Brief Notes on the
Southern Historian and the Bow Tie
By Matthew C. Hulbert
Anyone who has attended the annual meeting of the Southern Historical Association in recent years can honestly—though perhaps begrudgingly, depending on whom you ask—testify to the endurance and maybe even the resurgence of the bow tie. Decades old purveyors such as Brooks Brothers, along with regional upstarts like Collared Greens, Southern Proper, and High Cotton are all pushing the bow tie hard as a staple of southern chic; so the Tartans, the Tattersalls, the Jockey Stripes, the Argyle Sutherlands, and the Booker Woolies are likely here to stay. To some of us, that’s good news. (This is Bowtied & Fried, after all.) But even at Bowtied & Fried we are well aware that the bow tie means different things to different people. And, we understand that all of those things aren’t very good. So here are some thoughts on the southern historian and the bow tie moving forward.
On one hand, to non-historians (historian here referring mainly to those of the southern variety), the first mention or sight of the bow tie probably calls to mind a collage of random imagery: stodgy old men asking for Grey Poupon, Orville Redenbacher peddling movie theater-style cholesterol in a string of 1980s TV commercials, jeremiads from a youthful Tucker Carlson, or even the antics of Pee Wee Herman. Ranging from silly to creepy, these ruminations aren’t particularly flattering, but they’re also not rooted much in the way of historical context (I.e., Orville Redenbacher might have been obnoxious, but he probably wasn’t/isn’t emblematic of longstanding socio-economic injustice).
On the other hand, some historians, especially African American and female historians who came of scholarly age in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, look suspiciously—and understandably so—at the bow tie as a symbol of less egalitarian times in the academic kingdom. To these historians, the bow tie conjures up memories of outmoded, anti-Civil Rights scholars like E. Merton Coulter, of an unhealthy anatomical and racial homogeneity within the profession, and of overt discrimination, stemming from sex or race or both, within the field of Southern History. Now to be sure, there are and always have been exceptions. For our money, Jim Cobb and the late Bert Wyatt-Brown (who was so pleased to note that RCP and I were “bow tie men”) deservedly seem to hover above any such connotation.
And things seem to be moving more in the direction of these exceptions. A few doctoral students (myself, JHW, and RCP included) from the University of Georgia wear bow ties to the Southern. Typical reactions include compliments and queries about how to tie them (but the art of the bow tie is another story for another time). In Mobile, someone even asked for a photo—of just the bow ties. For the most part, though, no one seems to give them a second thought.
Now on one or two occasions, another historian (albeit a very close friend and a wonderful scholar) has asked if we “know what wearing the bow tie says about us to other people?” My half-joking reply is usually something akin to “the three of us are changing that.” But after taking a look around the book fair—the epicenter of all *daytime* interaction at the Southern—that explanation may actually be closer to the mark than a humorous delivery would imply. Why is that? Because the majority of historians sporting bow ties in Mobile were age 30 or younger. A sizable number of them were actually graduate students. Thoughtful enough to be conscious of the cultural baggage that still travels with the bow tie, but too young to have actually perpetrated any of it. This doesn’t mean they ignore the past because it didn’t involve them or that they’re insensitive to why the bow tie has the potential to make people feel uncomfortable. It means that they understand the back story of the bow tie in Southern History and more importantly they understand why knowing that back story is a necessary step in moving forward and beyond it.
In other words, much the same way that Southern History is being refitted geographically and thematically to remain viable in the future, a new generation of southern historians is slowly but surely recalibrating the bow tie for use in the twenty-first century. And that should be good news to more than just some of us.