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."

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