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The Bolo Tie's Artful Ride From Closet To Museum

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Arizona celebrates its centennial next year, and to help get folks spruced up for the occasion, the Heard Museum in Phoenix recently opened an exhibition featuring the state's official neckwear — the bolo tie.

The roots of the bolo tie aren't known for sure. But the story goes like this: Back in the 1930s and '40s, when Western swing was in full swing, a cowboy and silversmith in Wickenburg, Ariz., named Vic Cedarstaff was out riding his horse. The wind picked up, and to keep his silver hatband safe, Cedarstaff looped it around his neck.

"And a friend looked up and said, 'Nice tie you got there, Vic,' " says Norman Sandfield, one of the world's foremost bolo tie collectors. According to Sandfield, the Cedarstaff story may be true, but no one really knows if it was the first bolo tie.

"In the late 1940s, Navajo artists were making them in the Phoenix/Scottsdale area — very simple, small, maybe 1-inch-high slides with a braided cord," he says.

Those simple designs are alongside true works of art in a high-ceilinged gallery at the Heard Museum. Diana Pardue curated the show. Her favorite is a tie nearly 4 inches tall depicting a man and woman square-dancing.

"It's a Zuni bolo tie made in coral, white shell and jet, and I like it because it has a lot of movement, and it has a lot of character," Pardue says.

Many of the ties here came from Sandfield's collection. He is still buying bolo ties, though he passed on one from an auction at the Roy Rogers Museum inspired by Rogers' horse, Trigger.

"And it was Trigger's horse poop bolo tie. Poop. P-double-O-P," Sandfield says. "From fine jewelry to folksy pieces, they're made out of everything you can imagine. It's not all art."

A 1964 "Barry Goldwater for President" bolo is on display here, as are logos from football teams, military units and a tie in the shape of Arizona.

Singing cowboys may have first popularized the bolo tie, followed by rockabilly musicians in the 1950s who made them hip. Bolo ties have never really gone out of style. A large photograph on the gallery wall shows a line of runway models wearing them in a New York City fashion show last year. All they require is a shirt with a collar. The way you wear them, says Sandfield, depends on the occasion.

"The simple rule is: The more formal you are, the higher you wear it. With a tuxedo, you would definitely button your top button and push it all the way to the top of the collar," Sandfield says. "More casual, you have to open buttons and you wear it lower."

The show, officially titled "Native American Bolo Ties," is at the Heard Museum for the next year.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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