Why Silk Scarves? - A History of.

Why Silk Scarves? - A History of.

 The silk scarf may seem to be a new endeavour of mine for those of you who have followed my illustration and brand progress over the years. However it has definitely been a product I have been dying to attempt for a long time now. Searching for the best fabric printers for making my ALXNDRA scarves took a good handful of years! So many, MANY samples from different companies later, I finally found the perfect one; Uk based, eco-friendly, minimum manufacturing waste, beautiful quality, multiple fabric options and (my favourite 😅) a hemming service!

Now I ramble on about this long standing undertaking of mine just so I can try and put across some insight, however small, what a struggle it has actually been to begin this part of my journey! Yet as I type, I feel telling you the ups and downs of this personal venture is perhaps not as interesting as to why I wanted to make scarves in the first place? 


Why I think silk scarves are great!

I think it's best to start by mentioning the obvious attraction to the format of a silk scarf: a big square! As an illustrator this immediately made sense to me. As artists we all crave to see our work at some point displayed rather large on someones wall for all to see and marvel at 😅 ...no? And yet, a large square of fabric, for me at least, has much more dynamism as an outcome than a simple canvas.

Being mainly an illustrator is the leading part of who I identify as, but I have always wanted to try and communicate my work through another medium other than paper, do something different, something more tangible. Hence why I have attempted printed t-shirts, totebags, embroidery, making clothes in the past and now even creating jewellery! Finding that medium that seems to "stick" has been the most arduous journey for me! Up until now, nothing else has felt quite right... Now I am certainly not the first artist to put their artwork onto the medium of a large fabric square by any means! But we can get to more of that later! 😉


When I started designing patterns for fabric and began my slow move into the possible realm of making clothes, I felt something click. However sustaining an honest clothing brand even within the realms of slow fashion is a whole new task unto it's own. Even on my own terms I found it restricting and financially difficult to keep up momentum. On the other hand, seeing my illustration on fabric is super satisfying! I chased my satisfaction for a more tangible medium and found it instead in the form of a simple scarf.

Through consequence, a scarf presents an opportunity for experimentation often not available in other realms of dress that are determined or restricted by the shape of the body. It's a fantastic accessory that can be manipulated by the wearer in any way they want. The scarf is the most elementary form of adornment: a single piece of cloth. For this reason, it’s one of the most versatile clothing accessories, used for centuries across a variety of cultures, for a range of purposes. And I love it for that.

Possible Origins and It's First Influence on Style.

The first widely recorded example of a scarf dates back to 350 BC when the Egyptian Queen Nefertiti wore a finely woven style with a headdress. And in the 17th century when the use of silk scarves was an indication of class and status: Croatian soldiers of higher rank wore silk scarves while others were issued cotton ones. It is even thought that scarves worn in various ways can be viewed on the terracotta army soldiers, which were buried away more than 200 years BC! Ludwig van Beethoven was believed to be the first to make the scarf a fashion statement in 1810, changing his look (perhaps considered the earliest instance of peacocking) in the hopes to woo Austrian musician Therese Malfatti. 

It is even said that on Napoleon's return from Egypt, he gifted his wife Josephine a pashmina scarf. She loved it so much, she grew an extensive collection and is noted to have collected over 400 scarfs over the next 3 years!

Lightweight, finely woven silk and cashmere shawls from India were one of the first fashionable scarf styles. Through expanding global trade during the 19th century, silk scarves became an accessory for the nobility, a symbol of luxury.


The "Fichu"

The fichu is a typical 18th- and 19th-century style that was popularised during this early era. It has been seen as the forerunner of modern scarves. Made up of a piece of fabric worn lightly draped on the upper chest and usually knotted in front, it provided modest covering but was also an opportunity to add an especially fine textiles, sometimes lace edged or embroidery, to an outfit. 



I cannot speak about the history of scarves without mentioning the power-house that is HERMES. When you think of a Hermès scarf, you instantly think of luxury. In 1937, the French luxury house, which had previously only dealt with bridles and harnesses for horse-riding before entering the leather goods business, introduced what would become the first true luxury silk scarf. Made with imported Chinese silk, which was twice as strong as any other fabric at the time, the design was based on a woodblock drawing by Robert Dumas, who was a member of the Hermès family.


In the 1930s though scarves, as we know them, had become a garment only worn by men in the military and not worn by women. Soldiers would wear cotton scarves. So when Hermes launched a silk one for women, it was considered avant-garde. In terms of prestige, Hermès represents the pinnacle of scarf culture. I don't think we would have scarves as we know them today without them.

The Golden Age of Glamour

Thanks to Hermès, scarves became a must have accessory, especially for Hollywood's elite. Grace Kelly broke her arm in 1956 where she famously shunned wearing a hospital-issued sling but instead fashioned her own with an Hermès scarf! You can't think of a 1940s or 1950s glamour look without thinking of a beautiful woman, red lipstick in hand, luscious curls and a luxurious silk scarf tied around her head!

Grace Kelly with a Hermès scarf arm sling

Catherine Deneuve looking cool as heck.

Audrey Hepburn, too, wore them as a headscarf or tied around her neck (main blog image above is the very beauty herself). Some of my favourite nostalgically charged photos of women wearing silk scarves are usually of Audrey Hepburn. One of her many charming quotes read: “When I wear a silk scarf I never feel so definitely like a woman, a beautiful woman”.

The many beautiful faces of Hepburn

Like much of high fashion, scarves can signal one’s status, and limited edition scarves were often only made available to favoured customers! For example, fashion houses send scarves, often during the holidays, as thank-yous to loyal clients. Those created by Parisian couturiers during the 1950s were especially chic, often designed with sketches of the maison (fancy word for the fashion house); others displayed printed patterns in the whimsical, painterly style of the era.

Debbie Harry oozes cool in a pirate-tie style scarf

From the 1950s into the 1970s, the famed Manhattan eating and drinking establishment "21" produced a series of annual scarves and sent them to their favourite “regulars.” The restaurant’s owners commissioned well-known designers, and each year’s scarf design referred to some aspect of the restaurant; its famous façade, the collection of jockey statues outside or simply the number 21.

Actress Lauren Bacall, an esteemed regular, donated her 21 scarves to the Museum at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology, which I would love to visit some day!

Hot damn, Lauren Bacall! 🔥

Here Come the Artists!

Zika Ascher; with a nickname like the mad silkman, Zika was indeed a very influential guy in the history of our modern day silk scarf! He was a Czech textiles businessman, artist and designer. 

In London in the 1940s, Zika Ascher and his wife Lida, initiated their "The Ascher Project" to create innovative textiles based on contemporary art, ran in tandem with the Ministry of Information's propaganda initiative, to introduce modern art to the "man on the street". He recruited an international roster of prominent artists to design large scarves named "Artists Squares", a group that included Henri Matisse, Jean Cocteau and Henry Moore. Eventually, 51 leading French and English artists were commissioned by Zika between 1946 and 1955 to create these limited edition scarves. The Artist Squares were sold in major department stores and also exhibited and framed, like paintings (!) at London’s Lefevre Gallery.

Ascher scarf by artist Alexander Calder

Ascher scarf designed by none other than Picasso

Ascher scarf designed by Robert Colquhoen


Not Just a Pretty Thing!

I have mentioned briefly before that scarves, throughout it's history, have been used to signal status. But they have promoted messages, signalled religious beliefs and much more! Early 20th-century crusaders for women’s rights used their clothing to promote their cause, wearing scarves in the movement’s colours; white, green and purple.


During World War II, scarves expressed nationalist sentiments. The British firm Jacqmar produced designs with propaganda-themed slogans. One featured the phrase “Shoulder to Shoulder” on a map of England emblazoned with British and American symbols. Another design mimicked a wall covered with posters urging citizens to “Lend to Defend” and “Save for Victory.”

Jacqmar started out supplying silk to couture fashion houses around the world but soon noticed a lot of cut-offs that were produced and being wasted. As a result, they started producing silk scarves, which became extremely popular during the course of the war. Fabric supplies were often short during this time, therefore Jacqmar would use offcuts from parachute silk as well as rayon and linen.

Designs for scarves were based around 3 central themes: military, allied forces and the home front. These were especially popular amongst young lovers and nowadays have become treasured collector's items. Even the British Museum in London owns several rare Jacqmar scarves in their war costume collection. 

During the First World War, silk played a very important role in military operations. Pilots would wear white silk scarves whilst flying as the soft, supple fabric provided protection from neck chafing and silk bags were used to carry gunpowder charges for weapons as silk left no residue when burnt. After the war, this surplus silk was made into clothes, scarves, and furnishings.

With the emergence of silk in the west, manufacturing methods were improving and many clothing brands started producing silk accessories. Liberty Of London started producing light silk scarves that became extremely popular during the post-war years. Their energetic prints provided a much-needed tonic to the gloom that was life on the home front in the early years after the war. However, with the outbreak of the Second World War, wardrobes had to become practical and sensible above all else. Many women were drafted in to take over jobs that were ordinarily done by men. From working in weapons manufacturing factories to flying military planes, the demands of ‘war work’ came first. Safety concerns within factories meant that women operating machinery had to make sure any long hair was clearly swept away. This meant that women wore headscarves as a matter of necessity rather than an accessory. 





My love affair with creating silk scarves is unlikely to end anytime soon. I am enamoured with the endless possibilities for design and captivated by it's tangible nature for viewing my work in a multitude of forms. It is what I have been looking for, a way to make my artwork tactile as well as purposeful. Whether you; channel your inner glamour wearing it as a headscarf, keep up with the latest trends and wear it as a top, tie it as a belt, on your wrist, wear it in your hair, drape it over a bag handle, use it sustainably for gift giving practices as an alternative for wrapping paper or simply frame it on your living room wall, I hope and believe sincerely that it will be an accessory that will forever have a permanent place in your wardrobe or home. I hope I can bring something new and fresh to the world of scarf design too!


You can shop my ALXNDRA scarves here. ✨  




Thank you for reading 💖

If you know any other cool little historical facts about the silk scarf, please comment below. I'd love to know!







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