Neckties: The Mercenary Origin [17th Century Europe]

Neckties are so egregiously uncomfortable and inconvenient that they demand an explanation, being far past any reasonable excuse.

Like so many subsequent European disasters, the modern necktie can trace its roots back to the Thirty Years’ War [1618 CE -1648 CE].

Johan Tserclaes, Count of Tilly [died 1632], was one of the leading generals of the Imperial Catholic League forces. Unsatisfied with the ruthlessness of the soldiers under his command, he scoured Europe for the most bloodthirsty, unprincipled mercenaries on the continent, finding them in what is now Croatia. They fulfilled Tilly’s expectations during the sack of Magdeburg in 1631, helping massacre roughly 25,000 of the city’s approximately 30,000 inhabitants. Magdeburg never fully recovered, and is often forgotten, but the mercenaries went on to contribute an essential component of the European gentleman’s wardrobe.

The Croatians had taken to wearing bits of cloth around their necks, though it is debatable if these early neckties originated as decorations or napkins, or a combination of the two, however strongly the simple rags originally worn by the enlisted men beneath their chins suggest etiology as a prandial hygiene aid.

By the time the Croatians switched their allegiance to the very Catholic King of France, who was a better paymaster even if he was fighting on the Protestant side, Gallic fashion sense had made the Illyrian neck-cloths a fad known as the cravat, which is roughly how you pronounced Croat in the French of the day.

Charles II, otherwise arguably the most intelligent king England ever had, is usually credited with introducing the cravat to the English speaking world when he returned from his exile in France. One can forgive the vivacious Nell Gwyn’s patron much, but the necktie tries the limits of patience and clemency.

Further Reading:

• Perhaps the best introduction to the Thirty Years’ War in English is Peter Wilson’s The Thirty Years War.

• Any good etymological dictionary will provide details of the origin of the word cravat. The term has cognates in over 30 languages, including most European tongues, and ranging as far afield as Viet Nam.


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