Frank McNally: How the cravat became a global fashion classic, with a bit of help from the French

Collared by the Croats – An Irishman’s Diary

The word cravat, like the piece of the clothing it describes, comes to us from Croatia. In fact, the term originated as an adjective describing any person or thing from that country. So whenever you’re feeling hot under the collar, like the English football team in the closing stages of the World Cup semi-final, it may be because you have a Croatian around your neck, literally or otherwise.

If the French are similarly affected this weekend, it would doubly apt, because it was they who gave us cravat in its sartorial meaning. The Croatian neckcloth was imported to Paris at a time when France led the world in fashion and most other things. From there, it was sold on everywhere else, and back to Croatia, at a cultural mark-up.

Napoleon sometimes gets the credit, wrongly, for adopting the look from his captive Hapsburg army prisoners. But the word was used in French long before anyone had heard of the Little Corporal.

Voltaire, who died when Napoleon was only eight, had written satirically of someone as a devil who wore "a serpent in place of a cravat". That was in his book on The Age of Louis XIV. So if the fashion had military origins, it probably dated back to then, at least a century before Napoleon, from the Croat mercenaries who served the Sun King at Versailles.


The high point for the couture, by contrast, may have been a decade after Napoleon's demise, when a small book was published in London, by one H Le Blanc, Esq, called The Art of Tying the Cravat.

Or, to give its full title: “The Art of Tying the Cravat, demonstrated in sixteen lessons, including thirty-two different styles; forming A Pocket Manual; and exemplifying the advantages arising from an elegant arrangement of this important part of the Costume; preceded by a history of the cravat, from its origin to the present time; and Remarks on its influence on Society in general.”

The book’s tone was sometimes tongue-in-cheek. But the author was not joking when he said that, for anyone accustomed to mixing with “the higher classes of society”, genteel appearance was crucial. In this respect, he argued, the properly presented cravat served as a “letter of introduction”.

His definition of the original wearers as “a sort of German troops” might not have worked so well as a letter of introduction, at least in Zagreb or Split. As for his description of the various styles of cravat-wearing, however, it was as impressive in detail as billed.

The many options included a Cravate à la Byron (especially loose, for the blood and oxygen flow required by the artistic temperament), a Cravate Mathématique (fiercely symmetrical and stiffened with whalebone) and a Cravate Sentimentale (which the author warned was not for everyone, only those under 27 who had faces that "inspire sensations of love").

Among regional and national styles, meanwhile, there was the Cravate à l'Orientale and a Cravate à l'Americaine. Most interesting, perhaps, was the Cravate à l'Irlandaise. Which, bucking the national stereotype, was almost identical to the Cravate Mathématique, except for a small variation of fastening that Monsieur Le Blanc assured readers would not be lost on connoisseurs.

That book appeared in 1828. Eighty years later, the cravat's greatest glories had probably passed. So I don't know whether that master of detail James Joyce ever heard of the Cravate à l'Irlandaise, although he got nearer the source of the fashion than most Irish people did then.

When, as a 22-year-old graduate, he applied for a continental posting with the Berlitz language school, it was Zurich or Trieste he had in mind. Split was not the first item on his agenda – pardon the pun – nor was Pula.

But the latter Croatian port was where he was sent, reluctantly. And if he was struck by any fashions there, it wasn’t the neckwear.

He lamented the area as a backwater, “peopled by ignorant Slavs who wear red caps and colossal breeches”.

As Joyce no doubt did know, to "wear a hempen cravat" was one of many euphemisms in English for being hanged. But when he makes reference to a "herringtons' white cravat" in Finnegans Wake, it is as usual a multi-layered word play, in this case on no less a subject than God's assumption of human form.

That’s a very long way from Sunday’s big football match in Moscow. Which, as a sort of cravat-wearer’s derby, I expect to be a suitably constricted affair. Extra time seems likely. And even after that, It would be no surprise if it’s still what Americans call a “tie”.