Because you can't have depths without surfaces.
Linda Grant, thinking about clothes, books and other matters.

Sunday, 18 May 2008


I have been thinking a lot about scarves since a visit to Bon Marche in Paris last September, where I bought several, including one by Dior and another by Christian Lacroix. As we get older it's best to have some colour next to the face and the scarf (like the handbag) is one of those garments which do not torment us with being the wrong size or too uncomfortable to wear, like a pair of Manolos.

Even expensive scarves are cheap compared to expensive bags and shoes, let alone jewellery. When I had tea at Claridges with Joan Burstein a few weeks ago, (that is the Joan Burstein who is old enough to have saved her clothing ration to buy copies of the New Look when it was first launched,) she was wearing, at 82, a black Marni dress, a navy coat and a long, filmy scarf in pale blue. And some stonking diamond earrings.

The plain palette of an elegant dark dress and coat was the setting for the accessories which lit up her face.

After the moth genocide I had to go very carefully through all my clothes to see what they had eaten and discovered it was only an Ann Louise Roswald skirt and a brown scarf I bought at the Galleries Lafayette in Paris just before interviewing Agnes b, because it was unseasonally cold. I have a lot of scarves and apart from those velvet ones from the Nineties, none of them seemed out of date, indeed yesterday I wore one I bought in 1996 at inflight duty free on a BA flight from Vienna to London, having spent two very long weeks in Iran.

R. and I spent some time on the phone the other night talking about the Hermes scarf and whether we were leading up to buying one. I am a but unsure about some of their designs, which I find somewhat bourgeois (every middle-class Iranian woman seems to have one) and R. was uncertain how to tie them, but I explained that if you pop into an Hermes shop they will give you a little book.

In Paris every single woman knows how to tie a scarf in a way which gives her outfit that totally distinctive chic. Perhaps it is in the fingers, perhaps it is taught at school. But in an age of too short skirts and hopeless struggles to find what we want, perhaps it is the humble scarf that is the real investment and we ought to learn.


greying pixie said...

Personally I think the price of an Hermes silk square scarf these days is immoral and outrageous. The only place to buy them is at Duty Free and even then they are quite pricey.

On the plus side, they are beautiful quality, but no better than Celine and Ferragamo, which are definitely cheaper. Ferragamo scarves have much nicer designs and the most beautiful jewel colours.

I have always had a love/hate relationship with my Hermes scarves (I have 5 of them). Some of them are indeed very bourgeois but with certain outfits they can look amazingly chic. I tend to wear them mainly when I'm wearing all black or all cream and need an injection of colour.

I've noticed the designs and colours have changed in recent years, probably thanks to Gaultier's input. But the old designs were quite clever as they would have a mixture of colour palettes within one scarf so that depending on the way it was folded, certain colours would show. Ask any French lady over 60 to confirm this.

If I were to advise a beginner I think I would say get one for winter with black and gold tones and one for summer with your favourite bright colour - that would be enough.

I'm intrigued by the new cotton square - can anyone tell me more?

phyllis said...

I too have a love/hate relationship with scarves.

They appeal to me, as a work of art, the way a fine print appeals to me, but only ones actually I like to wear are long oblong styles instead of squares. And those are strangely hard to find.

My friend Ann, who is about the same age as me, wears big square scarves to keep her hair neat when she has the top down on her convertible, and she can do that head turning “Jackie Kennedy/Holly Golightly scarf tied-under-the-chin-with-big sunglasses look” with aplomb.

The same look on me is merely “middle aged-lady-with-babushka.”

materfamilias said...

I clicked on your post today with some trepidation, afraid that the title might somehow signal that scarves were being declared passé the very day after my husband gave me my first Hermès scarf (navy blue background -- De Tout Coeur pattern, a bit too 'summer or love,' in my opinion to be overly bourgeois). photo in my most recent post.
Of course, I do know that you're too savvy ever to declare such a thing, and I'm delighted to be reminded here of how useful and beautiful I will continue finding mine. -- yesterday I wore it with a plain white Gap t-shirt and a jean skirt and felt surprisingly chic.
I got a little box of cards, rather than a book, with my scarf -- each card has an illustration on the front and directions on the back, and now I know how to wear my scarf as a halter top! You may be relieved to know that I will never attempt this!

Toby Wollin said...

I love scarves. I have inherited scarves from my great aunties and my mother. I have three drawers full of them, in all shapes, sizes and colors. I wear scarves around my neck, around my waist(yep, I still can make the claim to having one)and even in my hair(the little neck squares are great for that). Given the choice between a necklace and a scarf, I think many times I go with the scarf. On the other hand, I also collect brooches and combine those many times when I wear a scarf around my neck.

Deja Pseu said...

Welcome to the Sisterhood of the Scarf! :-)

I agree that Hermès scarves can have a very bourgeois feel, but what I've figured out is that if you tie them in a non-traditional way, you won't look like QEII out for a hack on the Cobb. Greying pixie is also correct that you can fold them different ways to highlight different colors. Their pocket squares and Twilly's (ribbons) can also be worn as neckerchiefs, and are a fraction of the cost of the 90cm squares.

But there are inexpensive scarves that are quite lovely also. I picked up a few of the woven oblong type from street vendors in Paris, and have found some great Chinese silk squares on vintage racks for less than $15.

Anonymous said...

On a recent trip to N.Y. I considered buying an Hermes scarf.. My daughter and my husband encouraged me towards the cash register. Go ahead it looks good they echoed. I couldn't do it. Even though it is a covetable item. I bought two Ralph Lauren and one Echo scarf for less than the price of the Hermes. All equally beautiful. Then I went and bought some stonking jewellery and left a contented woman.

greying pixie said...

Just had a quick sort through my scarf draw and have come to the conclusion that Hermes scarves are definitely bourgeois. Out of my 5 there are only 2 I actually wear and only 1 of those would I consider being buried in! I may even try to sell the other 3 on ebay.

That's what I mean by love/hate. They become a sort of essential but it's hard to feel any passion for them. If I lost one it could always be replaced. Whereas some of my other scarves I just LOVE, like my antique Indian cotton shawl from Egg (Kinnerton Street) that is steeped in history, tells and story and smells like my Italian grandmother's linen cupboard.

In short, I don't think an Hermes scarf can actually bring happiness! Be warned!

greying pixie said...

Sorry, Linda, just had another thought - regarding Iranian women - Shirin Guild is one of those and wouldn't be seen dead in anything other than handcrafted, well designed, exquisite pieces of textile. I doubt she has anything from Hermes, at least nothing wearable. If it's a distinctive scarf you want, you could do worse than to visit her shop in the Fulham Road.

StyleSpy said...

I'm forever trying to convince my younger friends that a beautiful scarf is a savvy accessory choice because of all the brilliant things you can do with it, but for some reason many younger women do have that idea that wearing a scarf is matronly. ( I don't think I looked matronly when I wore my Hermes Jardin d'Hiver as a belt with a pair of trouser jeans the other day, but perhaps I'm wrong.) Their loss. Bourgeois or no, I adore my beautiful Hermes scarves and my equally beautiful Ferragamos. I've been known to buy clothes specifically to wear with them, and plan entire outfits around them. And nothing will make you feel more at home in Paris than wearing a vintage carré around your neck while you stroll the rues et boulevards.

Linda Grant said...

What a lot of interesting discussion! I do think how you tie the scarf is a big factor in making sure you don't look like Her Majesty. I certainly would never tie a scarf under my chin, would never wear a scarf as any form of headgear. I wasn't aware that Shrin Guild was Iranian - I don't like her clothes at all, appalling for my shape, but I was thinking of middle class women in Iran itself for whom a headscarf is practically the only way they can indicate individuality while out on the street.

Anonymous said...

Younger women do wear scarves, just not in the ways or styles older women do. They tend to prefer oblong rectangles instead on 36x36 squares, many times knits over silk. Most of the tying styles of scarves (esp. Hermes) tends to be rather fussy and that's probably what's considered matronly. If you check out street style blogs, when younger women do wear scarves they usually aren't highly patterned or overly complicated creations one tends to associate w/ a discussion about scarves.

Besides, contrary to popular belief, scarves don't look good on everyone.

Anonymous said...

I agree they don't look good on everyone. They look rubbish on me because I have a short neck. The only scarves I wear are in winter, to keep me warm.

Another thing with scarves - if you're prone to hot flushes there will come a moment when you are going to have to rip it off or you'll think you might die!


Susan said...

I was given a Hermes scarf about 20 years ago as a leaving present from a French company. It's a lovely object, but I don't think I've ever worn it. I get it out from time to time, but that horsey design just isn't me.

I don't buy into that line about French women being so chic. When I worked there in the 80s I got so fed up with that uniform of little suits and black velvet alice bands. It was so dull! And as a 5ft 10in "giantess" there was no chance of finding anything to fit me in Paris!

I do wear scarves, but I draw the line at brooches. The very word makes me shudder. And I'm always wary when someone in a shop suggests adding a scarf or other accessory to item of clothing. A garment should stand on its own merits.

Anonymous said...

I think we've had the 'chic Parisienne' conversation before. I don't get it either. It's a look I couldn't wear because I haven't got a Frenchwoman's shape or complexion either, for that matter. That uniform of black or navy is just so ageing on me.


Duchesse said...

I have over 50 Hermes carres (my family's tradition is to give them for occasions), one cashmere shawl, several pashminas, a half dozen pochettes and one of the new Egyptian cotton scarves- so as you can imagine, I'm biased.

Carres, pochette, shawl: bourgeois or not depends on pattern, how worn and your attitude. They are the highest expression of the silk printer's art. I have worn some for 20+ years, and they still fit, still look great. The key is wearing them with the simplest clothes, as Stylespy and materfamilias have.

I can spot that Ralph Lauren scarf at 80 feet... that's not criticism for choosing it, it is what it is.

Pashmina: not as identifiable, utter luxe.

Twilly; for BCBG/Neuilly teenage girls

New 'vintage square' (smaller than classic carre): don't bother

New triangle: good for summer when carre is too heavy around neck

Egyptian cotton square: not issued every summer, but in stores now. Hip, period.

Anonymous said...

I have two Hermes scarves, both gifts from my mother-in-law and while they're gorgeous, they are hard to wear.

I think the silk twill fabric makes them difficult to tie and keep in place. In fact, one of them has such a beautiful design that I'm thinking of having it made into a pillow.

I find I look much older (I'm 45) when I wear a stiff scarf. I have much better luck with softer silk, linen, cashmere or a mix of those fibres. I wear a lot of scarves in the summer to keep the sun off my body (sun cancer survivor) but I need them to have some flow to work for me.

Tanya said...

Just adding my 2 cents to the discussion about chic French women. About a month ago I spent a week in Paris. They are normal people! Some are chic and some are not. I think we just love to idealize Paris. I do that as well. But not everybody there is chic and fabulous - trust me, I walked all over the city - rich arrondissements and not so much. But yes, they were all wearing scarves, men too :)

greying pixie said...

I remember seeing a programme several years ago where Laurie Turner took a young French and a young British woman of similar age, income, status, etc and made a comparison of how much they considered and spent on their lifestyle, appearance, skin care, underwear, etc. Of course a huge difference soon became apparent.

When so many say that they don't like the French uniform look, what are they comparing it with? Surely not with those relaxed chic British women so renowned for their elegance? When I walk through the City (London) on the way to work I can spot the French women a mile off, mainly because they are slim, fit, well groomed, and utterly relaxed in their 'uniforms'.

Why does it arouse so much negativity in British women?

Anonymous said...

I noticed on Youtube recently a short film clip of Mireille Guiliano (of French Women don't get fat fame) showing you how to tie a scarf the French way.

pennyarrow said...

I have recently re-activated my love of scarves and bought several lovely new ones, Pucci, Lacroix and Missoni. I have come to realise that scarves are the most pleasurable luxury you can buy because they don't date and so you know that you really are going to have them forever which is so much more than can be said of a handbag unless it's an absolute classic (and then it's probably a bit boring). But I have no intention ever of buying an Hermes. I find them ugly and as someone else has remarked, the fabric has a stiffness that makes them more difficult to wear. Re the large squares, I think one of the best ways to wear them is not tied at all but just draped. But they have to be soft for that to work. The smaller handkerchief size squares look very chic tied at the neck.
The other great thing about scarves is that if you travel a lot, as I do, you can take a simple capsule wardrobe of neutral colours and as many scarves as you like to change your look and add colour without adding bulk to your suitcase.

greying pixie said...

The stiffness of the Hermes square does actually go eventually after a few dry cleans. It comes from the tightness of the twill weave of the silk and is really an indication of high quality and how long it is intended to last.

Many years ago I visited the factory where the silk is woven into fabric. If I remember rightly it was somewhere near Lyon but can't swear to that.

Anonymous said...

You can also get the scarf-tying booklet in PDF format from the Hermes site. In the US version, it's called "Playtime with Your Scarf."

I'm not a big fan of the Hermes designs--they're generally too literal for my tastes (an Indian chief? Seriously?), not to mention the price--but I like longer oblongs with jackets, especially when I'm on a business trip and am trying to creatively reassemble the same components day after day. While I too have a short neck that limits the neck-scarf usage, I like to tuck the scarf inside the jacket so that the color is next to my skin in a similar way.

Anonymous said...

I have nothing to add to the scarf discussion I'm afraid but as for the French women = elegance debate, I much prefer the Berlin look. It is a bit more relaxed and less manicured but shouldn't style be about finding shapes and colours that suit you as an individual and not just 'perfecting' your image according to a set of style guidelines? I would say that a large proportion of both French and British women seem to fall into this trap... (not to suggest that no Berliners do this of course, but its the 'sense of style' I like best out of the three).

pennyarrow said...

One more thing about the scarf - let's not forget its more substantive cousin, the wrap which is indispensable in summer, whether to ward off the chill of an English summer evening or the arctic freeze of American air conditioning. And of course to take care of the upper arms...

Belle de Ville said...

Like Toby Wollin, I too have three drawers of scarves, including the scarf that I wore for my first job interview out of college in 1980. It was by Anne Klein.
By 1981 I had adopted my "Zurich Matron" look and started wearing both Celine and Hermes clothes and scarves. Does anyone remember those skirts with the front inverted pleat and the attached bridal bit belt?
As I aged into my early 30's I chose a more casual look, typically wearing jeans, a white shirt, a scarf and a blazer, with gucci loafers. For the next 15 years whatever my look, the scarf was always there.
Now, I've basically stopped wearing scarves because I wear stonking jewelry...yeah it's a dirty job but somebody has to do it. I can see wearing a scarf with earrings and a bracelet, but how do you wear one with brooches?

Anonymous said...

Greying Pixie....I think many British women and perhaps American women too (I'm American) get annoyed at the French chic thing mainly because they are always being negatively compared to French women. Perhaps French women appear confident because they aren't constantly being told the English look better? LOL

IMHO, being well dressed and looking good is influenced more by culture/climate than merely being from a specific country. There seems to be an idea that there's ONE type of chic which I don't buy. What's considered great one place doesn't work the same place else. Example, Latin America is known for having tons of chic gorgeous women, yet many manage to so do w/o scarves. They wouldn't be appropriate in much of the climate much of the year....not to mention the culture.

Personally, I think many British women have their own unique chic and much of what is supposedly chic in France wouldn't work on them. The key to looking good is knowing what looks good on YOU. That's less a national thing than it is a personal one.

Anonymous said...

One more thing...Geri mentioned the neck. The one thing I dislike w/ many ways scarves are tied is that they kill the neck in too many people. If your neck isn't super long, you have to be very careful in avoiding the NO NECK look...which looks good on nobody. I think that's where alot of the dowdiness lies for unflattering neck.

There's a streetstyle blog called Style and the City which mostly focuses on average Parisian people. You see far fewer decorative (ie non winter) scarves than expected.

phyllis said...

This week I stopped into the Filene's Basement store in Newton MA (right near my office, it's a designer goldmine) and spent some serious time at lunch looking at a huge rack of Givenchy, Chanel and Ralph Lauren scarves marked down from $300.00 to $79.00 (the Chanel's were $49.00). Still couldn't bring myself to buy one though

Anonymous said...

I have two Hermes scarves I acquired in the eighties (when I lived in NYC and every small town girl trying to pass as sophisticated thought owning an Hermes scarf gave one chic). I never wore either because I found the colours on one garish, the other too sweet, AND because they were stiff. Everytime I put it on I just felt it made me look like a matron. (I feel the same way about a Chanel jacket. Some things supposedly classic you have to either be an anorexic model to pull off OR really a matron. Then I read an interview with Simon Doonan of Barney's a year or so ago and he said the only way to wear an Hermes scarf is to make it look a bit shabby...wash it a few times, make it less precious. I did this - figuring what did I have to loose I never wore the thing...It didn't run, and now is very soft. It was a mainstay of my wardrobe during a recent trip to London (paired with a t-shirt and rolled up jeans and Chuck Taylors). I received many approving comments re the "ironic" way I wore it.

Rosaria said...

I have always adored scarves and wraps. Think I inherited the habit from my mother and aunt. They add mystique, elegance, accent, softness or boldness. When the budget is tight, a new scarf is enough for a morale boost. I also agree that softer colors are kinder as one matures. Black is draining, but if one does wear black, a scarf of another color brightens the face. But NEVER EVER wear it tied beneath the chin. I wish the Queen would find an alternative way to wear hers.

Anonymous said...

I've only seen HM The Queen wear scarves in one specific context...associated w/ the country and riding. AFAIK, she never (or hardly ever) wears them as an accent. (Hats are her thing) In many ways, it the epitome of personal style.

IOW, she ties her scarf to fit a specific purpose/situation and rarely wears them for any other reason. I don't think she cares how she looks doing it, so I seriously doubt she has any reason to change how she ties it.

lagatta said...

Have any of the sewing mavens or visual artists on this site designed or painted their own silk scarves? I did silk painting years ago (not for scarves) but haven't touched it in a long time. I guess now with the internet I could read up on how to source high quality paintable silk fabric and the techniques to create a scarf that is wearable art and not a craftsy-waftsy horror.

In general, while I appreciate the quality of Hermès scarves, I don't usually like the designs.

greying pixie said...

lagatta, I designed and painted a silk scarf as a project on my textiles degree 20 years ago. I still have it. The design was paintings of jewellery, there was a brooch, a multi-coloured jewel necklace and bracelet, a diamond ring, a gold chain and an old rusty screw! My idea behind the design was that instead of wearing jewellery you could wear a scarf with jewellery on it. I painted it on white tafetta and still have it somewhere in my archives. I also put the design into repeat and silk screen printed it onto black organza. With the organza I made a puffy shirt in the style of Gianfranco Ferre. I wear it over a short sleeve long black tube dress, sometimes tied at the waist. It's still going strong after all these years.

It's great making your own scarf, the feeling of satisfaction is tremendous and you end up with something totally personal and unique!

phyllis said...

Lagatta, two good sources for silk scarf blanks are Dharma Trading and Thai Silks.

Thai Silks only sells fabric and blanks; they are primarily a bridal/formlawear business; they carry every type of silk fabric under the sun in just about any color. Dharma Trading is mostly a dye company that also happens to sell blanks.

Just google them; both are very well known.

orvisjunky said...

I have seen quite a few scarf designs. Yes, the Hermes, Gucci, etc. Ect.

There is a new company out there called Galatin ....I met the company owner the other day and he showed me his 4 designs that will be on the shelves this fall and Christmas. I must say they are amazing. They are geared toward the outdoors woman who enjoys dogs. The subject matter is mostly sport dogs (setters, pointers, etc). They each tell a story. The 36" scarf has amazing colors that POP. .......AND the price is better than Hermes and the others . $250 to $260 (Made in ITaly). They also come with an amazing box.

Be on the look out for the GALATIN SCARF

fred said...

I love silk scarves and I have quiet a collection !
here :