The thousand lives of the scarf

The thousand lives of the scarf

An infinite number of suggestions can be hidden behind a garment. Let's discover them together, browsing through history and culture 

Just a strip of fabric? Maybe, but it tells so many stories! Today, when we talk about the scarf, we think mainly of a garment to protect us from the cold and also an accessory that can give personality to our outfit even when the overcoat hides the tie. But if we lift our gaze a little from our everyday experience, we realise that the scarf is a much more versatile garment and full of surprises than we commonly think. 

The origins: shroud or basket?

Let's start with the origins, and we immediately come across an unexpected first discovery. It is commonly believed that the scarf originated in Ancient Rome. But its name, sudarium, makes it clear that at that time its purpose was not to defend against the cold, but rather against heat, as it was used to wipe away sweat. The word scarf, on the other hand, comes from the French écharpe, which in turn derives from a Frankish term of Latin derivation that literally meant a reed basket. The reason for this strange juxtaposition probably lies in the interwoven weave of the fabric, which is reminiscent of a basket.

Remaining in antiquity, a magnificent testimony to the spread of the scarf in the Far East is the famous Chinese Terracotta Army, consisting of thousands of statues of soldiers: a symbolic army destined to protect the first Chinese emperor in the afterlife. The soldiers wear scarves, describing their rank. 

Sign of membership

The case of the Terracotta Army shows us how old and close the link is between the scarf and military life or, in a broader sense, how scarves have always been - among other things - a way of emphasising membership of a particular group or the institutional role played by the wearer. 

A first suggestion in this sense is the link between the scarf and the fascinating figure of the aviator. A link that unites reality and fantasy. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, the author of The Little Prince, was a famous aviator. And the protagonist, at the beginning of the story, meets an aeroplane pilot, lost in the Sahara Desert. But it is the little prince himself who is wearing a long golden scarf. The combination of scarf and aviation is also a must when we think of the legendary Red Baron, not so much as the historical figure of Manfred von Richtofen, the German flying ace of the First World War, but for his 'alter ego' Snoopy, the dog from Charles Schulz's famous Peanuts . In some of the strips, the seraphic beagle takes on the role of the Red Baron, wearing big glasses and a scarf that - the power of suggestion - remains perfectly horizontal, as if it were in the wind, even though Snoopy is not in a plane in flight but only on the roof of his doghouse.

Coming back down to earth, the blue scarf, worn at the neckline (i.e. over one shoulder and then diagonally across the torso) or around the waist, is an ornament that officers of the Italian Armed Forces and Police Force wear in certain circumstances. Presidents of provinces and mayors of metropolitan cities do the same during official ceremonies (other mayors wear the tricolour sash). 

A similar function of pride in belonging to a group is also performed by scarves in football cheering. Supporters go to the stadium wearing scarves with the colours of their club and often with the name of a specific fan group. Often in the corners they show their flag together, creating choreographic 'scarves'. 

Artist's Vezzo

But the scarf is also associated with an idea of creativity and talent, and for this reason it has always had a special relationship with art. The red scarf is, for example, an integral part of Federico Fellini's classic iconography. But also the painter Antonio Ligabue portrayed himself several times wearing the same colour garment. 

Giuseppe Verdi has a white scarf knotted around his neck in one of his most famous portraits, drawn in pastel by Giovanni Boldini in 1886 and now in the National Gallery of Modern Art in Rome. 

Singers often protect their precious vocal cords with drapes of various shapes, sometimes transforming this rule of prudence into an aesthetic quirk. We have seen Luciano Pavarotti wrapped in sober white scarves as well as in large multicoloured scarves with almost feminine patterns. In terms of originality of shape and colour, great inspiration comes from pop music. Roger Daltrey, vocalist of The Who (one of the reference bands of the Mod subculture), often wore silk scarves or handkerchiefs. Jimi Hendrix almost always wore something eccentric around his neck to complement his multi-coloured looks, and Prince would do something similar several years later.  

Today, the scarf remains a much-worn and, above all, much-given item. In addition to its beauty and the variety of fabrics, colours and patterns, it communicates a feeling of warmth, also metaphorical. The scarf is a hug, through which we transmit affection and a sense of protection. 


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