Croatia has given the world many things. The fountain pen, the parachute and the mechanical pencil are just three, but no Croatian invention is as internationally renowned as the simple necktie. To learn about the cravat, we must travel all the way back to more brutal times, to the 17th century and a continent-wide conflict.
The history of the necktie can be traced back to Paris in 1630. King Louis XIII was inspecting a line-up of Croatian mercenaries in traditional costume when his eye was taken by strange pieces of fabric that the soldiers seemed to be wearing around their necks. The materials on show ranged from tatty cloths for the soldiers to fine silks for the officers, but the stylishness was ubiquitous.
King Louis was impressed by this ingenious piece of modern fashion. He recommended it be adopted by the people of France, and soon enough, the cravat became the hottest fashion accessory on the streets of Paris and other towns. The Croats had well and truly made their mark on 17th-century clothing conventions.
Why “cravat”? The name comes from a peculiar amalgamation of etymology and pronunciation. The Croatian word for Croats is hrvati, while the French referred to them as the international Croats. Mix the two together and what do you get? Cravat. It isn’t quite a portmanteau, but it is delightful nonetheless.
The story of the necktie being invented by the Croats is a simple one up to this point. King Louis XIII saw a mercenary group called the Croats wearing ties, and so they came to be. That’s all there is to it, right? Not quite.
“The Croats” was actually something of a catchall name for a group of irregular mercenaries allied to the Catholic League in the 17th century. People from Croatia were the dominant ethnicity, but Hungarians, Serbs, Poles, Cossacks and others also featured heavily in the marauding group.
They became a regular unit of the anti-Protestant armies in 1625 but were mostly used as a distracting force as a result of their poor training and reckless behaviour. The Croats were sent in to draw opposition forces into new positions, and were largely employed in sacrificial situations. The group were fully aware of this and made the most of their hopelessness by giving into their most disgraceful desires, becoming notorious for cruelty and brutality. It is said that certain villages in eastern France used to pray to God to save them from “plague, hunger, war and the Croats”.
The honour of inventing the necktie remains at the door of the Croats, and a portrait of Ivan Gundulić, dated to 1622, is thought to be the oldest example of the fashionable item portrayed in art. What better individual to model it than the great Gundulić? Born in Dubrovnik in the late 16th century, he was the most prominent Croatian Baroque poet of his time and was one of the most beloved creative minds speaking out in favour of the Counter-Reformation. He is an apt poster boy for the 17th-century Catholic clothing creation.
The necktie is Croatia’s great present to the fashion world, but the question remains — why did the soldiers wear the things in the first place? The reasoning behind the tie is as logical as it is tragic, as clear as it is confusing. The wives of the men would often watch their husbands go into battle, but once the fighting began, the battlefield tended to become one big free-for-all and individuals were impossible to make out.
To combat this, the Croat men began wearing colourful pieces of cloth around their necks so that their wives and loved ones could make them out in battle. The question remains as to why someone would want to watch their beloved in a fight to the death, but fashion seems to have trumped convention once again.