Why the Silk Neck Scarf is Making a Comeback
It’s the great trick of fashion: constant reinvention. Endless potential for plundering the past and offering it up anew.
As a child, my mum was quite the fashion aficionado. No-one was quite sure where she got it, given that her own mother’s idea of a decent outfit was a large jumper, baggy-kneed stirrup pants with holes in them, and flip-flops all year round. True, my mum’s two grandmothers had a certain, polished style to them: both ladies devoted to the smart-hat-gloves-scarf-and-handbag school of sartorial propriety.
But none of this could quite account for my mum’s own innately youthful sense of je ne sais quoi when she began to experiment with one or two of her maternal granny’s garments – taking things that had looked fusty on a five foot nothing head-teachers’ wife with permanently pursed lips, and elevating them in the way only an inventive eleven year old could. Souvenirs from the domain of old women – a long pleated skirt, a white blouse, a red, shiny scarf – were suddenly transformed, my mum (still adamant she has no idea where the inspiration came from) pulling the skirt up under her armpits to form a strapless dress and tying the scarf around her neck, the ends arranged jauntily to one side like a mini-Bardot. Apparently this move was perplexing, her other paternal grandmother asking in soft, clipped tones the first time she saw this newly adopted uniform whether my mum had “decided to copy someone?”
I, too, in my formative years played around with the adventurous possibilities of the neck scarf. Mine was not a spontaneous outfitting decision though, seemingly springing from nowhere. Instead, it was a styling borne out of a mixture of fortunate circumstances (inheriting a whole, huge blue leather hatbox full of scarves from that perplexed, polished great-granny) and enthusiastically sought vintage inspiration (watching a lot of films featuring Audrey Hepburn and Grace Kelly). For me, it was an easily traced trend: part of a wider look that swept through the late noughties and early twenty-tens, ‘granny chic’ reaching its multilayered zenith just at the point that I’d decided that a fashion blog full of pictures of me posing in cocktail frocks in muddy fields was an id creative outlet for a teenager desperate to escape her small, rural village. It was a curious look to try on for size – a kind of sartorial time-slippage, simultaneously drawing on the eclecticism of boldly dressed older women and the silhouettes and designs they would have worn many decades previously.
Having access to all those fifties and sixties scarves helped my teenage accessorizing no end, my great-granny’s collection a colorful spillage of khaki paisleys, pink and grey swirls, floral sprigs, tartan wools, and long lengths of cream silk with tapered ends. If they weren’t tied at the neck they were swept up over my hair or arranged around the brim of a hat. They took their place alongside strings of faux pearls, buckled mint mini-dresses, yellow strappy wedge heels, hot pink leather clutches, faux fur stoles, straw boaters, cotton tea-dresses, and long, lacy skirts: a maximalist approach to style in which things might always be improved further by the addition of pastel gloves or a belt with a beautiful buckle.
By the time I’d made it to university my own interest in the neck scarf had waned. These squares of patterned silk were relegated to the pin-board I had on the wall by my window in my first year — a select few scarves blue-tacked up alongside magazine pages and postcards to give the plain room personality. They were perfect decoration but reminded me too keenly of the fuss of adolescent self-consciousness to actually wear.
It’s only recently, now in my mid-twenties, that I’ve really, properly felt the tug of the neck scarf once more. Again, I partly blame what I’ve been watching. First, it was Phantom Thread: Daniel Day-Lewis’ personal wardrobe more alluring than any of his stilted, tailor-made creations, his turn as couturier Reynards Woodcock in lavender silk pajamas, tweed jacket and maroon patterned neck-scarf lingering along with the film’s unexpected explorations of devotion and power. Then it was The Souvenir, with Joanna Hogg’s semi-autobiographical account of a gawky film student (played by Honor Swinton-Byrne) fastidiously eighties in its costuming, right down to the Sloane Ranger cardigans, tweeds, and Hermes style silk scarves worn loosely over jumpers.
It’s a general mood in the air too. Various SS20 collections were scattered with scarves adorning hair, waists, and necks: arranged casually, bandana style, or forming part of the dresses at Preen; in lavish lengths of black and hot pink at Erdem; dangling and often glittering at Missoni; tied in numerous different configurations at Burberry. The pussy-bow blouse too – seen most notably in Celine’s nostalgia-soaked nod to the seventies – has seen a resurgence, the combination of tight, high collar and flowing fabric offering a similar kind of thrill.
All of this has cumulatively spurred me to reach for my scarves again. It’s funny marking the life cycle of an item like this: the way things swing from ‘desirable’ to ‘readily dismissed’ and back again; that gradual process of sartorial rehabilitation as new images and references amass until the balance tips, once again, in the favor of a particular style. It’s the great trick of fashion. Constant reinvention. Endless potential for plundering the past and offering it up anew. Sometimes I don’t want to be reminded of the trick, convinced that my individual dressing decisions happen in a vacuum away from everything I absorb, choices made – like my mum aged eleven – entirely spontaneously.
Really though, I’m rooted in what I absorb. Which is precisely I’m wearing my scarves differently this time. No mid-century gentility now. Instead, it’s jauntier, and perhaps slightly more louche: a length of green satin flung over a jumper, a cravat tucked into a white shirt, a scrap of orange chiffon with a suede coat. My reference points are grumpy couturiers and bashful film students. They stretch further too, towards Oscar Wilde’s luxurious bows, Amelia Earhart’s loose shirts and even looser scarves, David Bowie in an eyepatch and knotted silk, Bianca Jagger pairing hers with suits. It’s an approach both campier and simpler and, I think, a little sexier than before. A way of using the scarf not only as an accessorizing note or satisfying clash of color but a kind of flag too – signaling a fresh kind of ease each time I wind one around my neck, new pleasures to take in all its dashing, ridiculous possibilities.
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