Scarves have been an enduring fashion accessory for hundreds of years, ranging from humble bandannas to luxurious silks. Worn by women around the neck or as a head cover, scarves protect modesty or promote attention. Using basic shapes of cloth, typically triangular, square, or rectangular, scarves lend themselves to a wide variety of ornamentation. Scarves are commonly printed, but the techniques of weaving, batik, painting, and embroidery are also used to create scarf designs. While the scarf's popularity has fluctuated throughout its history, in certain decades of the twentieth century scarves were essential fashion items, glamorized by dancers, movie stars, socialites, fashion illustrators, and photographers. Scarves accentuate an outfit, provide covering for the neck or head, and serve as a canvas for decorative patterns and designers' names.
In eighteenth-century Western fashions, bodices were cut revealingly low, requiring a piece of cloth, known as a fichu, to cover a woman's chest. Worn around the neck and crossed or tied at the bosom, fichus were either triangular or square in shape. Fichus were often made of white cotton or linen finely embroidered in whitework; others were of colored silks with rich embroidery. This style of scarf continued into the early nineteenth century, but as fashions shifted, chests were covered by bodices and large shawls predominated as accessories.
Scarf as a Modern Accessory
The scarf as a modern fashion accessory was defined in the early decades of the twentieth century. Flowing lengths of silk worn draped about the body had been made fashionable, in part, by dancers such as Isadora Duncan. That Duncan's death was caused by a long scarf wound around her neck becoming caught in the wheels of a Bugatti is one of the scarf's morbid associations. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, the scarf was incorporated into the sleek, elongated fashions of these decades. As seen in numerous fashion illustrations and photographs of this period, the scarf served as both a sensuous wrap and a geometric design element.
A Blank Canvas
In the course of the twentieth century, the scarf's viability as a blank canvas on which to present elaborate designs, advertising, humorous motifs, and artists' creations was used to advantage. The idea of printing scarves and handkerchiefs to commemorate heroes, political events, inventions, and other occasions began in the late eighteenth century and was popular throughout the nineteenth century. This use continued into the twentieth century, with scarves commemorating world's fairs, political campaigns, cities, tourist attractions, and numerous other themes. Fashion designers employed the signed scarf as a means to accessorize their clothing and promote their names. As licensing became an established part of the fashion industry, designers names on scarves became a lucrative sideline.
Designers and Brands
Various well-known firms and designers have contributed to producing chic and collectible scarves. Hermès began printing silk scarves with horse motifs in 1937; in the 1940s, the English textile firm of Ascher commissioned artists Henry Moore, Jean Cocteau, and others to create designs for scarves; during the heyday of scarf wearing in the 1950s, Americans Brooke Cadwallader and Vera and Tammis Keefe set the tone for decorative scarves with whimsical and playful motifs; and 1960s fashions were often accentuated with scarves by Emilio Pucci, Rudi Gernreich, and other designers of the period. While the wearing of scarves has diminished with the twenty-first century, the scarf remains a versatile accessory, its connotations ranging from the chic to the matronly depending on the scarf and the wearer's aplomb.
Baseman, Andrew. The Scarf. New York: Stewart, Tabori and Chang, 1989.
Mackrell, Alice. Shawls, Stoles and Scarves. London: B. T. Bats-ford, Ltd., 1986.