Immortalised by the glamorous Audrey Hepburn, adopted by Victoria Beckham and now a global fashion fixation, the humble scarf’s enduring appeal owes much to its role in the social history of women.
History of women’s scarves
Up to around the mid-twentieth century, women’s scarves were an essential part of a woman’s wardrobe. The progressive “new woman” of the late nineteenth century embraced a new lifestyle through fashion, education and a taste for Orientalism. Liberty, which first opened in 1875, specialised in selling ornaments, fabric and objets d'art from Japan and the East. The glamorous women of the day eagerly snapped up the store’s exotic scarf collections, which included Art Nouveau florals, peacock feather designs by Arthur Silver, Indian Kashmir styles, and richly embroidered Chinese shawls. At the heart of this intense interest in exoticism lay female emancipation, which found expression in Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes and fashion designer Paul Poiret’s dramatic new silhouettes. Poiret liberated women from the confines of uncomfortable corsets, creating looser, more fluid silhouettes in Oriental-inspired colours and styles. The scarf symbolised this innovative move towards free-flowing fashion and, by extension, female liberation.
Strong, independent and glamorous female role models began to emerge after women were given the right to vote in 1918. Among the most famous scarf-wearing celebrities at this time was the dancer Isadora Duncan. Both professionally and privately, she flouted traditional mores and morality – she was a bisexual, had flirted with Communism, bore two children out of wedlock. Rarely seen without a flowing scarf, it was her fondness for this accessory that caused her tragic death in 1927. Her hand-painted silk scarf that was draped around her neck became entangled in the wheels of the car she was riding in and broke her neck. Following on from Duncan, a succession of scarf-clad, pioneering female travellers and aviatrix (Amelia Earhart, Amy Johnson) continued to fly the flag for female independence during the 1930s.
Far from being a fashion statement, wearing a scarf was a practical necessity for some during the Second World War. Many women adopted the scarf when working in munitions factories to prevent their hair from being caught in the machinery. One government poster proclaimed: “Cover your hair for safety. Your Russian sister does.” The scarf became an essential part of the uniform of the female industrial workforce – and remained so for many years to come. Actress Jean Alexander explained her interpretation of Hilda Ogden's trademark headscarf and curler look: “Like Hilda, my roots were in Liverpool and that’s where I first noticed the curlers and headscarf look. The curlers were put under the headscarf by the factory girls [...] They had their hair tied up and scarves like that to stop their fashionable long hair getting caught up in the machinery at work. They had the curlers in place in case they got asked out on a date, so they’d be ready for a night out after the shift. They could just take off the headscarf, remove the curlers and shake down their hair.”
Vogue championed the active participation of women in the war effort and ran features on workwear and propaganda textiles. Other fashion magazines advised women who didn’t have enough clothing coupons to get a new hat to twist their scarves into a turban or a snood. When rayon was invented in the 1930s women who couldn’t afford silk scarves could still keep up with the current fashions.
In 1937, the 35-inch square silk twill Hermès scarf, or carré, was born. Designed by Robert Dumas for the newly emancipated woman, who as feminine propriety still dictated, needed to keep her hair in order, the Jeu des Omnibus et Dames Blanches scarf was extremely popular. (Women had regularly worn head coverings since the 14th century, largely as a mark of respect and a sense of social propriety.) Since 1937, Hermès has produced more than 25,000 unique designs.
When silk restrictions were lifted in 1945 and a mood of revival and rebirth began to take hold, scarf designs began to reflect this optimism. Hollywood starlets, such as Greta Garbo, championed the silk headscarf. Tied under the chin and worn with large sunglasses, it provided the archetypal disguise for the leading ladies of the day – Audrey Hepburn wore one to shadow Cary Grant in Charade. Grace Kelly famously used an Hermès scarf as a sling around her broken arm, while Hepburn married Dr Andre Dotti in a white minidress and matching headscarf. Jackie Onassis, Sophia Loren, Elizabeth Taylor (seen swathed in a headscarf in Giant in 1956) and Marilyn Monroe frequently wore elegant scarves on and off screen. The last ever photograph taken just days before Monroe’s untimely death in 1962 featured the actress wearing a glamorous headscarf, smiling in the Nevada sunshine as she embraced her friend, the legendary jazz pianist Buddy Greco. During the Seventies, Studio 54 divas Bianca Jagger and Jerry Hall lent the scarf a disco vibe.
The popularity of the headscarf during the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s spawned numerous styles, each suggesting a different personality. Favoured by Queen Elizabeth II, the “babushka” is tied simply under the chin. Knotted behind the head, the “tie behind” is immortalised by historic icons such as Marilyn Monroe, Jackie Onassis, Audrey Hepburn and Jean Shrimpton. Today, this style has been adopted by Britney Spears, Nicole Richie, Jennifer Lopez and Paris Hilton, among others. And then the most classic of all: the “Kelly”, which is wrapped over the head, around the neck and tied at the rear. On glamorous stars such as Elizabeth Taylor and Grace Kelly, nothing seemed to epitomise chic more than their scarves, which fluttered in the breeze as they sped around the Côte d’Azur in the new convertible cars.
Contemporary women’s scarves
Liberty features a number of “How to tie your scarf” podcasts on its website. The founder of luxury accessories label Lily and Lionel, Alice Stone, who has given scarf demonstrations at the store, explains how to get the most out of your scarf: “Loop through your trousers, tie in your hair, wrap around the handle of your favourite handbag, or simply wear around your neck.”
Owning a great scarf – or several – has become one of fashion’s imperatives. Where once they were deemed a tad Hilda Ogden-esque, now they’re a global fashion fetish. Style mavens – Sienna Miller, Elle Macpherson, Nicole Richie, Alexa Chung and Emma Watson – are rarely photographed sans scarf. Since Liberty devoted an entire room to scarves two years ago, it has seen sales rise by 12 per cent. Fashion designers are getting in on the act, as well. Karen Walker, Anna Sui and Marc Jacob’s spring/summer 2012 collections all offered modern takes on the fashionable headscarf of the 1940s and 1950s.
Given its rich and varied history, it’s no surprise that the scarf has become an important part of our fashion fabric. By mirroring key changes in women’s lifestyle and status over the years, the scarf is a vital social artefact, as well as a highly collectible item. With contemporary fashion designers offering their own takes on women’s scarves and accessory designers, such as Alice Stone, creating sumptuous, stylish collections, the appeal of the scarf shows no sign of unraveling.
And as we prepare to celebrate Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee, what better way to show off your style allegiance than with a glamorous headscarf.