A hazardous form of protection

scarf drawing illustration


A practical and versatile accessory, the scarf is perhaps the fashion item that most reflects human society at any given era.

Knit shawl

Hesquiat woman wearing a knitted shawl.

Stole, sash, shawl, kerchief, hijab, head tie — though size, cut and style has varied with each culture and trend, this article of clothing reveals the evolution of social, economic, and lifestyle values over the course of history.

Scarves in pre-history and ancient history 

It is difficult to pinpoint the origin of the scarf. After all, where do you draw the line between a prehistoric cut of fur and the luxurious garments adorning today's high fashion?

Statues and carvings from Assyria and Mesopotamia depict clothing worn around the neck and shoulders, suggesting the humble scarf — in this case, a sash or shawl — dates back in recorded history to around 3300 BCE.

However, fragments of primitive weaving looms found on archaeological sites in China hint at the possibility of woven fabric being used for scarves as early as 4000 BCE.

Early uses of scarves have been placed in Ancient Egypt in the mid-14th century BCE, where Queen Nefertiti would wear fine sheaths of fabric beneath her signature conical headdress.

Some sources suggest these scarves were made of silk, however Egypt acquired its silk through the Roman Empire's trade with China, which only began in the 1st century BCE.

Roman palla

A Roman woman draped in a typical palla, a large shawl covering the head and shoulders.

Across the European continent, Roman soldiers would wear a focale, a long piece of wool or linen fabric, around the neck beneath their armour to protect the skin from chafing.

The focale is sometimes regarded as an ancestor to the modern cravat.

As a palla, the scarf was worn by women as a large shawl draped over the shoulders and around the head and body, fastened to clothing by brooches.

Pallae were typically made of wool, linen, cotton, or silk imported from the Far East.

A more macabre discovery gives us insight into the use of scarves in ancient Denmark. The remains of the Huldremose Woman were found mummified in a Jutland peat bog, still clothed in her wool skirt and scarf.

Carbon dating revealed she had lived during the Iron Age, between 160 BCE and 340 BCE.

From Greece, ancient writings describe women covering their hair with sakkos, a variety of headwear ranging from soft woven caps to long scarves wrapped around the head.

Sakkos enjoyed almost 200 years of tenure in Hellenic fashion, before falling out of vogue by the middle of the 4th century BCE.

Headscarves and neckwear in the Middle Ages

Scarves feature widely in fashion from the Middle Ages. Throughout most of medieval culture, it was considered vulgar for married women to show their hair, so matrons would don a wimple, a stretch of cloth worn around the neck and chin to cover the head.


A 15th century Dutch aristocratic woman wearing a conical hennin with a long scarf. (Painting by Hans Holbein the Elder)

Wimples were worn in a variety of ways — starched, creased, folded, and even supported by wicker frames ― to keep up with both fashion and propriety.

Among the wealthy 12th century women, long and fine scarves were worn suspended from tall headdresses — a trend said to have begun with the beautiful Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine.

In 14th century France, aristocratic women wore a hennin ― the conical "princess hat" we often see in fairy tales and children's costumes today ― with a light, airy scarf draped from the steeple.

It was also in this era that scarves were included among "lady's favours", the token of good luck or admiration for knights entering martial tournaments.

Men's cravats emerged in France in the early 17th century, during the Thirty Years War in Europe.

Croatian soldiers, recruited by the French army, wore colourful cloths knotted around the neck; these neckerchiefs ranged from coarse fabrics on enlisted soldiers to fine linens and silks on officers.

French troops came to favour this foreign style over their traditional, heavily starched collars, and in the years following the war, these scarves had become entrenched in French fashion.

Their name, cravate, is understood to be the frenchification of “Croat”. Today, Croatia celebrates Cravat Day each year on October 18th.

Even the simple cravat is not immune to evolution, and over the years developed into elaborate and lacy versions that took a great deal of care to present.

Cravat day Croatia

Croatia annually celebrates Cravat Day on October 18th (photo: Roberta F.)

In the midst of another war at the end of the 17th century, the steinkirk was born, named after the Battle of Steenkerque, where French soldiers were forced to fight with improperly arranged cravats after a surprise attack from the enemy.

Bridging the gap between function and style, the steinkirk remained in the realm of men's fashion for over a century.

Head scarves and turbans are believed to have been worn for centuries by the peoples of Africa, documented in the Western world since as early as the 1700s.

Traditionally, the style and meaning of a head scarf can vary depending on culture and religion.

Scarves and shawls in the age of the revolution

In 18th century France, shawls made of a particularly soft type of cashmere called pashmina were all the rage — a symbol of wealth and status.

The shawls are said to have travelled from the remote mountains of India's Kashmir region, through Iran, and into Egypt where Emperor Napoléon discovered them and had them sent back to Empress Joséphine.

She declared them "ugly and very expensive, but light and warm" ― and liked them enough to end up collecting over four hundred pieces.

The love story of Napoléon and Josephine eventually unravelled. But Napoléon's second wife, Empress Marie-Louise, was no less fond of scarves ― however with a preference for more domestic designs.

At this time, the French were going absolutely scarves crazy, and to keep up with the incredible demand in Parisian society, manufacturers couldn't rely solely on pashminas all the way from English-controlled India. And so, shawls made from Spanish wool were introduced.


Mannequin in the Rožmberk palace, Prague, wearing an 18th century fichu.

Scarves were very much still in vogue in the 1800s. Reports of Beethoven’s life tell of a time in 1810, when he fell in love with his doctor’s beautiful niece, Therese Malfatti.

Though usually preferring his old clothes, he suddenly ordered fashionable suits, fine shirts, and silk neck scarves.

His famous piano piece, "Für Elise", was written for Therese, but it was all in vain as she declined his proposal of marriage.

Also popular throughout the 18th and 19th centuries was the fichu, a large, square kerchief typically made of linen or lace, worn to complement the low necklines of the bodice.

This garment was folded diagonally into a triangle and draped over the shoulders, with the ends drawn together at the breast and tied, pinned, or tucked into the clothing.

Scarf trends of the last century

From the late 1800s to the early 20th century, slimmer and straighter dresses were back in vogue. Large shawls shrank back to long scarves, stoles and boas, adding height to the elongated silhouettes of women's fashion.

A variety of bow ties, neckties, neckerchiefs and cravats continued to decorate the necks of men from all social classes, though the highly embellished and ruffled styles faded in the throng of the Industrial Revolution.

In the 1930s, developments in textile manufacturing led to the mass production of rayon scarves, meeting the demand for fashionable alternatives to expensive silk.

Audrey Hepburn wearing a headscarf

Iconic actress, Audrey Hepburn, helped to cement the silk scarf as the must-have accessory during the 1950s and 60s.

By contrast, luxury goods manufacturer Hermès of Paris released their first silk scarf in 1937, promising higher quality and more exclusive designs than the widely available accessories on the market.

Through the war years, scarves and kerchiefs became subdued in style and were made from less opulent materials, reflecting the fear and pessimism that enveloped the community.

Their function as utility items came to the fore, wrapped around the hair of women working in farm fields and munitions factories.

By the middle of the 20th century, scarves were an essential style item for both men and women.

The spring of post-war culture saw muted and industrial hues replaced by bright colours and a myriad of prints.

Celebrity endorsements from Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly, Jacqueline Kennedy, Brigitte Bardot, and Queen Elizabeth II spread and cemented the patterned, printed silk scarf as a must-have for any ensemble.



In 1927, dancer, Isadora Duncan died in Nice, France after her silk scarf became tangled in the rear wheel of her convertible sports car.

Since then, the medical term "Isadora Duncan Syndrome" has been used to refer to injuries caused by hair or an article of clothing becoming entangled in a moving object. The syndrome is relatively common in countries where open passenger carts — such as rickshaws — are prevalent.



Scarves of good quality are usually made from a multitude of natural materials.

These include cotton, linen, silk, fur and wool.


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