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A solitary soldier leads the bow-tie brigade

The first time i left the house wearing a bow tie, I announced to my wife that she was witnessing the dawn of a new age. "You see before you the harbinger of haute couture, the herald of high haberdashery. Within six months, the bow tie will have become as ubiquitous as pin stripes, as welcome as wingtips."

What prompted me to make such a prediction remains a mystery. I normally have enough trouble keeping pace with the present, without venturing into dubious prognostications of the future, especially in the realm of fashion. But having worn only standard neckties until that moment, I naturally assumed that the sudden impulse to don new clothes must be the result of forces far greater than one man's whim.

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"Something's afoot," I reasoned, "something bigger than both of us." My wife looked up from her grapefruit, told me I looked like a neatly wrapped package, straightened my tortuously tied bow, and sent me to work with a peck on the cheek and an indulgent smile.

I was to see that smile often during the ensuing months, not merely upon her lips but on the faces of passersby for whom, apparently, the sight of a bow tie is cause for mirth. Not one normally to draw attention to myself, I understood immediately why the bow tie, despite its obvious advantages (chief among them, that it never ends up in one's soup) has had such difficulty staging a comeback.

Its wearer must endure a continuous trial by titter, staring resolutely ahead while teenage girls laugh behind their hands and impudent boys make snide remarks. Sharing Manhattan sidewalks with half-naked women sporting spiked green hair and pierced eyebrows, I had thought my subtle fashion statement would go virtually unnoticed. But day after day, strangers' eyes settled below my chin, accompanied by smiles and occasional giggles. The bow tie, I discovered, is a surprisingly arresting creature.

This became all the more evident my second week out, when, prompted by a sudden break in the raw weather of early April, I took my bow tie for a walk through Central Park. Just inside the entrance I passed a homeless man huddled upon a bench surrounded by bundles of rags and a disabled shopping cart.

The homeless man fixed his eyes on me with the searching gaze of someone who had just located the source of his next meal. Expecting his entreaty, I began reaching into my pocket for coins when he said, "Hey, buddy, I like that bow tie!"

Two months elapsed and, according to my informal survey, the number of bow-tie wearers in Manhattan increased by a grand total of one - me. I based this conclusion on the results of long walks and the scarcity of bow ties in midtown stores. Few men's shops displayed them, and those that did offered a dusty selection of paisleys and polka dots that seemed to date from the early 1950s.

"What an opportunity," I told my wife. "One designer with taste could make a fortune. There's nothing out there."

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Wise in the ways of the market, she explained that supply usually followed demand.

"Wait until summer," I insisted. "When the weather turns warm, bow ties will blossom."

Already I had begun to notice a difference in the glances of fellow pedestrians. It wasn't envy, exactly, but neither was it ridicule. Men began to study my neck as if considering the idea. I could almost hear them thinking, "You know, that doesn't look half bad." Women seemed to sense an air of self-confidence about me. In a culture accustomed to the shrill and the boisterous, this whispered departure from convention had its disciples - or so I imagined.

By mid-June, I began regularly to pass two or three bow-tied compatriots on my way to the office. We smiled knowingly, even gratefully at each other, studying the precision of each other's knots, proud of our hand-tied bows. One elderly man stopped me one morning to say he was delighted that the younger generation was beginning to discover the merits of the bow tie. He had been wearing them for 60 years.

Encouraged by this dubious confirmation of my own expectations, I told my wife over dinner, "It's beginning; we're only weeks away from critical mass. You are about to witness a quantum leap into the bow-tied beyond."

Day after day I entered the city, expecting to encounter not only an effusion of neatly wrapped businessmen but store windows brimming with bow ties. All I ever met, however, were the same two or three flamboyant denizens and the old man.

As the summer heated up, bow ties, rather than multiplying, disappeared altogether. It didn't take me long to understand why. When the temperature reaches 90, all but the most Prussian at heart open the top buttons of their shirts and loosen their ties. Unfortunately, one can't loosen a bow tie. It's either knotted or hanging in two crinkled, unkempt strands. Once undone, it requires considerable patience and a mirror to retie. The wearer of the bow tie is trapped, imprisoned for the day. He either looks neatly wrapped or completely disheveled. There is no middle ground.

Determined to see my commitment through, I dutifully marched through the sweltering city, neatly but damply tied.

By fall, the handful of pastel bow ties vanished along with the season's white shoes, and once again, mine was the only horizontal on the avenue. Still I persevered. If my father could wait 30 years for pleats to return, doggedly clinging to his postwar slacks, I could certainly weather a few more seasons of scorn in support of an idea whose time deserves to come.


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