The western-style bolo tie (or string tie) may be very informal to some, but in regions like Texas, Arizona and Montana, it is as much a necktie as is a silk Hermes tie or a bow tie, and is perfectly well accepted in business and formal occasions. Men's fashion expert Alan Flusser described it as "cowboy-inspired," which is how the world perceives it. The rules are really the same for all western wear.
A true story illuminates the quandary over bolo ties. In 2005, a high school student of Native American descent was denied his diploma to graduat from a Charles County, Maryland high school; his wearing of a bolo tie, not a necktie, was seen as a violation of the dress code. Governor Brian Schweitzer of Montana told the Washington Post that "To have some high school say that a bolo tie is not a tie is an outrage. In Montana and anyplace in India, a bolo tie is dressed up."
An Uncommon Choice
A few celebrities and politicians, from southern and western regions, wear the bolo tie in professional settings. These include Schweitzer of Montana and New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, who in 2007 signed a law making it the official tie of New Mexico. Still, the bolo is comparatively rare on the political and Hollywood landscape, as are western-style hats and boots.
Absence of Rules
Interestingly, the usual sources for etiquette and attire---Amy Vanderbilt, Emily Post and the like---have nothing to say about the bolo. The only alternatives they mention for business and formal wear are neckties and bow ties.
We must assume that in regions which allow for western-style hats and boots in business or formal settings, the bolo tie is equally allowable. We must also assume that where western hats and bolos are rare (such as in New York City, or on the streets of London), they will be seen as quaint and perhaps informal.
General Rules for Neckwear
Let us assume, then, that the etiquette for all neckwear translates to bolo ties.
Novelty neckwear is considered informal, and in some cases, disrespectful. Pundits during the O.J. Simpson trial were scandalised when a witness for the prosecution wore a Donald Duck tie to the proceedings; the tie did not suit the solemnity of the occasion. A solemn black or dark necktie is suitable for a funeral; a tasteful necktie that matches the clothing is always suitable for business.
Similarly, bolos can be very finely made with tight black cord and an understated slider; the bolo equivalent of businesswear, or even a bow tie. A bolo can be rugged or whimsical, with buckskin lacing and a slider in the shape of a bronco or a gold dollar. A gentleman at a formal occasion should wear a "dress bolo," and save the more rugged or eye-catching bolos for fun occasions.
When In Doubt
While the etiquette and fashion mavens have little to say about the bolo, they all advise numerous ways to be a good and welcome guest. If you are a guest at an occasion outside of the regions described above, then fair or not, your hosts may see even your dressiest bolo as informal. So, when in doubt, adopt the local customs.
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