3 Washington Notables Open Their Closets
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Madras, the former English name for the Indian city of Chennai, is the cotton associated with British colonial rule of the subcontinent. Brits of a certain class became known for sporting clothes of the lightweight material in India’s heat, and the plaid is a meme of prepsters to this day. Think of the Washingtonians known for wearing bow ties: conservative columnist George Will; in-his-image pundit Tucker Carlson (who abandoned them years ago); the late liberal Senator Paul Simon. From them we get a sense of solidity, an appreciation of the past with a whiff of hipster individuality.
While madras bow ties are the constant motif of Watkins’s collection, there are also two madras four-in-hands. Watkins has stewardship of six of the 14 ties, while his father has the rest—but no one claims actual ownership. “None of us [in the family] are really collectors,” Watkins says. “These were passed down through the generations. They came to me fully formed and have stayed constituted as a group.”
But does it truly matter? He cultivates them. He can trace their provenance. He knows how to wear them—and does so quite often in warmer months. So did great-grandfather William Bell Watkins Sr., who bred horses, hunted foxes, and built a sailboat in his barn in Clarke County, Virginia. “Like many men of his generation, he made sport of being a snappy dresser,” says Watkins. Senior acquired six of the ties (or more—some of them have no labels) decades ago at a Bermuda store named Triminghams.
Watkins recalls Senior’s son, William Bell Watkins Jr., wearing cravats, vests, and “a necktie with a giant safety pin beneath to make it stand out, as only a 90-year-old man can do and look fantastic.” There he is in a photo from his youth, hair slicked back in that Roaring Twenties style, decked out in a pin-striped suit with superwide lapels. Junior, too, hunted foxes, as well as ran a mill and bred animals of all sorts, including horses, sheep, peacocks, and guinea hens. One of the two four-in-hand ties came directly to Watkins from his grandfather. Then came William Bell Watkins III, a longtime Berryville auctioneer and amateur carpenter who passed on to his son a love of “construction, mechanical things, and neckties, so I learned a lot from him.” Father and son trade the ties back and forth, so the concept of ownership is fairly fluid.
Watkins, 29, studied urban planning and historic preservation at Columbia after graduating from the University of Virginia. “I wore [the bow ties] around [campus],” he says. To the football stadium, like gentlemen scholars of old? “I wasn’t much of a sports fan, so there was one opportunity blown.” His approach: “They’re made to be worn. They’re beautiful and interesting and rare. But you have to be judicious to avoid being typecast—so don’t wear them every time you dress up. A lot is in the attitude; I wear them without irony. Taking pride in the way you look is a family tradition.”
Perhaps a fifth Watkins generation will continue that, but for now he is happy to share his pieces and show delighted cousins and friends how to tie them. “Everyone has to put on clothes,” he says, “so why not have some fun with it?”
Celebrating the White House Correspondents’ Association’s annual dinner at Carnegie Library.