When and why the members of the Nation of Islam start to wear bow ties with suits? When have they adopted their signature red bow ties?

The leader of the Nation of Islam Elijah Muhammad begun wearing a bow tie at least since 1961, but his bow ties were either white or black/dark.

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I don’t think there has ever been a real academic discussion (as opposed to a passing mention) of the use of bow ties in the Nation of Islam. So here’s what I can say based on my own study of the movement.

First of all, we have several photographs of NOI members—including Elijah Muhammad—in the 1930s and 1940s, and, as far as I am aware, not one of those photos shows a Muslim wearing a bow tie. However, in photos from the 1950s, Elijah Muhammad is frequently—if not always—depicted in a bow tie. Most other NOI men did not wear bow ties during this time decade, but it doesn’t seem that they were prohibited from doing so: There are photos from 1956 and 1957 that depict a few NOI ministers and even male children wearing bow ties. The use of bow ties seems to have increased in the 1960s, as Malcolm X and several other ministers and members were shown in bow ties. Bow ties were so common in the NOI by the mid-1960s, that when Malcolm X broke off from the NOI in 1965 to start his own Islamic group (the Muslim Mosque, Inc.), his followers still wore red bow ties. Soon (I’m not sure when), the Fruit of Islam—a sub-group for male Muslims, whose job it was to provide security and maintain order for the NOI—started having bow ties be a required part of the uniform, and this more than likely influenced the dress style of common members who were not actively participating in the FOI. From then on, bow ties have remained very popular in the group, although long ties have not been abandoned. Nevertheless, I have not seen official NOI rules that show them having required the wearing of bow ties by non-FOI members. Generally, the rule has been a dark suit with a plain, whether it be bow or long.

Now, how and why did the bow tie rise to prominence? I just don’t know. Perhaps it was simply Elijah Muhammad’s style preference, and, due to his influence over the group, others imitated him. Perhaps there was another reason. As far as I am aware, no one has explained it.

As for color, although there are reports about Muslims’ “ties” (it is not specified what type) being black in the late 50s/early 60s, there are indeed some reports from that time of red “ties”—most notably in the classic study of the NOI, C. Eric Lincoln’s Black Muslims book. So, even though in the black and white photos from the 1950s and the early 1960s it appears as if the dark ties they wore were always black, they were probably often actually a dark red. And we do have testimonies from the mid-1960s that the bow ties in particular were indeed usually red.

Why red though? First of all, we know from testimonies and photographs that red was not the only appropriate color for ties, at least through the mid-1960s. We do see black ties being worn, and in one photo from the 1950s Malcolm X is wearing a white long tie. The rise of the dominance of red seems to have coincided with the rise of bow tie wearing generally.

However, it should be pointed out that prior to the mid-1960s, and even back into the 1940s, there were reports of NOI members wearing red long ties. Also, back in the 1930s and 1940s, male members often wore red fezzes and female members sometimes wore red turbans and robes, although this practice died off in the 1950s. So the color red has always had some prominence in the NOI, and this requires some explanation. First, red is the background color for the NOI flag, which is very similar to Turkey’s flag, as well as the flag of other older Muslim communities. This fact alone gives the color red prominence in NOI culture—just as the colors red, white, and blue are frequently associated with the American flag and patriotism generally.

But it’s also important to point out that the emphasis on the color red for clothing has even older roots among black Muslims and among African Americans generally. Prior to the development of the Nation of Islam, there was the Moorish Science Temple of America, another black Muslim organization, in which its male members wore (and still wear) red fezzes and female members often wore (and still wear) red turbans and robes, and its flag had a red background (it being based on the Moroccan flag). It is likely that the NOI developed “out of” the MSTA—meaning several MSTA elements were borrowed into the NOI when it was formed, and the preference for red clothing and a red flag was one of those elements.

But why did the MSTA prefer the color red? Well, the most likely reason is that it due to the group promoting a type of ethno-religious revival (just as the NOI would later do). The MSTA argued (as the NOI would later) that Islam was the “original” religion and culture of the Africans who were brought as slaves to the Americas, and that in order to improve their lives they should return to that religion and culture. Part of that religion and culture, they were taught, was the wearing of red fezzes and turbans and other red clothing, and showing their red flag—just as many Muslims in North Africa did. The interesting thing is that red was indeed the preferred color for many slaves, and several over the centuries were recorded as wearing red brimless hats (which were, essentially, like fezzes and turbans) as well as other red pieces of clothing. So for many MSTA (and NOI) members, the idea of returning to wear the color read probably reminded them of their grandparents and great-grandparents who were slaves and who had probably liked red themselves. Also, there was a widespread story in African American folk culture about how Africans loved the color red so much that the slave traders were able to lure them onto slave ships by putting on the ships red cloth and waving a RED FLAG—in fact, that same story was told by members of the MSTA and NOI, who had apparently used that story to help justify their identification with the various red flags from Islamic countries.

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But again, I do not have a good explanation for the rise in the popularity of the red bow tie in particular in the 1960s. I suspect, just as with the bow tie in general, that it was simply a stylistic trend that gained popularity due to the influence of Elijah Muhammad and then Malcolm X wearing it.

Sources: Lincoln, Black Muslims; ashmore, the other side of Jordan; bowen, history of conversion to islam in the US, vol 2; Muslim World and the USA (1956-57); Abdullah, “narrating muslim masculinities”; Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll; Gomez, Exchanging our Marks