A History of Scarves - Introduction

The scarf, in some form or other, is perhaps the single constant in the history of clothing. Indeed the very earliest clothing - probably a length of skin or hide wrapped around the body - could be interpreted as a scarf or shawl.

For thousands of years, men and women on every continent, and in pretty much every culture, have worn lengths of fur, soft hide or woven fabric for warmth, to soak up sweat, for ceremonial or religious reasons, as protection from wind and dust, as a mark of status, or simply to appear attractive.

The history of scarves is a very difficult thing to write - which may explain why so few people have attempted it! (for reviews of the few books available see Books about Scarves). The history of fashion and costume can be opaque at the best of times, but scarves present an extra problem in that you first have to define what a scarf is, for it's an accessory that has taken myriad forms over the centuries. In what way does a scarf differ from a shawl, a sash, a stole, or a simple length of fabric worn on the body?

For example, if we define the scarf as a printed silk square, then scarves have really only been around since the late 19th of early 20th century. If we define the scarf as a piece of fabric (or feathers or fur) worn around the neck for warmth or to offset one's décolletage, then scarves certainly date back at least to the 17th century. If, however, we define the scarf as a piece of fabric - tied around or draped across the body, then scarves date back much much further.

The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines a scarf as:
A square, triangular, or esp. long narrow strip of material worn around the neck, over the shoulders, or tied around the head (of a woman), for warmth or ornament.
This definition seems true of scarves from the very earliest times. The scarf's historical development has been minimal (the hem, perhaps? The rolled edge?). But what has shifted is the symbolism that people have always imbued in scarves, the fabric, colors and designs selected, and the manner in which scarves have been worn.

So, here is my attempt at a summary of the scarf in history, starting at the 'beginning'. But please don't take this as a definitive history of scarves. I am not a costume expert! Rather, I hope this account will be useful to you as a jumping-off point for your own research.