Silk scarves became my wardrobe staple when I first started stealing them from mom’s closet in middle school. From weaving them through my belt loops to wrapping them around my ponytail, I usually can’t be found without my signature scarf. Recently, silk scarves and Y2K fashion have seen a rise in popularity, bringing back the 2000s fashion. On platforms such as TikTok, people have been sharing their favorite ways to style scarves. To better understand the stylistic influences that silk scarves have had in different civilizations and time periods, I took a look back at its historical and worldly origins.

ANCIENT CHINA:

Song Dynasty women inspecting a bolt of silk . 12th century CE. Painted on silk.
[Image description: Song Dynasty women inspecting a bolt of silk . 12th century CE. Painted on silk.] Via the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, MA (public domain).
The oldest discovered silk is dated around 3630 BCE. It was produced in the Chinese Neolithic era. Silk was produced in China from the filaments of the silkworm’s cocoon and grew to be a highly desired material throughout the ancient world, resulting in the expansion of the transcontinental trade network known as the Silk Road. Silk was produced for a variety of uses, including clothing, fans, decorations, and banners. The manufacturing of silk grew stronger in the Han Dynasty (202 BCE–220 CE) and more complex patterns and textures were created and sold. High-quality silk quickly became a symbol of wealth and status. However, silk scarves in China were traditionally used to show the rank of warriors of Emperor Chang’s army in 230 BCE.

ANCIENT EGYPT:

a digitalized bust Queen Nefertiti and her elaborate headpiece.
[Image description: a digitalized bust Queen Nefertiti and her elaborate headpiece.] Via biography.com
Silk scarves are traced back to Ancient Egypt, specifically to Queen Nefertiti, who wove silk scarves into her elaborate headdresses in 1300 BCE. Egyptians also wore silk scarves to signify their high social status and wore them in several fashions – they would tie them around their waists and shoulders. King Tutankhamun also wore scarves in his hair and is actually buried with one in his tomb.

THE ROMAN EMPIRE:

a bust of a roman senator adorned in silk.
[Image description: a bust of a Roman senator adorned in silk.] Via Mike Gorrell on Unsplash
Like the Chinese, the Romans would wear specifically styled silk scarves, known as the focale, to signify their military rank. Common soldiers would wear cotton scarves, while officers would wear silk ones. Romans would also use scarves to protect themselves from the harsh sun and to wipe sweat. Scarves in the empire grew more fashionable, and senators and emperors frequently worse them as sashes or around their necks. 

THE MIDDLE AGES:

Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine of the 12th century and her ladies wearing headdresses with scarves.
[Image description: Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine of the 12th century and her ladies wearing headdresses with scarves.] Via countingflowers.co.uk
Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, one of the wealthiest and most powerful women of the middle ages, would wear long scarves on top of her headdresses. This new trend inspired many women in the twelfth century to style their hair in a similar fashion. Poorer women would use cotton or linen scarves, while wealthier would use…you guessed it, silk scarves. 

THE 17TH CENTURY:

France:

A portrait of Emanuel De Geer sporting a Steinkirk cravat by Bartholomeus van der Helst.
A portrait of Emanuel De Geer sporting a Steinkirk cravat by Bartholomeus van der Helst.] Via the Nationalmuseum, Sweden

The cravat, wide neckbands that are usually worn by men, was created in 17th century France. Inspired by the knotted military scarves of Louis XIV’s Croatian army, the French took the standard linen cravat and developed the Steinkirk cravat, which was made of more luxurious fabrics such as silk. Cravats were popular among artists and architects. They added a dash of casual, yet creative elegance to formal dress, and were meant to replace stiff neck ruffles. 

Spain:

women in Spain wearing the traditional mantilla.
[Image description: women in Spain wearing the traditional mantilla.] Via Quino Al on Unsplash
The mantilla, a silk or lace shawl that covers the head and shoulders, grew popular in Spain during the 17th century. Mantillas allowed for women to cover parts of their skin while still wearing fashionable and low-cut dresses. Mantillas developed into traditional Spanish religious garb and were also worn to keep warm.

THE 19TH CENTURY & FASHION BRANDS:

A vintage Hermès advertisement from 1926.
[A vintage Hermès advertisement from 1926.] Via chairish.com
The 19th century saw the rise of expensive fashion brands such as Hermès and Burberry. Hermès grew famous for its luxury and ornate silk scarves. Burberry’s plaid silk scarves became an immediate fashion staple. Both brands continue to produce high-end scarves even today.

THE 20TH CENTURY:

a vintage fashion advertisement featuring three women. Image reads: Junior Bazaar -- be a smarty pants.
[Image description: a vintage fashion advertisement featuring three women. Image reads: Junior Bazaar — be a smarty pants.] Via vintagedancer.com
In the 1970s, scarves grew to be part of the countercultural movement. Boho scarves were a staple of the hippie outfit. People wore them as bandanas, headbands, around wrists, and bellbottom jeans.

Y2K & TODAY:

a woman wears a silk scarf as a knotted top.
[Image description: a woman wears a silk scarf as a knotted top.] Via thefashiontag.com
Y2K fashion has been making a comeback, influencing the way scarves are worn. Silk scarves have seen increased popularity just this summer. Women are styling their scarves in multiple ways as tops, and silk scarves as hair bandanas, are making a fashionable comeback.

History has proven that silk scarves are one of the most versatile and timeless fashion items. Popular among all genders, scarves have become an everlasting staple within the fashion world. Next time you’re putting an outfit together and want a bit more pizzazz — think about adding a silk scarf to the mix.

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Claire Cheek

By Claire Cheek

Editorial Fellow