4. When is a tie required? When is a tie considered "over-dressed"?
  2. 8th December 2009 | Alan Henry says:
    Hi LoserGeek! I think you're spot on, and these are great follow-up suggestions for a subsequent post. I'll get to work on it! Although I can tell you right now bolo ties are an abomination. I mean seriously unless you're a 70-year-old oil man who wears a cowboy hat more often than you wear pants, bolo ties are right out. But every other point is great, and I think definitely worth covering. Keep an eye out!
  3. 8th December 2009 | ek_man says:
    Nice article, Alan. I had a few other thoughts and questions. Another piece of advice on tie purchases -- look for obvious cheap stitching. Some cheap silk ties are poorly assembled and can start disintegrating sooner than you'd like. Things to be wary of include thin thread that already appears to be fraying and stitching that seems to be barely holding the folds of the material together. This may seem obvious, but there's no guarantee that you get what you pay for. It pays to check. I'm definitely someone who generally likes to keep my wardrobe simple: pick pants, shirts and ties that have good mix-and-match capabilities. I work at a university (I'm a science geek). Ties aren't required for most activities, but there are more formal events where they may be expected or, at the least, they're not inappropriate. I know that faculty can sometimes get away with a little more adventurous pattern at Christmas functions and graduation. Administrators, however, are stuck with more conventional standards. In elementary and high school, I recall you'd get the occasional male teacher or principal who'd go out of their way to dress 'creatively', and the tie was usually the least of the class' concern. Again, however, the ties would usually only come out for formal, more public occasions. Also, obviously button-down shirts are made for wearing with ties. What's the thinking on wearing those types of shirts w/o ties? If you do wear those shirts " sans cravate", do you do up the collar buttons or leave the collar loose? LoserGeek had some interesting comments and questions as well. I think the connection between shirt options and tie options might be explored more down the road, including regional variations. (Hey, let's see how far we can drive this topic into the ground!) Buying a shirt with the right size neck is pretty darn critical if you're going to wear a tie.
  4. 2nd January 2010 | Chris says:
    Striped ties are SO fifteen years ago I agree: Paisley SHOULD have died in the eighties. And... If Paisley should have died in the eighties, diagonal stripes should have died in the nineties. On schoolboys, diagonal-striped ties are okay. (On schoolboys, now) The striped tie says, "I go to a stuffy institution whose stuffy administrators make me wear a striped tie, but in twenty years I'll be your boss." On anybody else, a striped tie of any color says, "I have no taste and I think I can't go wrong with stripes." Diagonally-striped ties are worn by men who are interested in impressing their bosses (or customers) but who don't want to be creative or expressive, and who don't want to take the time to think it out. Striped ties are a quick grab. Neck ties are a corporate way to force men to be self-expressive but in exactly the way that your company wants (revisit the "flair" scene in Office Space). Striped ties CAN certainly say about their wearers, "This guy was late getting out the door this morning and is willing to use 'tried and true' as a cheap trick to get by and look like he has originality and self-expression going for him." DESIGNS: Small designs make you stand up. Medium designs make you stand out. Large designs make you stand out like a sore thumb.
  5. Pingback: Ties: Revisited – Picking the Right Tie: Part II « The Classy Geek July 19, 2010

    […] since the launch of The Classy Geek, one of the most popular articles on the site is my first: A Geek’s Guide to Picking the Right Tie. Since then, I’ve gotten comments and e-mails asking me to revisit the topic and help hammer […]

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