In his book, La Grande Histoire de la Cravate (Flamarion, Paris, 1994), François Chaille tells us about the appearance of this article of clothing and how it became fashionable:
"... Around the year 1635, some six thousand soldiers and knights came to Paris to give their support to King Louis XIII and Cardinal Richelieu. Among them were a great number of Croatian mercenaries led by a ban, or Croatian viceroy.
The traditional outfit of these Croats aroused interest on account of the unusual and picturesque scarves distinctively tied about their necks. The scarves were made of various cloths, ranging from coarse material for common soldiers, to fine cotton and silk for officers. This elegant "Croatian style" immediately enamoured the French, who were delighted by the new article of clothing, which had been previously unknown in Europe.
For the gallant French officers in the thirty-year war, the advantage of the Croatian neck scarf was its enviable practicality. In contrast to the lace collar that had to be kept white and carefully starched, the scarf was simply and loosely tied around the neck without need for any additional care. Just as elegant as the stiff, high collars, the new scarves were less awkward, easier to wear and remained visible beneath the soldiers’ thick, long hair.
Around the year 1650, during the reign of Louis XIV, the Croatian scarf was accepted in France, above all in court, where military ornaments were much admired. The fashionable expression, ’a la croate’, soon evolved into a new French word, which still exists today: la cravate. This innovation symbolized the height of culture and elegance. On his return to England from exile, Charles II brought with him this new word in fashion. Over the next ten years, this fashion novelty spread across Europe, as well as across the colonies on the American continent..."
The new article of clothing started a fashion craze in Europe where both men and women wore pieces of fabric around their necks. In the late seventeenth century, the men wore lace cravats that took a large amount of time and effort to arrange. These cravats were often tied in place by cravat strings, arranged neatly and tied in a bow. Some had adornments such as tussled strings, tufts and bows of ribbon, lace, embroidered linen.
So why have neckties lasted this long?
At many times throughout history, fashion historians and sociologists claimed the popularity of ties would die, as neckties provide absolutely no function unlike most other garments. But though there has been ebb and flow over time in their popularity, they have never died. Now, after a "business casual" work environment that hit an extreme in the 1990s, it seems they are again increasing in popularity with men.
The most prevalent theory on why ties just keep hanging around (couldn't resist the bad pun) is that, as long as the big-wigs keep wearing ties as a sign of their wealth and stature, so will the young hopefuls who follow them.
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Scientific studies have demonstrated that the width of ties over the years corresponds almost identically with the length of women's skirts. It is unknown which may be the cause and which the effect.