A brief history of the scarf

Saturday March 18 2017

Scarves have evolved into almost mundane

Scarves have evolved into almost mundane additions into our wardrobe. Yet they have quite the story. PHOTO | FILE NATION MEDIA GROUP

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Isadora Duncan was a woman who believed dance to be about self-expression, dancing barefoot wrapped in a toga and scarves. Described as free spirited, bohemian, feminist, Darwinist, free love advocate and feminist, Isadora’s life ended tragically in the hands of a Russian-made stunning, long hand-painted red silk scarf when it got caught on the spokes and rear axle of a brand new Amilcar. Hurled from her seat as soon as the car started, it tugged and broke her neck.

Scarves have evolved into almost mundane additions into our wardrobe. Yet they have quite the history. Ancient Rome soldiers called it a sweat cloth, tucking it into the backs and sides of their neck. Chinese and Croatian warriors used it to declare rank with lower ranks soldiers wearing cotton as officers wore silk scarves. Queen Nefertiti is said to be the first person ever to wear one, with a luxury silk under her iconic headdress as it were. The French wore them as cravats. Over time, like most fashion originating from men, women transformed it into something entirely their own.

In 1920 flappers embraced floral paisley. In the 1930s it was demure, with rose print woollen scarves wrapped around the hair. In the 1940s the stark masculine trend turned scarves into statement pieces. In the 1950s it was back to the demure, flirty hair wrap and by the 1960s scarves became a point of expression with geometric and ethnic print scarves. The most popular, nay identifiable scarves in the fashion world are Hermes (pronounced er-mez). So much so they earned their own coffee table book in 2010, The Hermes Scarf: History & Mystique. Their one of a kind packaging and design makes them valuable across generations. There exists a coffee table book as well simply called Scarves, 2011, with biographies of “scarf designers, retailers and manufacturers” complete with illustrations.

Scarves are about enhancing an outfit, giving it life. It plays the role of an additional something like jewellery and other accessories are wont to do. We add them to trench coats to stay warm, carry them with us at night, gift, buy and sell them, wear rayon, wool, cotton to silk. They come on and off depending on our inner heat as much as outer heat. They act as hair wraps and accessories and can be pulled out for emergencies. It is unheard of for a woman, and increasingly, men, to not have a scarf or several in their wardrobe. Muslim women and girls world over wear scarves that are increasingly becoming political and a should they or should they not wear them debate swirls around them. Scarves are the last thing we seemingly throw casually just before we leave the house. They match the mood of the day or the outfit. Sometimes scarves are foisted upon us. Occasionally they suffocate and itch.

Sometimes, a scarf can be deadly. Like when fashion designer L’Wren Scott used her black silk scarf to hang herself in her swanky apartment. Or when a Muslim teacher got a threatening note telling her to hang herself with her hijab. Or when it becomes a tag labelling you as being other, foreign, dangerous.

Men have been wearing scarves for over 2,000 years to protect them from the elements. Aside from function, scarves also add a little extra something into a simple outfit. It can replace ties. Cashmere, wool, angora, cotton, silk and blended fabrics knot themselves and can be layered with formal or casual wear. The challenge with scarves for men though is there aren’t as many out there. Not unless they are custom made. With such a rich tapestry it should not come as a surprise the incredible yet humble scarf has videos, blogs, articles and all manner of tutorials with countless instructions on how to wear them. Scarves will continue to be a personal human flag.