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The history of scarves in fashion and culture

Let there be no doubt; the scarf is an essential item in any modern wardrobe. Whether you want to signify glamour, power or independence, a well-made scarf is versatile enough for all of the above. But did you know that the humble scarf has origins dating back to ancient Egypt and Rome? Join us on a short history of scarves.

Oriental materials: all hail Queen Nefertiti

The first recorded appearance of the scarf was in Ancient Egypt in 1350 BC, when Queen Nefertiti is said to have worn a tightly woven scarf topped with a conical headdress. She looked pretty darn fierce, apparently.

 

Meanwhile, in Ancient Rome, men would use scarves as ‘sweat cloths’ to keep cool and dry in the summer heat. And in the Far East, scarves were worn by military personnel as a way to denote rank. They can be seen depicted on the Terracotta Army Soldiers, which were buried away in 200 BC.

Beginning the 19th century in style

A close-up of a woman with a scarf tied around her neck – a beautiful outfit idea

The 19th Century is when the scarf really began to cement its place in popular fashion. Napoleon Bonaparte is reckoned to have bought back a pashmina scarf from Egypt for his beloved Josephine in 1801. She adored it and promptly started collecting them.

 

Then in 1837, a small French fashion house named Hermès – perhaps you’ve heard of them – produced the first ready-to-wear graphic silk scarf. And cashmere shawls with their distinctive Paisley pattern became so popular that even Queen Victoria bought one for herself in 1842. The scarf not only gave the wearer a sense of style but also indicated their social standing.

 

During the First World War, from 1914 to 1919, women volunteered to knit scarves as a matter of patriotic duty. Vast quantities of woolen scarves – along with socks and pullovers – were made and sent to members of the armed forces to keep them warm and dry in the harsh conditions of the trenches.

Endorsed by Hollywood icons

A history of scarves in fashion moment: Brigitte Bardot wearing a scarf on her head

In the 1920s, the textile industries in Europe and America began producing elegant silk accessories with more intricate graphic prints. Liberty made light silk scarves with distinctive colors and patterns, for instance, that became hugely popular with the well-heeled ladies of London.

 

In the same period, Hermès innovated again by importing Chinese silk for weaving into luxurious scarves and featured unique touches like hand-rolled edges, hand-painted details, and 90cm x 90cm square dimensions. This raw silk from China was far stronger and more durable than any other variety of silk before that point.

 

In the middle of the 20th Century, movie stars like Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly and Brigitte Bardot would frequently be seen wearing headscarves, either on the silver screen or on the streets of New York and Paris – usually combined with oversized sunglasses for celebrity camouflage. Even public figures like Jackie Onassis and Queen Elizabeth II became fans of the look.

The scarf today and tomorrow

Outfit ideas: a woman with a scarf wrapped around her head

Today, many established fashion houses have bought their signature style to scarves which capture the spirit of the brand. The Burberry tartan check, for example, can be worn by women on a scarf costing less than a fifth of a signature Burberry trench coat. And as new technologies emerge, scarves continue to evolve in color, design, and fabrics.

 

So, if the history of the scarf can teach us anything, it’s that scarves will continue to be an indispensable part of feminine fashion for many years to come. Wear yours with pride!

Image credits

Header image: Stocksy
Image close-up of a woman with a scarf tied around her neck: Getty Images
Image of Brigitte Bardot wearing a scarf on her head: Getty Images
Image of a woman with a scarf wrapped around her head: Blaublut