Scarves: The Long and the Short of It

Man wearing a scarf
Image credit: Jilbert Ebrahimi on Unsplash

February in the Northern Hemisphere poses a unique challenge when it comes to dressing: Mentally you’re already picturing what you might wear when the time comes to throw off your beanies and coats for good, while practically you’re still clinging to them for dear life to keep you warm. In this context, the scarf feels like an appropriate piece of attire to discuss since it is both a winter stalwart and, as women’s fashion usefully reminds us, a year-round, all-weather accessory.

Looking at the history of the scarf, womenswear can indeed claim the lion’s share of its stylistic development over time, stretching back to ancient history. Queen Nefertiti in Ancient Egypt circa 1350 B.C.E. is said to have worn a tightly-woven headscarf as a barrier between her scalp and jewelled headpiece. Centuries later, Napoleon Bonaparte discovered Egyptian scarves as gifts for his wife, the Empress Josephine, who quickly collected more than 400 in the following three years. Subsequent royals spanning several centuries, including Queen Victoria and Elizabeth II, kept up a similar fashion for fancy feminine scarves in Britain and beyond. 

Running alongside this long-standing tradition of lavishness, we find the headscarf and its centuries-long association with modesty and religious observance across various faiths. During World War II, however, the headscarf would take on a new meaning as it came to symbolise hardy female factory workers who used them to cover up their hair while doing their part in the war effort.  

But the scarf’s place in the war that kickstarted the twentieth century proved just the beginning. As Nicky Albrechtsen and Fola Solanke point out, ‘The scarf is as important a part of the twentieth-century wardrobe as a pair of gloves or a handbag. For designers, illustrators and artists it is a canvas for decoration, innovation, advertising and commemoration.’ Scarves gained unseen practical application with the advent of the automobile, for example, when they became a fashionable and essential means of keeping your hairdo in place while driving with the top down. They also became status symbols with the rise of designer brands like Hermès, acted as aides-memoire printed and sold to mark special occasions, and more besides. 

Vintage man wearing a scarf
Image credit: Tullio Saba / Public domain

In the masculine wardrobe, the functional and symbolic application of the scarf stretches nearly as far back into the past. Surviving Terracotta warriors dating from circa 210 B.C.E. China with their laced plate armour and silk scarves are among the earliest examples of men’s neckwear being worn. In Ancient Rome, scarves were mostly the purview of men, typically labourers, who wore them or kept them handy as sweat cloths while working. Meanwhile their military application continued to span several centuries and continents under the rule of the Chinese Emperor Cheng, for example, as well as in seventeenth-century Croatia — hence the name ‘cravat’ after the style of neckwear adopted by Croatian mercenaries working in France. During WWI, woollen scarves proved particularly prominent owing to a patriotic push on the homefront focussed on knitting jumpers, mittens, and scarves for the men in the trenches. 

In addition to its utility in bad weather, its demarcation of status and wealth, its ability to demonstrate allegiance to a cause or institution, and its appeal simply as an item of style, the scarf also boasts the status of being a direct precursor to that most archetypal staple of the masculine wardrobe: the necktie. Beginning with the elaborately-knotted neckwear of Regency dandy Beau Brummell and company, this once humble and straightforward bit of cloth would evolve into the surprisingly intricately-designed and custom-riddled accessory that would come to define more than a century worth of masculine dress. 

My own attachment to scarves dates to a childhood obsession with whimsical Doctor Who-esque hand-knit woollen numbers that stretched on beyond all reason and practically. It’s a weakness that extends to the present day, although all of my childhood attempts at knitting versions of the style in question have long since been abandoned to charity bins and the back cupboards of former homes. Fortunately, my scarf palette has since expanded to include ones made of silk, lambswool, and cashmere; short printed stoles and voluminous cosy shawls; plain ones, printed ones, tartan numbers, and even candidates crosshatched with boro stitching. And there will no doubt be many more that will catch my fancy in years to come since. Since, as with socks, T-shirts, and baseball caps, I reckon scarves are a special class of garment you can never quite get enough of.

Vintage man wearing a scarf and beret

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