Lads, Get Yourself a Nice Silk Scarf

Men's silk scarf
Image is my own / All rights reserved

Earlier this week I published an article about Joan Didion in which I mentioned how she and other women have helped me figure out how to dress better as a man. In general, the cross-pollination between menswear and womenswear has tended to be rather one-sided. Overall, women have been far better about reworking the conventions of men’s clothing than the reverse. There are exceptions, of course. The fedora is one historical instance that comes to mind, while male celebs donning skirts and gowns for red carpet outings would be a more recent example. Generally, though, men on the whole seem to be more squeamish about adopting feminine fashions than vice versa. 

Us lads are missing out though. There is much to be gained by nicking ideas off the women of the world who, let’s face it, on balance do a much better job of dressing themselves than men do. Over the years I’ve personally learned just as much about colour, texture, and silhouette from, say, Jane Birkin, Zadie Smith, and Margaret Howell as I have from the likes of Paul Newman, Gianni Agnelli, or Miles Davis.

This thievery on my part has, however, tended to be rather subtle and oblique. Buying this shirt because Debbie Harry wore it, for example, or copying this already fairly masculine ensemble courtesy of Katharine Hepburn. There is one detail, however, that I have stolen blatantly and imitated without contrition in the form of the flouncy silk scarf. 

I’m not alone either. Look at Dylan Thomas or James Baldwin, for example. They wore feminine silken scarves that were every bit as sumptuous as the words they put to paper. Cary Grant and Marlon Brando, two equally distinguished scarf-wearers from a different discipline, did much the same. And in more recent times there have been as wide an array of silk-scarf-sporters as Tyler, The Creator, A$AP Rocky, Tyler Herro, Daniel Craig, and Simon Crompton from Permanent Style

Dylan Thomas wearing a silk scarf
Poet Dylan Thomas showing us how its done
Image credit: Tullio Saba / Public domain

It isn’t hard to see why. I’ve written before about the luxurious appeal of silk. In scarf form this already opulent fabric reaches its apex. Nothing feels quite as light and soft to the touch, or seems nearly as ritzy and distinguished to pop on as you’re leaving the house. They are also deceptively versatile, pairing as well with milsurp, leisurewear, and choice bits of beat-up workwear as it does with the tailoring and formalwear you would otherwise expect. 

Of course, none of this should come as a surprise. After all, this has long been the silk scarf’s sole function: While just about everything else I write about on this site stems from a response to some practical need, silk scarves exist purely to please and adorn. 

That’s not to say they haven’t served the more subtle purpose of marking class distinctions. Silk scarves have been branding their wearers as reputable personages since at least the seventeenth century when they were used to single out Croatian soldiers of higher rank in contrast to the cotton-clad hoi polloi. In civilian high society, composer Ludwig van Beethoven famously started wearing them in the early 1800s in the hopes of making an impression on Austrian musician Therese Malfatti. Not long afterward in 1837, Queen Victoria, herself prone to a fancy silken accessory, ascended to the throne and cemented a fashion for silk scarves as symbols of status and luxury among the nobility. About a century later, Queen Elizabeth II carried on this same tradition throughout her reign. 

Indeed, the century in which Elizabeth II took the throne proved to be the real heyday of silk scarves. Around the turn of the twentieth century, stores like Liberty of London began producing bold art-nouveau florals and oriental prints that found their natural home on this unique, sleek canvas. One pioneering wearer from this time in the form of Isadora Duncan, a modern dancer well known for wearing long flowing scarves in this style, sadly paid the ultimate price for her proclivity when she died in 1927 when her scarf got caught in the wheel of a car and broke her neck. Grace Kelly, by contrast, chose an Hermès scarf to help heal an injury when she used one to fashion a very chic sling after she broke an arm in 1956. 

Hermès (which I have written about at length before) is the brand that has established itself as making the most desirable and luxurious incarnations of this particular accessory. The company began producing their distinct square-shaped scarves in 1937 with a print by Robert Dumas showing the inauguration of the Madeleine-to-Bastille bus line in Paris. They have produced more than 2 000 prints since, each requiring some 250 mulberry moth cocoons’ worth of silk and eighteen months of design and production work to complete. The engraving process alone takes a gruelling 750 hours of effort. 

Little wonder they became objects de choix for the glamorous likes of Audrey Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, Lauren Bacall, Brigitte Bardot, Faye Dunaway, Bianca Jagger, and Jackie Kennedy. They aren’t only for mid-century Hollywood types, however. In the first flush of the COVID-19 pandemic, Hermès scarves were an early choice of face mask among those with deep pockets and a concern for style above all else. Since then hype for similar styles has only grown thanks to viral lookbooks from brands like Gucci and Aimé Leon Dore in addition to ever more celebs being photographed wearing a babushka-style headscarf.  

The Leaping Fox silk scarf
Image is my own / All rights reserved

There are a handful of silk scarves in my house at the moment — a stole from Walker Slater, a shawl from the sadly defunct Leaping Fox, a cool-looking fake Hermès one I picked up for a tenner somewhere — most of which technically belong to my wife but which I find myself borrowing often enough that it has become more of a timeshare set-up at this point. I also have a strong suspicion that this is but the tip of the iceberg as far as future ill-advised silk purchases go. 

I typically wear these indulgent adornments discreetly tucked inside the collar of a jumper or a button-down. Usually I’ll cycle between a boy scout fold and a more cravat-like arrangement, but I’m working up toward wearing them boldly draped about my head or shoulders à la Joan Didion visiting Alcatraz. I’m sadly not quite there yet. 

In case you too are still somewhat on the fence about this look in general, I’ll leave you with this. Audrey Hepburn once said: ‘When I wear a silk scarf I never feel so definitely like a woman, a beautiful woman.’ I can say with the same conviction that when I wear a silk scarf I never feel so definitely like a man — a very fancy man.

Man wearing a silk scarf
Image is my own / All rights reserved