The art of scarves

The appeal of scarves: while overt fashion trends come and go, this is one designer item that always holds its own.

Betsy Johnson Scarf
Powered by automated translation

"A scarf is, admittedly, not a tapestry, not a dress; it is a mere square of silk or some other material intended to be worn around the head. But it can be treated as a work of art. It can be collected like a rare book or print," said the English art and architecture critic Sir Sacheverell Sitwell in 1947.

That goes some way to explaining the appeal of scarves: while overt fashion trends come and go, this is one designer item that always holds its own. Think Hermès and Pucci and a vision of luxury silk squares, emblazoned with the most desirable ornate silk-screened patterns, springs to mind.

A luxe scarf can be both the punctuation mark of an outfit and an instant mood enhancer as it sensually swathes a neckline, drapes over the head or swings jauntily from a bag. Iconic images of style sirens such as Grace Kelly, Audrey Hepburn, Sophia Loren and Marilyn Monroe often feature nonchalantly elegant scarves. Similarly, today's fashion cognoscenti, spearheaded by Alexa Chung, Emma Watson and Sienna Miller, are rarely photographed without a covetable vintage or contemporary scarf, donned with a quirky modern twist. It's no wonder that silk scarves have become so popular and collectable and are fetching high prices at auction and online.

Serious scarf collectors recognise that it isn't only the French and Italian fashion houses that produce exquisite scarves. They are equally interested in the artistic designs of pioneering British labels such as Jacqmar, Liberty and Ascher, plus the American heritage brands including Echo and Brooke Cadwallader, all of whom commissioned well-known artists to produce images for their scarves. Beautifully illustrating its international credentials, the silk scarf is also often referred to as a foulard, carre, fichu or sciarpa.

Scarf aficionados are always searching for iconic and elusive scarves. For example, Hermès' first printed scarf, Le Jeu des Omnibus et Dames Blanches, created by Robert Dumas in 1937, is highly sought after, as is Gucci's vibrant Flora, created by the artist Vittorio Accornero in 1966. According to Frida Giannini the creative director of Gucci, "the Flora was created originally as a symbolic flower bouquet for Grace Kelly. The foulard is still produced and sold, both in its original version and in new ones, in Gucci stores all over the world."

It is both this reinterpretation of signature luxury brand designs and limited edition runs, along with the popularity of vintage and contemporary pieces, that keep the scarf market buoyant. Branding, heritage, artistic prowess and symbolism, plus the use of superior fabrics and finishing, all contribute to the desirability of the scarf design.

"My father began designing ready-to-wear collections in the late 1940s and prints and textiles in the early 1950s, using the beauty of the Italian landscape and architecture as inspiration. His first scarf was a drawing of Capri," says Laudomia Pucci, the deputy chairman and image director of Emilio Pucci, the label known for its signature swirling patterns in clear colourways, punctuated with the distinctive Pucci signature. "We have something like 15,000 scarves in our archive so it is difficult to have a favourite; but my father always considered the prints of his scarves of equal importance to those of his clothes," she says.

A book celebrating the scarf has just been published by Thames and Hudson, boasting a fabulous fabric cover depicting a psychedelic 1960s creation by the British scarf designer Richard Allan. Beautifully illustrated with more than 250 images, Scarves by Nicky Albrechtsen and Fola Solanke is a real treat for collectors, designers and anyone interested in how scarves reflect the changes in fashion, design and society from the start of the 20th century to modern day. There is also a very helpful section on dating scarves and how to identify fakes.

"Generally collectors have an interest that appeals to them, such as motifs with references to animals, commemorative events, perfume, artists or a particular fashion or textile designer," says the costume designer and vintage fashion retailer Solanke. "The scarves in my collection are travel and propaganda scarves from the Second World War plus Franco Moschino scarves."

While silk is often the fabric of choice, scarves in linen, cotton and fine synthetics are equally desirable if the design and label are considered collectable. The fabric often provides a pointer to the age of the scarf as, for example, silk was in short supply during the Second World War when it was commandeered for the manufacture of parachutes. "The definition of a luxury scarf depends on the fabric used,"said Solanke. "A silk twill is considered the best quality and is thick to the touch. The finishing of the scarf's edge is also a good indicator; hand-rolled plump hems are a mark of quality, although today luxury scarves sometimes feature fine silk fringing or machine stitched edges."

The co-author Albrechtsen is also a costume designer and the owner of Vintage Labels, a resource studio for designers, which has a vast collection of vintage scarves. "They are picked for their beautiful prints or colour palettes and nearly all the designers who come to us will use these for inspiration. Recently design teams have been looking for single motifs that they can enlarge in scale and place on garments and scarves; 1970s geometrics have also been a trend."

To ensure serious scarf investments retain their value, Albrechten warns against removing potentially annoying labels, 'Women often cut the label off a scarf because they detract from the design; as with any garment this devalues the item instantly; tacking them to lie flat would be better.'

This is good advice, indeed, as scarves are perfect heirloom items to pass down through the generations. They should be stored carefully away from direct sunlight and heat, and Pucci says the best way to keep scarves looking fresh and soft is to wash them by hand with mild soap. "With time they get softer and their colours remain vibrant."

Recently the popularity of the generous pashmina wrap has led the way to larger scarves, such as the coveted Louis Vuitton Monogramouflage Stephen Sprouse tribute scarf. This season the brand has introduced a new must-have print in the same format as the Sprouse design to coordinate with the designer Marc Jacobs's autumn/winter 2011-12 collection. The collection also includes exotic iris and zebra-print traditional silk squares featuring lavish black leather tassels at each corner.

Continuing the rectangular theme, the zodiac scarves of Amanda Wakeley's current collection have been flying off the shelves and are available online. "My symbol scarves are already collectors' items," says the designer, "I am currently working on an Evil Eye collection, which is looking really gorgeous.'

Alexander McQueen's bold skull print is another modern collectable design. "The classic skull scarf first appeared in the SS03 catwalk show and has since grown to become an iconic accessory of the brand," says the design director Sarah Burton, "Our scarves are so popular that new designs are introduced seasonally where we incorporate the skull motif with the signature print of the season. The 'Floral Skull' is looking to be a favourite this autumn and is available in silk chiffon and a cashmere silk mix. Inspiration for the season comes from nature, so we've used floral blossoms and wreaths and intertwined it with our skull motif for this design."

Available online at, the Alexander McQueen scarves are big sellers. "We have offered this skull print in so many colour and fabric combinations, yet its popularity is unwaning," says the buying director, Holli Rogers. "We have a strong customer base in the UAE with scarves by Alexander McQueen, Jimmy Choo and Valentino the most popular."

In years to come there will no doubt be generations still bidding for those elusive Hermès and Gucci scarves alongside modern classics. Just remember not to cut those labels off if you want to start a serious collection.