17th c. Croatian Soldiers Had French Fashion World Tied in Knots

The French word for necktie is 'cravat' – and it comes from Croatian soldiers, who one 17th-century French king found to be trés chic.

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The 17th-century French were so impressed with the stylish neckties of Croatian soldiers, the style was soon appropriated into civil fashion and named the cravat, a word derived from the French word for 'Croat.'  Photo: Nikola Solic / Reuters / Forum

Ask anyone about the birthplace of high fashion, and France will be by far the most frequent answer. But fashion takes many paths, and one of them leads to France from Croatia. In 1630, Croatian mercenaries appeared in Paris and were presented to King Louis XIII as fearless and exceptional soldiers. Indeed they were an impressive lot, but what really drew the king’s attention were the knitted scarves the soldiers would wear as neck decorations.

Cravat: the origin of necktie

Varying in quality, from simple, raw cloth to perfectly woven silks, these neckties were a sign of social class and also, in consequence, military rank. The neck decoration, which served as a sweat absorber for soldiers, had long been known and used. But the 17th-century French were so impressed that the style was soon appropriated into civil fashion. They named it the cravat, a word derived from the French word for ‘Croat.’ 

A red tie around the neck of a statue of writer Marko Marulić in Split, Croatia on Cravat Day. Photo: iStock.com / Ejla

The legend has it that the origin of the Croatian tie has nothing to do with a tactical need for distinction between soldiers. This is because it was not the men in command who invented neckties for soldiers; it was their wives. When men would fight battles in the valley, their wives would watch from the hills above and, thanks to the ties, know how their husbands were faring. 

Fashionable soldiers

Obviously, this is only a myth. However, the truth is that the Croatians could actually be the inventors of the cravat, and the French merely early adopters. If soldier fashion proliferated into civil life in France, why couldn’t it have been present even earlier in Croatia? The claim in this argument is that French King Louis XIV was not, as it is sometimes told, the first to wear the tie. There is a portrait of the Dubrovnik poet Ivan Dživo Gundulić from 1622, where he is portrayed with a cravat around his neck.

The necktie was a short-lived fashion in the 17th century, but it came roaring back in the late 18th century when men would wear a white starched neckerchief under their chins. Famous London dandy Beau Brummel even gave shows of his morning bathing and dressing routine. His audience, the crème de la crème of the British aristocracy, would watch just to take a peek at how to tie a necktie properly. And some things never change, as it sometimes took much trial and error to achieve a perfect knot.

The pride in inventing the necktie remains alive in Croatia, where Cravat Day is held on October 18th.

Przemysław Bociąga

is a Polish journalist and essayist based in Warsaw. An anthropologist and art historian by education, he specializes in combining cultural phenomena with compelling narrative. He has authored and co-authored several books covering lifestyle and history. The most recent of them is “Impeccable. The biography of masculine image”. He has contributed to many leading magazines, both in print and online, and teaches cultural anthropology to college students.

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