In the current world of formal fashion, bow ties are still unusual enough that they can make a statement. These small but mighty ties draw attention and make you stand out in the crowd. It’s one of those “great power and great responsibility” situations — you’re playing with a powerful beast, and you’ve gotta make sure the rest of your outfit is on point and ready to rumble. 

OK, maybe that’s a little dramatic, but we think the point stands. Bow ties for men require a little bit of know-how to pull off, so it’s worth getting hip to some basics of the bow tie before you jump in. Here are seven key tips for getting it right.

  1. Try it out in a more casual context before pairing it with a suit.

Bow ties look great with suits, of course, but starting out more casual can be just the thing for building up the confidence required to rock a bow tie. We’re not talking t-shirts, of course! You still want a dress shirt, pants and a jacket, but try going with (for example) a blazer and chinos rather than a full suit.

These classy but casual looks are great for less formal events where you still want to look your best, such as a semi-formal wedding or an office party. Note, however, that you still generally only want to wear a bow tie in contexts where normal men’s ties are appropriate. A bow tie at a casual backyard cookout will probably look like you’re trying too hard. 

  1. Match a patterned bow tie with a solid color shirt (or vice versa). 

Because a bow tie leaves much more of your shirt exposed than a traditional tie, it’s important that the two items work well together. The combination of a patterned bow tie and a solid color shirt is a highly recommended classic. For best results, keep your shirt color lighter than your bow tie color to help the bow tie pop. White is almost always a good choice!

Generally, a patterned bow tie will be harder to pull off with a patterned shirt since the patterns will often clash and make your outfit look too busy. If you’ve got a patterned shirt that you’re dying to wear with a bow tie, try a solid color bow tie instead. While pattern mixing isn’t impossible to get right, it’s usually easier to simply avoid it when you’re figuring out how to wear a new accessory.

  1. Consider how your bow tie will interact with your shirt’s collar points.

Collar style also matters when you’re deciding on a shirt to wear with a bow tie. Basically, you want to make sure that the points of the collar either frame the bow tie or are concealed by it. This keeps the focus on the bow tie — where it belongs!

While any of the various styles of dress shirts for men can technically work, spread collars and cutaway collars are two of the best options for making sure your bow tie looks good. Button-down collars are a good choice for less formal occasions. Wing collars, while designed to be worn with a bow tie, are usually only for tuxedos.

  1. Wear the right bow tie for the occasion.

Think about which bow tie is most appropriate for the context and the outfit. On the most formal end is the traditional black silk bow tie, which you’ll only wear with a tuxedo. Solid color bow ties tend to look more formal, while patterned bow ties are usually more casual, especially if they have distinctive or novelty designs.

More generally, think about how often and in what contexts you want to wear bow ties. Wearing them frequently to the office will probably mark you as “the bow tie guy” — and, of course, there’s nothing wrong with that if it’s what you want! However, if you want to maximize the impact of your bow ties, consider busting them out for special occasions rather than as everyday pieces.

  1. Get creative with patterns, colors and styles.

When it comes to designs for your more casual bow ties, don’t be afraid to get a little experimental. Patterns like paisley, madras and plaid are a great place to start and look awesome in a lot of semi-formal and smart casual settings. However, there are a lot more great designs out there — from graphic patterns to themes for your favorite sports team.

It’s also worth getting familiar with the different styles of bow ties, as each one offers a slightly different vibe. The classic butterfly design is definitely a great place to start, but other styles like bat wing and diamond point can add different looks to your bow tie arsenal. Play around and see what looks best on you!

  1. Don’t be afraid to rock a pre-tied bow tie. 

Most people won’t be able to tell when someone is wearing a pre-tied bow tie vs. a self-tied one. So, if tying your own bow tie is still a little mystifying to you, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with choosing one of the many pre-tied bow ties out there. 

All the same, learning to tie a self-tie bow tie is a skill that’s worth mastering if you intend to make bow ties part of your look. The process can be a little tricky at first, but once you learn, it’s hard to beat the thrill of achievement you’ll get every time you do it!

  1. Keep the rest of your outfit classic and classy.

Bow ties already come across as distinctive, intriguing and, yes, a little bit quirky. However, these qualities can become overwhelming if they’re paired with an outfit that’s already doing a lot. A bow tie by itself adds just the right level of visual interest while a bow tie with a three-piece suit, a waxed mustache and a pocket square is often too much.

Instead, try pairing your bow tie with something a little more traditional like a navy blazer or a tweed sport coat. It’ll make your outfit sharp without going overboard. Ultimately, it’s all about having the proper respect for the bow tie. It’s a powerful article of clothing, so give it the space it deserves and watch the compliments roll in!