Scarves : A modern History

Some ooze sophistication & elegance, some a ‘bedroom look’ perfect to complete a simple outfit while some even just thrown on to make an uncomfortable outfit befitting. Meant to add a layer of elegance, mystery, persona and statement, scarves hold a special place in every wardrobe. The scarf is merely a simple piece of soft cloth wrapped around bare skin with it’s many purposes. It’s used for religious reasons, as a mark of respect, to hide wounds and scars, to keep warm, to keep cool or sometimes to throw in an extra shade of colour to the outfit.

The scarf first surfaced in Ancient Egypt when Queen Nefertiti wore a “tightly woven scarf topped with an extravagant jewelled conical headdress” in 1350 BC. Soon after her sophisticated introduction to the world of fashion, the Chinese Emperor Cheng made use of scarves to mark military ranking. This tradition was also noted in Croatia, where the higher ranks wore silk scarves while the soldiers sported cotton cloth scarves.

In Ancient Rome, around 10 BC, scarves were used as ‘Sudarium’ - Latin for sweat cloth, by the men to keep cool and dry sweat in the sweltering heat of Greece.

In 1786, Napoleon Bonaparte, on his return from Egypt, presented his wife, Josephine De Beauharnais, with a Cashmere scarf. Though cynical of the gift at the time, Josephine went on to collect 400 scarves over the next 3 years, valued at 80,000 Pounds.

By the 19th century, scarves were well on the way to becoming a fashion accessory as many designers saw the potential to capitalize on the beautiful and elegant fabrics & designs coming out of regions such as India. In 1810, just as the western society had embraced fashion, and the men dressed more eloquently (called ‘peacocking’ back then), Ludwig Van Beethoven adorned a silk scarf with hist silk shirt to impress the beautiful Austrian Singer, Therese, who he had fallen in love with. While she may or may not have been impressed by this piece of fine silk, many designers definitely took notice.

In 1837, French fashion empire - Hermés designed the first ready to wear graphic silk scarf. It was made of Chinese raw silk, cut square to 90 cm x 90 cm. That same year, the fashion industry in Europe and America embraced scarves after Queen Victoria sat on her throne & made popular the gorgeous silk cravats with stunning graphic prints. This was the birth of the modern scarf as we know it. Many designers experimented with various fabrics like silk, chiffon, cotton, cashmere, wool mixes, muslin & modal.

During the first world war, knitting was taken up by many women, children & even some men from across the globe as it was considered a patriotic war duty. Tons of socks, sweaters and scarves were knitted to keep soldiers living for days in trenches and marching through marshes warm, hence, saving many lives. In addition, pilots would also wear white silk scarves to keep their necks from chafing. While men were out at war, many women took up factory work to make ends meet, and even here the scarf became a necessity as it was used to keep their hair in place while they operated heavy machinery. These were generally cotton and linen, which were more affordable fabrics back then.

The second world war made the scarf a tool of propaganda. British scarf brand, Jacqmar of London, produced scarves with imaginative propaganda themes from 1940 - 1945. Post war, these themes were replaced by fine art as a textile company, Ascher, brought onboard 42 renowned artists from around the world like Heri Matisse, Pablo Picasso & Henry Moore amongst many more. Their painting made way around women’s necks!

Audrey Hepburn & Grace Kelly wore scarves in their movies and Grace Kelly even used it as a sling when she fractured her arm. They made it a symbol for glamour, power and independence. Audrey Hepburn is famously quoted for saying,

“When I wear a silk scarf, I never feel so definitely like a woman, a beautiful woman.’

This gave a start to celebrities adorning scarves and big sunglasses as it afforded them the privacy of anonymity and they were able to give the ever increasing press the slip every now and then.

After this, there was no stopping the scarf empire from ruling. Graphics gave way to big brands marking scarves with their logos, as it was sometimes the only affordable thing a person could buy, adorn and show off their shopping brands. The Tartan checks of Burberry, the chains and huge interlocking CC logos of Chanel made an introduction and took part in the ever increasing class system.

Today, high-end fashion designers around the globe produce custom printed scarves. They are more than a fashion statement, they are threads from history, works of art! With new technology, scarves will continue to evolve in designs, colours and creations and continue to be on the forefront of the fashion industry for many years to come.

Utopiic believes in the cause of sustainable fashion and connects you to the next best sustainable brand. Wearing a scarf may sound like a thing of the past, but wearing the Utopiic positive mark brand shall define the future. Join Utopiic to connect to the green brands that make scarves that make a statement and are kind to the environment, thinking of today. Read about different scarf cuts, designs and trends by becoming a Utopiic member, as we have a lot in store for you!

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