Scarves in Antiquity

As mentioned in the Introduction, it seems certain that the scarf, or something resembling it, has been in existence since humans first began to wear clothing.

My first thought concerning 'scarves in ancient history' was of the 'biblical' dance of the seven veils. So I was taken aback to find that although the dance performed by Herodias' daughter for King Herod is indeed mentioned in the Bible (Matthew 14), the veils - or scarves - are not. They are a much later addition, and the image we have of Salomé's seductive dance was introduced only in the late 19th Century by Oscar Wilde's play 'Salomé', and Richard Strauss' opera of the same name. And even then, it's the subsequent Hollywood depictions that have given us the image of the seven veils.

Returning from myth (and a modern one at that) to history, numerous statues and carved reliefs from ancient Assyria and Mesopotamia depict lengths of cloth, often fringed, being worn wrapped around the body as sashes and shawls. In many cases (such as this statue of King Ashurnasirpal II) the scarf probably had a ceremonial or symbolic meaning.

Mohenjo Daro statue of Indus priest or king wearing a scarf or stoleMohenjo Daro statue of Indus priest or king wearing a scarf or stole (photo: © Wikipedia)
The famous statue of a 'priest-king' from the ancient Harappan culture (Indus Valley 3300-1300BC) wears a shawl or stole decorated with trefoil motifs.

The ancient Egyptians wore small shawls or scarves (probably of linen) around their shoulders like little capes, and larger shawl-like scarves draped across their shoulders - often asymmetrically - and tied around the waist. The fabric was fine and gauze-like and the accordion pleats were created by pressing the damp fabric onto ribbed wooden boards. The effect brings to mind the pleated Fortuny scarves and shawls of almost 5000 years later! Fashion Era has a good section on Egyptian shawls and scarves. The ancient Egyptians also wore kerchiefs, often rectangular but sometimes semi-circular, on the head and secured with strings or ties (several semi-circular examples were found in Tutankhamun's tomb).

The ancient Greeks favored flowing fabrics in their dress, and Pauline Weston Thomas at states, "Grecian clothes were little more than artfully arranged pieces of cloth, pinned and tucked into position." Indeed, statues and Greek vase designs show many variations on what appear to be scarves, stoles and shawls. In addition, the elaborate hairstyles worn by wealthy women often involved using scarves, or at least fine pieces of fabric, to wrap or twist through the hair.

Scarves were evidently commonly worn in Iron Age Europe. The excavation of a bog burial in Denmark revealed a woman who was buried wearing a long checked wool scarf (approx. 5ft by 2ft) with fringed ends. Very modern looking!

But it was during the Roman period that scarves as we know them really came to the fore. Roman women wore a palla, a long scarf or stole, over their long tunics. The palla was worn across the shoulders, or draped across the body and pinned or fastened at the shoulder. Like the ancient Greek women, Roman women favored elaborate hairstyles, often created by weaving strips of fabric into the hair. These strips can also be interpreted as scarves.

The focale was a scarf worn by Roman soldiers. Its main purpose seems to have been to protect the neck from rubbing from the metal or stiff leather armor. The focale appears to have been a long piece of wool or linen fabric, wrapped around the neck and knotted at the front. It would have been un-dyed, or perhaps in some cases red. The soldiers depicted on Trajan's Column are wearing such scarves. Similar cloths or scarves may well have been used on the head to prevent discomfort from metal helmets.

Neck scarves were worn in ancient China, and many of Emperor Quin's Terracotta Warriors (3rd century BC) are wearing them, tied in a variety of styles. These scarves probably served several purposes including protecting the neck from chafing from armor, acting as an identifying mark (of rank and unit), or simply for warmth.

The early Christian period saw the rise of ecclesiastical scarves and stoles. The Victoria & Albert Museum, London, has a number of Egyptian scarf fragments (wool and linen mix) dating to the 4th/5th century AD, which are possibly religious in origin. The pallium, a long narrow stole of white wool embellished with crosses, dates back to at least the 4th century AD. Worn by the Pope, it's also one of the symbols bestowed on archbishops, and is still used today.

In Saxon times, concepts of Christian modesty meant that women covered their heads. Wealthy women favored headdresses, sometimes elaborate, but poorer women appear to have wrapped scarves - usually white or undyed - around their heads. Neckerchiefs were commonly worn around the neck.

Viking women wore shawl-like garments, worn around the shoulders and pinned with a broach, either at the throat or the breast. Many of these shawls appear to be 'triangular', with a deep point at the back. It's thought that this effect may have been achieved by folding down (or stitching down) one corner of a square shawl, then folding in the two side points to make a pentagonal shape.

Next: Scarves in the Middle Ages