Scarves in the 18th Century

Scarves were a major 'fashion story' in the 18th century, with all kinds of styles worn in innovative and interesting ways.



As bodices were cut lower and lower, silk and lace scarves were much used to preserve modesty (while at the same time, of course, drawing attention to a lady's assets). Frothy muslin buffon scarves were often pinned about the breast, sometimes layered as high as the chin in an attempt to enhance the area's perceived shape and size.

Scarves were worn loosely around the shoulders and pinned at the front, the ends tucked into the bodice, or left to hang elegantly. Gauze stoles were worn across the lower back and over the arms. For cooler days silk and velvet 'wraps' were favored.

Another popular style was for very long scarves worn wide over one shoulder, then wrapped around the waist, with the ends (often elaborately fringed) left to hang lose down the side of the skirts.

Scarves were also used to secure fashionable large hats to the head - the scarf laid over the crown of the hat and tied under the wearer's chin.

By the mid 18th Century, fashionable gentlemen were abandoning the cravat for the stock (a length of gathered fabric wrapped tightly around the neck). This in turn was superceded by the overblown 'Directory Cravat' sported by the arbiter of style in the Regency period, Beau Brummell. Both of these fashions were, to some extent, copied by women.

Kashmir shawls

The biggest scarf 'fashion story' of the century, however, was the Indian Kashmir shawl. Originating in India as a high class male garment, and part of court dress, finely woven rectangular wool shawls were first brought to Europe by members of the British East India Company. By the 1780s Kashmirs were an essential accessory for fashionable (and wealthy) English women, who prized them for their 'exotic' look and the elegant way in which they draped.

Lady Emma Hamilton, Nelson's mistress, adopted shawls with enthusiasm, and she did much to popularize their wearing. The shawl dances (or 'attitudes' as they were known) that she performed at the British Embassy in Naples entranced everyone who saw them, including Goethe. Other grand ladies soon imitated, wearing shawls and entertaining their guests with exotic shawl dances.

Fashionable French ladies were a little slower to embrace shawls, but when they did it was with great passion. Empress Josephine, at first unimpressed with the Kashmirs Napoleon sent her from his campaigns, eventually became their greatest proponent. Her collection was said to number in the hundreds and became the envy of every French lady. Indeed, for some years she was rarely seen without one, and Napoleon, finding her too 'covered up' for his liking, was said to have sometimes torn them from her and thrown them on the fire. Unfazed by this, Josephine would simply call for another.

The huge demand for Kashmirs quickly led to the production of machine woven imitations in Europe. Shawl weaving industries developed in Norwich, England, in Scotland, and in Paris and Lyon in France. Indian designs were also copied and block printed onto plain shawls (resulting in the enduring 'paisley' motif), and designs were often embellished with hand embroidery.

Towards the end of the century, the fashion for light weight dresses with high Empire waists dictated a new style for wearing scarves - across the shoulders, crossed in front under the breasts and tied at the back. Long fur 'snakes' (or what we would today call 'boas') were worn hanging loose around the neck to enhance the linear line of the dresses. It was at this time that scarves of printed fabric began to appear, with Greek key designs and oriental motifs particularly popular.