A scarf can mean a lot of things – but above all, dignity, prestige
When Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, attends the G8 summit, she may be wearing a scarf. A fashion accessory that makes her famous and gets the most attention. The BBC recently identified the scarf as a “new power symbol” for women.
True, just as some men choose an entertaining look for a colorful monochrome suit, so too do many women who work in an atmosphere that requires conservative business attire to color and distinguish. She will wear a scarf.
But the trend is anything more than “new.” Looking back at the history of the scarf in the 19th and 20th centuries, it is clear that the charm and power of the scarf have always existed – and still is.
A Single piece of Cloth
The simplest form of scarf decoration is one piece of fabric. As such, it is one of the most versatile clothing accessories, used for many purposes in different cultures over the centuries.
Many Muslim women wear a headscarf for modest, while women of a certain age prefer a triangular scarf to protect expensive or elaborate coifs.
The scarf can be a political statement and indicate the wearer’s affiliation or beliefs. The early 20th century crusaders for women’s rights used their clothing to promote their cause by wearing a scarf in the colors of the movement: white, green, and purple.
During World War II, the scarf expressed nationalist sentiments. The British firm Jacqmar designed with propaganda slogans. On a map of England, one introduced the phrase “shoulder to shoulder” which includes the British and American symbols. Another design mimicked the walls, which were covered with posters urging citizens to “Lend to Defend” and “Save for victory.”
An Elegant Fashion
But in Western culture, the scarf is most prominently known for its use as a fashion accessory, one that first gained widespread popularity in the 19th century.
The fichu is a common style of the 18th and 19th centuries that can be seen as a forerunner to the modern scarf. A piece of cloth was lightly worn, which was worn over the upper chest and was usually tied in front of it. It provided modest covering but also an opportunity to add an especially fine textile – sometimes lace edged or embroidered – to an ensemble.
Lightweight, finely woven silk and cashmere shawls from India were one of the first fashion scarf styles. Empress Josephine – Napoleon’s first wife – had an extensive collection (thanks to her husband’s travels), and this style persisted for most of the 19th century, spreading to other parts of Europe, especially France and Paisley, Scotland. Spawning cheaper imitations fabricated.
Like many fashions, a scarf can indicate one’s status, and limited edition scarf – often only available to favorite consumers – can act as a specific indicator for those in the acquaintances.
For example, fashion houses send a scarf, often during the holidays, to thank you to loyal clients. The ones made by Parisian couturiers during the 1950s were particularly chic, often designed with Maison sketches. Others displayed printed patterns in the whimsical, painterly style of the era.
And from the 1950s into the 1970s, the famed Manhattan eating and drinking establishment 21 produced a series of the annual scarf and sent them to favorite “regulars.”
A canvas for Experimentation
As a discrete space, a scarf presents an opportunity for experimentation often not available in other realms of dress that are determined – and restricted – by the shape of the body.
In London in the 1940s, Lida and Zika Ascher initiated their “Artist Squares” project, enlisting an international roster of prominent artists to design large scarves, a group that included Henri Matisse, Jean Cocteau, and Henry Moore.
The Artist Squares were sold in major department stores and also exhibited – framed, like paintings – at London’s Lefevre Gallery.
To celebrate her new couture salon in 1935, the designer Elsa Schiaparelli made a collage of her press clippings and had it printed as fabric for scarves and other accessories, turning black and white type into a striking motif.
A scarf by the American designer Vera offers another variation on lettering as an ornament, presenting the titles of international newspapers, each in its distinctive typeface, on a vivid yellow background.
Certain labels are particularly associated with high style in scarves. Ferragamo, Fendi, and Gucci – all originally esteemed leather goods houses – now produce desirable scarves.
But for dignity and polish, the Hermes scarf represents the era of culture. Several aspects of its business have contributed to the company’s reputation. Founded in 1837 as a supplier of equestrian supplies, Hermes began offering scarf in 1937, called carres.
Focusing on their exclusivity has encouraged almost fetishistic loyalty among consumers, many of whom can more aptly be called “collectors.” Keeping the mystery of Hermes alive by limiting the number of designs they offer each season. The company’s focus on craftsmanship helps justify its reputation and high prices. Hermes is proud of the impressive number of designs, hand-printing processes, and the fineness of their silk, making their products artisanal creations.