The Western United States is home to cactus, fiery sunsets, and ties—the most infamous of which is probably the noose necktie used to string up horse thieves from a nearby tree. Another type of tie is also synonymous with denizens of the desert: the bolo, a uniquely Western artifact sartorial splendor and the premier fashion accessory of the Southwest.
And while bolos (or bolas, as they are sometimes called) are traditionally thought of as cowboy attire, it was Native American jewelers and silversmiths in particular who brought sophistication to this wearable art form whose acknowledged antecedent was a metal scarf slide worn by both Native American and Anglo men in the late 1890s and early 1900s.
Great Plains Indian neck ornaments incorporated shell or metal medallions in their craftsmanship while Navajo, Hopi, and Zuni silversmiths created bolos from silver. Indigenous peoples in Alaska fashioned neckwear clips out of whalebone and walrus tusks and others got creative with sheep vertebra and beadwork.
The bolo tie has been the official state neckwear of Arizona since 1971, so it’s only fitting that the Heard Museum in Phoenix would host several hundred of them in “Native American Bolo Ties: Vintage and Contemporary Artistry,” as part of the state’s Centennial celebration. (Texas and New Mexico also claim the bolo as state neckwear, although Arizona was the first to do so.) Like many Arizonans, Dr. Letitia Chambers, CEO of the Heard, grew up aware of the distinctive accessory. “My grandfather gave me a bolo tie when I was in grade school,” she says, “an amethyst he had personally collected and tumbled, and I wore it from early girlhood.”
Many of the display items come from Chicago collector and philanthropic art donor Norman L. Sandfield, who also shared his “first bolo” story: “A friend gave me a Western belt buckle for my birthday and I decided to get a bolo tie to go with it. I bought two, and subsequently began researching and seriously collecting to the point where I now have over 1,500 bolos, scarf slides, and assorted ephemera,” he says. “It’s part of my family motto that if something is worth doing, it’s worth overdoing,”
The internationally-known collector and antique dealer also teamed up with the museum’s Curator of Collections, Diana Pardue, to author a definitive bible on bolos, a 150-page treatise titled simply Native American Bolo Ties. “Early bolos made by Indians were known by so many different names—tie slides, string ties, bootlace ties, piggin’ string, lariats—they were largely ignored in publications on American Indian jewelry and we wanted to bring that story to light because the innovations, creativity, and individuality involved is just tremendous,” Pardue says.
Bolo ties have been around in the West for decades, although perhaps not in a prolific, public way. “They’re out there and even if nobody talked a lot about them, people wore them, often as evening dress-up attire,” Sandfield says. “People may not remember what the tie is called, but there frequently is a bolo buried in their closet. I tell them—take it out, dust it off, and wear it with pride.”
Judging from exhibit displays, many folks did. In addition to the vintage ties themselves, the Heard has tracked down archival images including Hopalong Cassidy wearing a scarf slide on a 1950 Life magazine cover, the Cisco Kid wearing a scarf slide in a 1950s comic book, and Roy Rogers wearing a bolo in a publicity shot with Dale Evans, and serial bolo-tie wearer Senator Barry Goldwater.
Bolo ties are both simple and complex. Simple in that they consist merely of a braided cord worn around the neck and gathered by some type of clip/clasp/slide with metal tips to keep the cord from unraveling. Complex in the variety and minute detail found in the clips and tips.
Because of the varying names and styles, it is difficult to pinpoint exactly when the bolo tie was invented, but in Native American Bolo Ties, Pardue and Sandfield present what evidence they can find, citing this line from an early Arizona Highways article: “Native American artists began making “slide ties” for personal use in the 1920s. Discussing the origin of the bolo tie, The New York Times reported that in the 1930s, “Indian men wore bandanas clasped with a silver conch or shell.” Yet beyond these brief mentions, there is little else to document the bolo’s evolution as an Indian accessory. Pardue and Sandfield cite an article from 1976 that explains, the bolo “was an unimportant part of reservation business. Most ties were made for personal use and adornment, and not sought by traders or collectors. … Hence, compared to rings, bracelets, squash blossom necklaces, buckles, etc., the bola tie was produced in small amounts.”
Such is no longer the case, with the bolo not just flourishing during the past century but even making a minor comeback in recent years. “In 2009, 2010, we’ve seen that some of the young designers are using them,” said Pardue. “You’re seeing interest on the part of a younger audience.”
The Heard Museum’s “Native American Bolo Ties” exhibit runs through through early September 2012.