The History of Silk Scarf

Eternal in function and fashion, silk scarf has always been a must-have fashion accessory. The silk fabric looks lustrous and drips of elegance. The silk scarf is comfortable to wear all year round, as it is porous, which allows the textile to breathe and absorb moisture. It remains cool in the summers and warm in the winters. Silk has stood the test of time throughout history and is known today as a luxury product. Silk was considered so precious during ancient times that it was used as a replacement for currency in China. In Rome, the wealth and status of a person were measured by how many silks he owns.
Silk is the most elegant of textiles worldwide with unparalleled grandeur, natural sheen, and inherent affinity for dyes, high absorbance, lightweight, soft touch, and high durability and is known as the queen of textile in the world ever.

Silk: Long-kept secret of China

Image: Women preparing silk in China, 12th centuryImage: Women making silk in China, 12th century. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The lustrous fabric has been around for about 4500 years. The Chinese civilization is one of the oldest and first civilizations to possess the knowledge of sericulture to produce silk material. The oldest remnant of silk fabric was discovered in Zhejiang province, China. According to Chinese legends, the discovery of silk was a lucky accident. As the story goes, there once lived a Queen His-Ling-Shih of Yellow Empire. One day she was drinking tea under the mulberry tree while a silkworm cocoon fell in her tea. She saw the shiny silken threads unravel in the cup. She was so awestruck by the threads that she decided to appoint an entire team under her supervision to collect all the treads. She also ordered to make special looms for weaving such delicate material. She is known as the deity of silk and credited for starting sericulture in China. Though the story might have mythical elements, the silk industry indeed began in China.

Image: Emperor Thaizong of Tang dynasty wearing a yellow silk robe (6th century CE). Source: Wikimedia Commons

Silk and the knowledge of making silk cloth were very precious. In the beginning, the use of the fabric was reserve for Emperor and royalty. As time went by, the restrictions were few and the people who could afford silk were free to wear it. During the time of the Sui dynasty (6th century CE), only the Emperor could wear yellow colour silk. Peasants and people from lower-income strata were not allowed to wear silk altogether. By then, the mass production of silk had begun exported to other parts of the world. Silk was in great demand in India, Persia, Egypt, Greece, and Rome. The knowledge of silk-making has also been kept a secret from outsiders for many years. China dominated world trade by providing fine fabric. People around the world were in awe of the silky soft material. The Chinese silk was known to be so delicate that it could pass through a ring! Silk was highly valued and appreciated that an entire network of the trade route from China to Rome was called the Silk route.
As nothing lasts forever, the Chinese silk-making techniques reached other parts of the world with migrants. They started settling abroad and began the production of silk in different countries.

Scarves: From sweat cloth to fashion accessory

When we turn the pages of history, we find the first reference to fashioning a piece of cloth into a scarf. Queen Nefertiti of Egypt (13th century) was probably the first to fashion a headscarf beneath her throne.

 Ancient Romans loved their silks. They got their silk from the Silk Road and adored robes made of silk. Silk became the mark of how well off Romans were. Roman Emperor Heliogabalus (3rd century CE) wore nothing but silk and owned more than 3000 silk robes. If we believe some sources, the financial collapse of the Roman Empire about 2000 years ago was because of the import of silks and other precious materials from the east. There was a constant drain of silver out of Rome to purchase the silk that Romans could not have enough of.

The map of the Silk Route

Image:  The map of the Silk Route. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The ancient Romans did not wear scarves. It was much later; that the Roman soldiers wore scarves and called it sudarium (sweat cloth in Latin). The scarves were of cotton or linen and their purpose more utilitarian. They wore it around their neck or around their waist to wipe away or soak up sweat. By the 17th century, the Croatian soldiers began wearing silk scarves to denote higher rank in the army. The French soldiers followed the Croatians. Soon a scarf of a particular colour was worn by soldiers to show their political inclination. It gained popularity in the military world.

In the late 18th century, the early days of aviation, pilots began wearing silk around their necks. The flight suits ended up chafing the neck as buttoned tightly to prevent wind drafts. Silk scarves were the preferred material to tie around the neck to protect the skin from the chafe.

Image – Portrait of Lord Ludwig Van Beethoven in red scarf

Image – Portrait of Lord Ludwig Van Beethoven in red scarf. Source - Wikipedia

Lord Ludwig Van Beethoven was the first to adorn a scarf in 1810 and made a fashion statement. In an attempt to gain attention from musician Therese Malfatti, he added a silk scarf with his suits. The 18th century saw the beginning of the use of silk scarves as accessories. In the 18th century, men and women alike wore neckerchiefs, irrespective of their social class. The trend rapidly grew on people. Queen Victoria ascended the throne in 1837 and wore silk scarves. During her reign, silk scarves became a symbol of luxury.

The revolution and popularity of silk scarves increased when Hermès began manufacturing them. Hermès, the French luxury house, dealt with bridles and harnesses before entering the luxury silk scarf market. They imported Chinese silk and made scarves twice as strong as any other fabric at the time. After World War II, other companies like the Liberty of London started producing silk scarves. They became extremely popular during the post-war years. The prints were bold and provided much-needed positivity after the war.

Queen Elizabeth II has her unwavering attachment to an array of silk headscarves. Queen Elizabeth is seen wearing variety of silk scarves over the years.

The Indian Connection

Image: Indian Silk Stole with embroidery. Source:

In India, silk has sacred place traditions and customs like no other country. Silk immerge as a favourite fabric for weddings and other auspicious occasions. It is also a part of the wedding trousseau of the bride. India has the unique distinction of being the only country producing all the five kinds of silk: Mulberry, Eri, Muga, Tropical Tussar and Temperate Tussar. India is the second-largest producer of mulberry silk, next to China, accounting for more than 15% of the total world raw silk production. No other fabric has fascinated man so continuously over millennia as silk. A large part of the silk industry is involved in making sarees. A small percentage makes varieties of ready-made garments, scarves, and stoles. The sericulture industry occupies a prominent place among the cottage industries and has an important place in the economies of Mysore, Tamil Nadu, Jammu and Kashmir, West Bengal, and Assam.

Famous Scarf Wearers - Celebrities and their scarf styles

Image: Audrey Hepburn in her iconic Silk head scarf

Image: Audrey Hepburn in her iconic Silk head scarf. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Silk scarf has always been a go-to accessory for fashion divas and celebrities. In the 50s, Audrey Hepburn won many hearts by her effortless fashion sense. Her wardrobe is timeless and classic. She wore silk scarves as a headscarf or tied around her neck. In the '50s and '60s, celebrities like Lauren Bacall, Bianca Jagger, and Jackie Kennedy adopted scarves in their wardrobe and made them a symbol of glamour and feminity. In 1956, Grace Kelly broke her arm and famously wrapped silk scarf over her hospital-issued slings. In the late 2000s, different types of scarves inspired by the old trends made a comeback.

Image - Different ways to style a silk scarf

                      Image - Different ways to style a silk scarf.

Why Silk Scarves?

In chilly climates, silk scarves are worn for warmth. They can also be wrapped around the head and neck while traveling. A silk scarf can also serve as a mouth and nose guard, avoiding sand, dust, and dirt. It adds colour to a monotone dress and accentuates the neck. A long silk stole can be draped around the shoulders and cover the arms and upper body. The light and airy silk scarves go well with summer outfits. A printed scarf can be tied around the neck forming a triangle in the front. Another way of fashioning a silk scarf is a neckerchief i.e to tie the scarf with a knot on the side. After the 2000’s thanks to the Instagram and YouTube tutorials, the scarf tops are back in the trend. A scarf can be fashioned into a top.

Silk has the reputation of luxurious and sensuous fabric, associated as such with wealth and success. That is what makes the fabric so special.

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