Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Steinkirk Cravat

The Nine Years' War, although largely forgotten today, was a sweeping conflict which involved most of continental Europe as the seventeenth century came to a close. The Battle of Steenkerque, on August 3rd, 1692, was fought in what was then the Southern Netherlands. Steenkerque was the bloodiest infantry battle of the war, and nearly half of the thousands of French, English, Scottish, German, and Dutch soldiers engaged in the battle would be killed or wounded. The Nine Years' War, and Steenkerque in particular, were precursors for the continental conflicts which would engulf Europe for the next three centuries.
Like many significant world events, Steenkerque quickly faded from popular memory. Ironically, it was immortalized only in a unique article of dress. The origin of the "Steinkirk" tie is explained in Voltaire's 1751 "Age of Louis XIV" (Vol. 1, 214). The French victory in the battle was attributed to a group of French princes who had hurried to assemble their troops:

"The men at that time wore lace-cravats, which took up some time and pains to adjust. The princes having dressed themsevles in a hurry, threw these cravats negligently about their necks. [After the battle] The ladies wore handkerchiefs made in this fashion, which they called Steinkirks. Every new toy was a Steinkirk."

Precisely when the English adopted "Steinkirk" to refer to loosely-wrapped cravats remains unclear, and the term does not seem to appear commonly in the eigteenth-century print. Regardless of their name, loose, long-ended cravats were quite popular throughout the eighteenth century. The men who adopted this fashion often tucked the ends of their kerchiefs into the buttonhole of a jacket or waistcoat. This fashion can be seen in a number or original portraits as well as the 1748 advertisement of a London mathematical instrument maker, which features a Steinkirk-clad mariner (see Peter Copeland's Working Dress in Colonial and Revolutionary America, 9).

A laborer might wrap a colorful kerchief around his neck for both function and style. A gentleman might affect the lacy, loose cravat in his study or in a portrait designed to portray him as a man of leisure. The Steinkirk style bridged social distinctions and remained fashionable for over a century. And as new wars swept Europe, it remained the only sliver of memory from a long-ago battle.

Nineteenth-century wood-engraving depicting an historic figure wearing a Steinkirk cravat. This image, from the online Probert Encyclopaedia, is unfortunately uncited.

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