The history of scarves

Jenessa Williams 4 November 2021

Winter is around the corner, and you'd be hard pressed to go outside without a scarf but where and how did the garment originate? 

Early Beginnings

As with most fashions, the early origins of scarves date back to various civilizations. In 1350BC Ancient Egypt, Queen Nefertiti is said to have worn a tightly-woven headscarf as a barrier-providing means between her scalp and her jewelled headpiece.

Fast forward to the 1200s, and the Egyptian dance style of belly dancing also made good use of a scarf-like belt, slung low on the hips to emphasise the body movements.

In Ancient Rome, scarves were mostly the domain of males, kept handy and worn as sweat cloths for manual labour. In stark comparison, scarves were military markers for soldiers under the rule of Chinese Emperor Cheng, as well as in 17th century Croatiahigh-ranking officers in silk, and lower ranks wearing cotton. Working as mercenaries for the French, some Croatian soldiers adopted the ‘cravat’ (meaning ‘Croat’, a person of native Croatia) in order to present professionally.

Similarly, in early New England, scarves were seen as a mark of respect, gifted from the bereaved families as a thankyou to mourners at funeral ceremonies. Those the tradition was later banned as an ‘act of extravagance’, it strengthened the idea that scarves resembled more than a simple garment, but rather an heirloom of quality personal effect.

19th Century

Inspired by French military leader Napoleon Bonaparte and his discovery of Egyptian scarves as gifts for his wife (it is said that Empress Josephine Bonaparte’s collected over 400 scarfs in the span of the following three years), the town of Paisley, Scotland began manufacturing their own scarves.

Putting 7,000 weavers to work, Queen Victoria herself bought a Paisley scarf in 1842, cementing the iconic brand that we know and love in the UK. Romantic and extravagant, even Beethoven used scarves as a debonair aesthetic through which to woo a beloved, a complete reinvention of his attire at the time.

The famous paisley print can be spotted on many a scarf

Though scarves were being adopted as fashion, they also have clear practical and religious applications. Until at least the 18th century, the wearing of a scarf as a head covering was commonplace for Christian women in European, Middle Eastern and African cultures, indicating both marital status and adhering to notions of modesty. Young Sikhs often use scarfs to wrap their hair in the years before they adopt the turban, while many Orthodox Jewish women wear a Mitpaḥat, a type of scarf that knots in the back.

In the Islam faith, there are various ways to wear a scarf in honour of religious respect and tradition. The hijab is common amongst Muslim women and girls, covering the hair, ears and throat. Muslim religious dress varies amongst different cultures and practices and can extend to incorporate the burqa, chador, niqab, dupatta and more, many of which are adorned in intricate patterns of colours.

Early 20th century

As the  20th century began, WW1 meant that knitting turned from a hobby to a necessity. A patriotic activity for the whole family, the act of knitting scarves, jumpers and mittens for the soldiers in the trenches gave even small children a role in the war effort. Higher rank officers would still wear silks, and use them to transport gunpowder: when silk is burned it vanishes completely, leaving no ashy residue behind. As a result, five million square yards per month of plain weave cartridge silk were shipped to the US war department alone in 1917-1918.

When the war was over, the excess of Chinese-imported silk needed a use, and so it was absorbed back into fashion. Liberty of London and Hermès were just two brands that gained popularity in their post-war era, answering people’s cravings for brighter colours and vibrant patterns to boost post-war morale.

With such glamour in mind, it is no wonder that silk scarves became synonymous with Hollywood. “When I wear a silk scarf I never feel so definitely like a woman,” said Audrey Hepburn, and when Grace Kelly broke her arm in 1956, she avoided the usual hospital-issue slings in favour of her own Hermès scarf. Used to keep hair smooth, to jazz up a neckline or to aid one’s anonymity out in the public, the silk scarf has endured as an accessory of the elite.

"When I wear a silk scarf I never feel so definitely like a woman"

With the commercial usage of rayon/viscose becoming more commonplace in the late 50s, scarves were being produced on a mass scale, and so lapsed into a period where they became more of a practical garment than an exercise in fine design.

In the 1970s, scarves and bandanas were a rock’n’roll way to add a bit of rebellion to an outfit, while the 1980s paid homage to the 50’s style of draping them around one’s shoulders or the back of the head.

By the time the 1990s arrived, cashmere scarves and pashminas had hugely risen in popularity as a sophisticated winter gift. Woven from the wool of cashmere goats in the region of Kashmir, India, the word ‘pashmina’ translates to ‘soft gold’ in the Kashmiri language, perfectly summarising the soft, downy appeal of the fabric.

21st Century

On contemporary runways, there is barely a high-fashion brand that hasn’t used scarves as a means to showcase their brand insignia, tie together a certain colour palette or otherwise show homage to the legacy and creativity of their fashion house. For fashion brands like Chanel and Burberry, scarves remain their most affordable of garments, allowing high fashion fans to invest in a touch of luxury that can be cherished throughout their life.

Though scarves haven’t stolen the catwalk show for a while, two landmark occasions still stand out. First would be Alexander McQueen with his highly coveted skull-covered scarves on the Spring/Summer 2003 runway, a staple of celebrity and influencer culture that perfectly tapped into the era’s penchant for a ‘boho’ look.

Second would be Richard Quinn’s Fall/Winter 2018, outfitting his model in a cascade of scarves that emphasised the drama of a beautiful silk drape. Whether you’re throwing a scarf over your shoulder for warmth, fashion or faith, the abundance of finishes, designs and emblems that great us has never been wider, elevating a humble stretch of fabric to something that feels quite beautiful and timeless. Not bad for a humble sweat cloth…

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