A closer look at the iconic headscarf

Immortalised by Audrey Hepburn, adopted by Kate Moss - and now the hottest accessory on the catwalk. Josh Sims explores the enduring appeal of the headscarf

It seems unlikely that perhaps the most famous exponent of such a feminine garment as the headscarf should find inspiration in equipment developed for wartime spies. But just as undercover soldiers were sent into occupied territory with silk scarves printed with maps and instructions, often cryptically camouflaged by a more elaborate and seemingly innocent design, so the French luxury-goods house Hermès cottoned on to the idea of making a silk scarf for the newly emancipated, active, athletic woman who, as feminine propriety still dictated, needed to keep her hair in order.

Seventy years ago this year the 35in-square silk twill Hermès scarf was born. Today, its range of some 900 designs - created by a contributing team of some 40 artists, with each prototype requiring nine months of development - are among some of the most collectible fashion items in existence.

"The headscarf is intimate, personal, an accessory you have a relationship with, in the way a woman doesn't even have with a pair of shoes," says Bali Barret, art director of Hermès' silks, who counts 200 among her personal stash and never leaves home without at least two in her bag. "It's very feminine, textural, carries your fragrance, allows you to wear colours and patterns that you might not dream of wearing in your clothes. Its association with style icons makes it almost mythical."

And demand is about to rocket. As unlikely a contemporary accessory as it may seem - with its historic references sending out the mixed messages of being the style of monarch and peasant woman alike, at times very Buckingham Palace, at others more Coronation Street - the headscarf is back. On the catwalks for autumn/winter the likes of Cacharel and Yohji Yamamoto, Vera Wang, Chloe, Blumarine, Dolce & Gabbana and Gharani Strok offered some kind of headscarf, elaborate wrap or band. On the street - inspired, Barret suggests, by the vogue for vintage fashion and the ready supply of silk scarves (one size fits all) in second-hand stores and flea markets - the headscarf has become the accessory of rehab chic, a kind of bohemian anti-fashion fashion that alludes, in its seeming modesty and the emphasis it places on a well-scrubbed face, to a new-found purity in an impure world. It's prim, repressed Joan Allen in Pleasantville. Only now it's Lindsay Lohan, Britney Spears, Nicole Richie, Kate Moss and Paris Hilton, all headscarf regulars. Even Jennifer Lopez, cultivator more of a sultry image than one of abstinence and restraint, has covered up the locks.

Certainly this is in the tradition of head coverings, which have been regularly worn in some form by women since the 14th century - captured in tapestries and tombstone engravings - through to the ribbons and bandeaux of the Regency period, largely as mark of respect and through a social sense of propriety. According to Sonnet Stanfil, the Victoria and Albert Museum's curator of fashion, covering the hair was considered the mark of a life lived on the right path, an attitude that has trickled down through the Judeo-Christian tradition that sees headwear worn now only to church, at the most formal family events or for the grand occasions of the social calendar.

"There's an innate practicality to the headscarf, of course, that has seen it cross class divides, especially in times when women took time to set their hair in a particular way," says Stanfil, alluding to the female factory workers of the Second World War who, although in greasy overalls, covered their elaborate dos with a headscarf. "Older generations of women who wear headscarves probably still do so with the idea of it being necessary to 'proper' dress. But you can't help feeling that when headscarves are worn by twentysomethings in a Western high-fashion sense, it's almost as an ironic take on primness."

Not so the hijab, of course, which in recent years in the West has thrown the wearing of a headscarf into a new light. The French government, in its determination to separate church and state, may have sparked fierce debate over issues of segregation in 2004 in its banning of the headscarf as a religious symbol in schools, but now commentators in Turkey - which has long protected its secularism with a ban on the headscarf in universities and government buildings - is expecting a widespread headscarf revival following hijab-wearer and New York Fashion Week follower Hayrunnisa Gul becoming the new first lady.

The situation is not without its ironies: historically Islam is far from being alone as a faith requiring women to cover their heads - in ancient Rabbinic law the uncovered woman's hair is considered immodest, such that even prostitutes adopted the headscarf is order to look respectable, while Christian denominations, such as the Amish, Mennonites and Russian Orthodox still expect their women to wear a hair covering. Catholic nuns have long covered their heads. But now, while the headscarf remains a point of conflict for governments that view it as symbolic of women's oppression, it is being adopted without controversy by fashion followers.

Perhaps the appeal of the headscarf to them is more its sideways reference to the rock'n'roll bandanna-wearing spirit. It's a look even some grown men attempt, with more of a post-Pirates of the Caribbean theme drawing the likes of Johnny Depp and Ashton Kutcher. "First and foremost the headscarf is a very practical item: I wear them on the beach and they're great for bad-hair days," suggests Nargess Gharani, co-founder of design duo Gharani Strok. "But certainly there's something eccentric about the headscarf still, something that suggests a quirky or artistic sensibility. That means you have to be self-confident to wear one - like a hat, the headscarf can seem quite bold, especially as it pulls back the hair and frames the face. There's nothing to hide behind."

All depending, of course, on how the headscarf is being worn. Tied under the chin and worn with large sunglasses, the headscarf has provided the archetypal disguise not only for the movies' leading ladies - Audrey Hepburn, along with Jackie Onassis a style icon who adopted the headscarf as much in real life as in fiction, wears one to shadow Cary Grant in Charade, for instance - but for contemporary celebrities dodging the paparazzi. To this end Madonna is a long-standing headscarf fan. It may have worked in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, when headscarves were more commonly worn, but today one is more likely to attract rather than deflect, attention. After all, the headscarf is, as Hermès poetically has it: "A flag flying in the wind, a sail snapping on a tall mast..."

Like a man's choice of a distinctive tie, not to mention the way he ties it, so the many styles of headscarf can speak volumes, too. There is the "babushka", tied simply under the chin. The "tie behind", which is knotted behind the head. And then the most classic tie of all: the "Kelly", the scarf wrapped over the head, around the neck and tied at the rear. It takes its name from Grace Kelly who, while the popular imagination pictures her in headscarf and white gloves, actually rarely wore one, at least (with the exception of Mogambo, when Clark Gable removes it in a scene symbolic of sexual conquest) not on screen.

"The headscarf is somehow a very strange accessory," concedes Fulvia Visconti Ferregamo, who heads up the silk and scarves division for Ferregamo. "It's suggestive of more glamorous times and yet it's very classic. You don't have to wear it on your head, but as a belt or just tied to a bag. But what counts with a headscarf is the way it is worn and tied. Each suggests a different personality. And although life may be much faster now and it's hard to find time to look as sophisticated as women did in the 1950s, something as simple as a square of silk can lend a sense of elegance that can often be so hard to find today."

Voices
There will be a chance to bid for a rare example of the SAS Diary, collated by a former member of the regiment in the aftermath of World War II but only published – in a limited run of just 5,000 – in 2011
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm tomorrow
News
Elton John and David Furnish will marry on 21 December 2014
people
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
A still from the 1939 film version of Margaret Mitchell's 'Gone with the Wind'
life
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Sport
Amir Khan is engaged in a broader battle than attempting to win a fight with Floyd Mayweather
boxing Exclusive: Amir Khan reveals plans to travel to Pakistan
News
Stacey Dooley was the only woman to be nominated in last month’s Grierson awards
mediaClare Balding and Davina McCall among those overlooked for Grierson awards
Voices
Joseph Kynaston Reeves arguing with Russell Brand outside the RBS’s London offices on Friday
voicesDJ Taylor: The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a worker's rant to Russell Brand
News
Twitchers see things differently, depending on their gender
scienceNew study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
News
i100
News
Xander van der Burgt, at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
scienceA Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Fashion

    Austen Lloyd: Senior Private Client Solicitor

    Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: SURREY - An outstanding high level opportunity...

    Austen Lloyd: Construction Solicitor - London

    Very Competitive Salary : Austen Lloyd: NICHE CITY FIRM - We are making a disc...

    Austen Lloyd: Construction Solicitor - London

    Very Competitive Salary : Austen Lloyd: NICHE CITY FIRM - We are making a disc...

    Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

    £65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

    Day In a Page

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
    Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

    Marian Keyes

    The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

    Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

    Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
    Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

    Rodgers fights for his reputation

    Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
    Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

    Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

    'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
    Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick