The Fascinating History of Scarves: From Functional Accessory to Fashion Statement

For centuries, scarves have been part of culture worldwide, seen as both a functional and fashionable accessory. Perhaps the earliest evidence of a scarf was discovered in the sarcophagus of Ramses II (1279–1213 B.C.E.) in which a type of men’s sash was found.

Today the scarf is found in almost every closet and may be used for a variety of reasons. However, its history is definitive, so understanding how and why people began wearing a scarf can help bridging the past and present of this timeless accessory.

What is a Scarf?

A scarf is a long, narrow piece of cloth, usually rectangular or triangular in shape, worn around the neck and shoulders, or tied around the head, waist or neck of an individual. Scarves come in a variety of fabrics and textures, such as cotton, wool, silk, velvet and more, and can be worn for warmth and protection, as well as for style.

A Brief History of Scarves

In ancient times, scarves were a simple piece of cloth used to keep the head and body warm and protected from the elements. Evidence suggests that in Ancient Rome, scarves were used by men to adorn their military uniforms, and by women to dress up hairstyles. They were popular in the East as well, appearing in the sartorial repertoire of Ancient Egyptians and Chinese alike.

In Middle Ages, scarves were adopted by wealthy Europeans, often as part of a suite of fashionable accessories. During this period, linens and fabrics became increasingly popular, and people began to experiment with different shapes and sizes of scarf. This was also the period when the term “scarf” was coined.

In the 18th century, scarves developed into an item of status and were increasingly used by both men and women to signify wealth and power. During this period, scarves were often made of more luxurious materials such as velvet, silk and linen, and became a popular and fashionable fashion statement, although were still worn more for practicality rather than aesthetics.

The 19th century saw a further transformation of the scarf and its introduction into the world of fashion. A range of scarf styles emerged as we know them today, ranging from neck scarves and square scarves to shawls, short and long shawls, pashminas, and many others. The style of the scarf was crafted to suit the outfit of the individual, representing both practical and fashionable purposes.

Types of Scarves

Today, scarves are worn for a variety of reasons, from practicality to fashion. Here are some of the most popular scarf styles:

  1. Neck Scarf: This style of scarf is typically the most common type of scarf used. It’s a long, rectangular shaped scarf made of thin material, wrapped around the neck and tucked neatly under the collar.

  2. Square Scarf: Also known as a bandana, this type of scarf usually comes in a square shape and is usually made of cotton.

  3. Shawls: Shawls are square or rectangular pieces of fabric that can be worn draped around the shoulders.

  4. Long Shawl: This style of shawl is usually made of thick material and seen draped loosely around the arms, neck and torso.

  5. Pashminas: A pashmina is a type of shawl made from a fine mesh of silk or cotton with intricate embellishments.

Scarves in Modern Times

Today, scarves are used for both practical and decorative purposes. In addition to providing warmth and protection from the elements, scarves have become a staple in many fashion outfits. Throughout the past century, different types of scarves—from 100% wool to silk, to cashmere—have become commonplace in the fashion world. Depending on the occasion, scarves can be made of lightweight, airy materials or thicker, more warming textures. The variety of available fabrics makes the scarf a versatile accessory, which can be donned for any event to complement an outfit.

Scarves are used not just for outfits, but for hair, too. Head scarves have been popular for the past century and are still seen in many modern-day hairstyles. Head scarves may be decorated with dainty gems, tassels and bows, or can be plain and simple. They can be used to create a variety of hairstyles, from elaborate updos to a half-up/half-down look.

The Use of Scarves in Different Cultures

Scarves have been used for centuries for both practical reasons and more cultural reasons. Depending on the country, people may wear scarves to signify religious beliefs, gender, a profession, a political statement, or even to signal the approach of a special occasion. Here are some examples of cultures embracing scarves:

  1. In India, Hindu women wear a turban-style scarf known as a patka, which is used to signify a woman’s religious beliefs and modesty.

  2. In Japan, people wear a scarf known as a tsutsu-kakushi and secure it at the back of their necks using a string, to signify their gender.

  3. In Scotland and other parts of the British Isles, men wear a tartan scarf to signify the clan they come from.

  4. In Italy, young students wear a specifically coloured scarf to signify which school they attend.

  5. In Mexico and South America, brightly coloured, embroidered scarves known as rebozos are worn as a way to show appreciation for traditional culture and customs.

Scarves have come a long way, from being mere practical pieces of clothing to a symbol of fashion that can be seen everywhere from the catwalk to the playground. As the popularity of scarves continues to grow, it’s interesting to learn the history and cultural significance behind this timeless piece of clothing.