An introduction to the scarf history.

"... a scarf is, admittedly, not a tapestry, not a dress; it is a mere square of silk or some other material intended to be worn around the head. But it can be treated as a work of art. It can be collected like a rare book or print..."

Sacheverell Sitwell, 1947

The scarf is as significant a piece of the 20th century closet as a pair of gloves or a handbag. For creators, artists and specialists it is a canvas for decoration, development, promoting and commemoration.

In many cultures, at various times, it has been viewed as improper for a lady to uncover her hair, thus the headscarf has for some time been a fundamental instrument of social etiquette. In Europe and  America in the first half of the twentieth century, scarves turned into a popular, casual option in contrast to the hat that respectable women were required to wear in public. For those who did not have enough clothing coupons to buy a new hat during the Second World War, magazines advised twisting a coloured scarf into a turban or snood. 


In the 21st century, beautifully printed scarves are an essential element of glamour for many women in the Islamic world who observe the tradition of covering their heads. In Africa and the Caribbean, bright and patterned headscarves are worn widely and are a distinctive component of traditional dress for women. 

Scarves are also worn out of practical necessity, for warmth and security. The kerchiefs, worn by women in parts of Eastern and Northern Europe, protected long hair while carrying out household chores and farm work, and became important elements of traditional dress. During the Second World War, women working in munition manufacturing also wore scarves to protect their hair from being caught in the machinery. 

During the 1950s, when the automobile industry was growing, women started wearing scarves to protect their neck and hair from the breeze while riding in a vehicle. Scarves became an essential of women's leisurewear, TV stars turned scarves into a fashion icon, and couture houses started creating distinctive printed designs to establish the scarf as an exclusive accessory.

Throughout the 20th century scarves became popular advertising tools for the entertainment and travel industries. Branded scarves were issued by airlines and hotels, and foreign holiday destinations began to produce inexpensive scarves as souvenirs for their rapidly growing tourist markets.  

During the 1960s and 1970s synthetic scarves were used by the music industry to promote pop groups, such as the Beatles.

Throughout history, scarves have become records of social history. Issued to commemorate coronations, sporting events, anniversaries and festivals; reflecting the straitened circumstances of wartime and the exuberant excesses of boom years; and tracing the rise and fall of companies, artists and even nations, scarves provide an unexpected record of life in the 20th century and beyond. 

Albrechtsen, Nicky, and Fola Solanke. Scarves. Thames & Hudson, 2011.                                                                                                    1st image: Elizabeth Taylor wearing a headscarf in Giant, 1956.                                                                                                                2nd image: Susan Sarandon wearing a silk headscarf and contrasting neckerchief as Louise Sawyer in Thelma and Louise, 1991.