History of Scarves - Our Complete Guide

As a symbol of femininity, the scarf is the ultimate chic fashion accessory oozing sophistication and elegance. As a garment worn for practical purposes, a scarf can provide the wearer warmth or keep them cool. The scarf comes in a many a shape and form demonstrating its ubiquity and ability to blend into the wardrobes of undoubtedly every woman over the past few decades.

The Origins

The origins of the scarf trickle back to Ancient Egypt, precisely to Queen Nefertiti, who was believed to have worn a woven wrapped scarf under an extravagant jewelled headpiece. Whilst scarves are more often than not associated with the female wardrobe nowadays, they have been worn by men and women for many centuries. In Ancient Rome, men wore them as ‘sweat cloths’ used to keep cool and dry sweat.

In the Far East, scarves were worn by military personnel to show rank. Scarves with numerous designs, worn in various ways can be viewed on the terracotta army soldiers, which were buried away more than 200 years BC. It is even said that on his return from Egypt, Napoleon Bonaparte gifted his wife Josephine be Beauharnais a pashmina scarf. Whilst she was cynical at first about this exotic gift, she is noted to have collected over 400 scarfs over the next 3 years adding up to a total of around £80,000.

It is easy to believe that the scarf was an overnight success, however the evolution of the scarf from a plain practical accessory to a trendy must wear item most definitely did not happen overnight.

Cashmere Shawls

Cashmere shawls became the epitome of high fashion in the 19th century. The famously Paisley pattern was established during this time as it was the first town to manufacture cashmere ‘Paisley’ shawls similar to those brought back by Bonaparte.

The town was home to 7000 weavers and the shawls were so popular that even Queen Victoria purchased a shawl in 1842. In the latter half of the century, the popularity of shawls declined as new trends emerged. Women's wardrobes developed so that it became more and more impractical to wear a shawl draped over one's shoulders.

War Duty

During the First World War, knitting became more than just a hobby for women, children and even men all over the world. It was considered patriotic war duty. Tons of socks, sweaters and scarves were produced to send to servicemen to keep them warm and dry in wartime conditions.

Whilst knitting nowadays is often considered an old-fashioned hobby, knitting saved the lives of many servicemen during the war. Knitted goods were produced by the ton and shipped out to troops who were battling harsh, wet and cold conditions not only in the trenches but also in the air too.

In addition to knitted scarves, pilots would also wear white silk scarves whilst flying as the soft, supple fabric provided protection from neck chafing. During the First World War, silk played a very important role in military operations. Silk bags were used to carry gunpowder charges for weapons as silk left no residue when burnt. After the war, this surplus silk was made into garments, scarves, and furnishings.

The Emergence of Scarves as Accessories

With the emergence of silk in the west, manufacturing methods were improving and many clothing brands started producing silk accessories. Liberty Of London started producing light silk scarves that became extremely popular during the post-war years. Their energetic prints provided a much-needed tonic to the gloom that was life on the home front in the early years after the war.

Similarly, in 1937 French fashion house Hermès started importing Chinese silk to be woven into luxurious square scarves. Raw silk imported from China was especially strong and more durable. Designs reflected the Equestrian background that was deeply rooted in the history of Hermès and these designs still prove to be the most popular nowadays. The classic Hermès touches which have become synonymous with the brand such hand-rolled edges, hand-painted details and its 90cm x 90cm were all established at this early stage.

Development of Synthetics

Silk scarves, both now and then, are a luxury and can be unaffordable for many women. With the invention of rayon in the 1930s, also known as viscose, this slippery fibre was a semi-synthetic material that was named ‘artificial silk’. It could mimic all the properties of silk but it was a fraction of the price.

The scarf trend continued booming as it allowed more and more women to dress in the latest fashions. However, with the outbreak of the Second World War, wardrobes had to become practical and sensible above all else. Many women were drafted in to take over jobs that were ordinarily done by men. From working in weapons manufacturing factories to flying military planes, the demands of ‘war work’ came first.

Safety concerns within factories meant that women operating machinery had to make sure any long hair was clearly swept away. This meant that women wore headscarves as a matter of necessity rather than an accessory. As a result of clothes rationing throughout the Second World War, the colour palette became dull and sullen as materials were limited to cotton and linen, which were cheaper and more accessible.

Scarves as a Propaganda Tool

Despite the restraints of the war, notable British scarf brand Jacqmar of London continued producing scarves with imaginative propaganda themes from 1940 -1945. Jacqmar started out supplying silk to couture fashion houses around the world but soon noticed a lot of cut-offs that were produced and as a result, they started producing silk scarves, which became extremely popular during the course of the war. Fabric supplies were often short during this time, therefore Jacqmar would use offcuts from parachute silk as well as rayon and linen.

Designs for scarves were based around 3 central themes: military, allied forces and the home front. These were especially popular amongst young lovers and nowadays have become treasured collector's items. Even the British Museum in London owns several rare Jacqmar scarves in their war costume collection. In the post-war period, designs celebrated victory, as one can imagine, and then progressed to more generic patterns such as florals and geometrics.

Post War Scarves

After the end of the Second World War, the world was craving for more bold and vibrant colours in their wardrobes. Patterned scarves attracted a wide audience during this time. From 1946 – 1955 textile company, Ascher commissioned designs from leading artists around the world. Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso and Henry Moore were among the 42 world-renowned artists who contributed to the Ascher ‘Artists Squares’. The project not only united the art community post-war but also married ideals in both art and fashion making fine art more accessible to the many.

Silk Scarves as a Glamour Accessory

As a form of self-expression, the silk scarf quickly came back into fashion; the material allowed for bright patterns and vivid, sharp details to be printed. Hermès grew in popularity with the likes of Audrey Hepburn and Grace Kelly wearing scarves in movies or parading their chic Hermès scarves throughout New York and Monaco.

Grace Kelly Scarf

Silk scarves gained notoriety and soon became a symbol of glamour, power and independence. In the words of Audrey Hepburn below 'When I wear a silk scarf I never feel so definitely like a woman, a beautiful woman.'

Audrey Hepburn Scarf

Whilst Audrey liked to wear her scarves tied neatly around her neck, Brigitte Bardot styled her scarf into a statement headband. Grace Kelly wore a Hermès silk scarf on the cover of LIFE magazine in 1956; however, she hit headlines again when she wore a Hermès scarf as an arm sling later on in the same year. Even the Queen, Elizabeth II, was emblazoned on a postage stamp wearing an Hermès scarf.

Designs at this time were light-hearted and captured an optimistic spirit which in turn meant that women could be playful with not only their scarves but also their whole outfit choices. Not only was the headscarf ‘the’ accessory amongst the rich and famous, it also gave them privacy. When styled with the big sunglasses of the 60’s, the pairing acted as a veil for those who endeavoured to keep a level of anonymity.

During this decade, it wasn’t only the fashionable elite that were buying into the luxurious silk scarves. Famous New York restaurant, ’21 Club’ often simply ‘21’, has been frequented by celebrities since the 1930’s. Notable guests include Elizabeth Taylor, John F Kennedy and Ernest Hemingway to name but a few. It is most probably recognised by the 21 jockey sculptures that feature on the façade of the restaurant.

Each Christmas the owners would give away a customised scarf to their regular customers. These designs would change yearly, however, the central theme was always equestrian and jockeys. These have now become iconic in terms of scarf memorabilia as designs were so rare and very much sought after.

Scarves as a Luxury Accessory

Many fashion houses also transferred their signature style onto scarves to encapsulate the feel of the brand. The famous tartan check of Burberry could be worn by women all over the world on a scarf costing less than a fifth of the price of a signature Burberry tan trench coat. This gave luxury fashion brands a dominant global presence but more importantly, it gave women the opportunity to show off their designer purchases.

Designs of the 80’s were bold and confident. Chanel used daring chains, to imitate the chain handles on their handbags, and placed large interlocking CC logos over their scarves. These memorable designs captured the distinctions from brand to brand and allowed women to firmly identify with certain brands aesthetics over others.

A Decline in Popularity in the 90's 

With the 90’s approaching and the rise of manufacturing and cheap labour, many silk alternatives grew in popularity. Bright vivid designs could just as easily be printed onto these materials and with less expensive dyes in the process too. As silk is a particularly labour intensive practice, farmers became disillusioned with the product when demand fell.

Silk scarves fell out of favour during the 90s and people flocked to buy accessories that were innovative and striking. This elegant, stylish accessory was no longer the must-have item in the woman’s wardrobe and soon disappeared from the spotlight.

Rediscovering and Reimaging Classic Designs

However, technology and transportation boomed in this decade, making travel easier and far more accessible to the majority of the population. As the world opened up so did the fashion industry. Designers took inspiration from all over the world and rediscovered treasures of the past.

Pashmina shawls which were only worn by wealthiest and most well-connected ladies were re-envisioned and transformed into daily lifestyle necessities of the modern-era woman. Rediscovering the sensuous qualities of cashmere wool meant that these scarves were admired for their comfort and practicality over design.

Cashmere Scarves

Cashmere scarves and pashminas rose in popularity, as they were undeniably soft, warm and luxurious. They were considered exotic and rare as cashmere was woven from Cashmere goats that inhabit the mountainous regions of Kashmir, India. Their exclusivity attracted a large following that were drawn to its fine, downy texture.

In fact, the name ‘Pashmina’ translates to ‘Soft Gold’ in the Kashmiri language. Traditionally the goats are reared by nomadic tribes inhabiting regions at very high altitudes where temperatures drop to -40c in the winter. For this reason, the Cashmere goat grows a thick undercoat to keep them warm. As temperatures rise into spring, this coat is shed and this is where the wool used to make pashminas is collected.

Many scarves are sold as pashmina’s in tourist markets around the world, but there is an easy trick to test whether the scarf is made from true pashmina wool. If the entire scarf can pass through a ring with a diameter of 1.3cm then you can be sure that it’s a genuine pashmina.

These scarves became popular in the 90s as they could be worn as a shawl wrapped around the shoulders. As fashion became more daring, many styles of clothing became sleeveless or strapless. Shawls allowed women to wear these on-trend styles but also protect their modesty by covering bare arms and chests.

Adapting Styles to Modern Life

More recently we have seen a shift towards other uses for scarves, new styles demand accessories that adapt to our fast-paced lives. These items need to be flexible and keep up with the ever-changing demands of the fashion industry.

Hermès re-invented the scarf with their Hermès ‘Twilly’ scarf, a long ribbon-like scarf which is named after the ‘twill’ weave pattern used to create its fantastic drape. They look chic when wrapped around the handles of a handbag, giving a touch of personality as well as protecting the bag. These scarves can also be wrapped around wrists to make sleek, stand out bracelets.

As the Twilly is small, it can be used as a headband or used as a ribbon tied around a hat. It can also be used as a hair tie or braided into plaits to add hints of colour and pattern to hair. More recently, we have seen these scarves used as belts either on their own or wrapped around a belt then fastened around the waist.

The multiple ways in which the ‘Twilly’ scarf can be incorporated into the modern woman’s wardrobe had made it one of Hermès’ most successful designs. The Twilly scarf is a truly modern update to the otherwise classic silk scarf.

Recent Trends

If we look at recent trends from the catwalk we can see many nods to the timeless look of the silk scarf as well as refreshing new styles. Stella McCartney sent models down her AW17 runway with headscarves reminiscent of the queen on her Scottish country hideaway trips.

Prada opted for chunky knit scarves tightly wrapped like a choker to contrast sleek, tailored garments. More and more we see runways filled with silk bandanas and headbands that exude glamour and substance but are still relatable for both older and younger generations.

Turbans have always existed solely within religious dress for many centuries as a symbol of respect and social status among men. However, ever since Prada paraded rainbow-hued glossy turbans down the runway in 2007 it now comes second nature to many women to wrap a silk scarf around their hair then wrapped into a turban.

Final Thoughts

Our love affair with scarves is unlikely to end anytime soon. We are enchanted with their multitudes of forms and the possibilities seem endless when it comes to pattern and print. From a blooming floral design to an indulgent woven pashmina, they morph with each season and our relationship with these scarves develop because as well as being a much-adored fashion accessory they also provide comfort, protection and modesty. Whether one is wearing a trendy headscarf as a fashion statement or as a belt, wrist tie or handbag accessory it will forever have a permanent in every woman’s wardrobe.