Esteemed men's style writer G. Bruce Boyer takes us from ancient China to Hollywood's Silver Screen glory days in his enlightening whistle-stop historical tour
G. Bruce Boyer has more than forty years experience as a noted men’s fashion editor, style writer and fashion historian so is the voice of great knowledge on all things sartorial and menswear related. For fifteen years he was the men’s fashion editor of the US magazine Town & Country and has also contributed to an impressive list of US publications including Esquire, Harper’s Bazaar, Forbes, The New York Times, The New Yorker and The Rake. He is also a prolific writer of books on the history and the direction of menswear including Elegance, Eminently Suitable, Rebel Style: Cinematic Heroes of the Fifties and Fred Astaire Style. He is contributor and consultant to The Encyclopedia of Clothing and Fashion and he co-authored Gary Cooper: Enduring Style with Cooper’s daughter Maria Cooper Janis. He has also worked closely with The Museum at The Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. In 2013 he was asked to co-curate its Ivy Style exhibit and contribute to the accompanying book Ivy Style: Radical Conformists. Along with Patricia Mears, Deputy Director of The Museum, he also co-curated the exhibition Elegance in an Age of Crisis: Fashions of the 1930’s and co-authored the resulting book.
A Very Short History of the Men's Scarf by G. Bruce Boyer
The beginnings of wrapping a length of cloth around the neck are, like many things, lost in the mists and bogs of time. But there is one definite point in the timeline we can note with certainty, thanks to a group of industrious Chinese farmers who decided a few years ago (1974 to be exact) to dig a water well in their local district of Xi’an, the capital of an small agricultural region of Shaanxi Provence in Northwest China.
To cut to the chase, what they discovered when they started digging was the now famous terracotta army of Qin Shih Huang, China’s first emperor. When he died in 210 BC, his terracotta “army” – molded statues of 8,000 soldiers, 130 chariots, and over 650 horses, all life-sized and exquisitely detailed – was buried with him. It was a stupendously unparalleled archaeological discovery. For costume historians it was a particularly auspicious find because these statues gave clear evidence of what sort of clothing was worn in that part of the world over a thousand years ago.
Or at least what sort of clothing warriors wore. These men were dressed for battle. One of the more interesting details shows that many of them wore scarves, and that they tied them in much the same way we tie our scarves today: the cloth was folded around the neck back-to-front, and then looped so that the ends hung down the front of the chest. It’s so interesting because we see the same sort of garb worn in the same way on Roman soldiers depicted on the famous triumphal column of the emperor Trajan erected in Rome in 113 AD. The bas relief spiral frieze that celebrates Trajan’s military campaigns again clearly shows soldiers wearing scarves.
Art historians have surmised that these scarves might have been symbolic badges of honour befitting exceptionally brave warriors, because we don’t have much evidence that scarves were worn by the common populace. But other historians have noted that we simply don’t have many statues or other evidence of what ordinary people did a thousand years ago. Or that soldiers may in fact have been smart enough to invent ways to keep their necks warm and even ward off a sword blow or two. It’s worthwhile to remember that many styles of dress have evolved from military use.
Which brings us to the next point, another military connection. During the Thirty Years War in Europe (1618 – 1648), Croatian mercenaries in the pay of the French King Louis XIII were accustomed to wearing long, colourful, knotted neck cloths as part of their battle dress. When these troops succeeded, these festive-looking accessories became wildly popular in Paris. It’s believed that the French word “cravat” is a corruption of the word for Croat. Whether true or not, it very nicely brings us ‘round the corner and up to the door of the modern age.
Somewhere along the timeline since then, this military neck cloth divided into the necktie and the scarf, but that had not yet happened when the most famous practitioner of tying a bit of cloth around the neck came along. George “Beau” Brummell (1778 – 1840), that consummate Regency dandy known for having a way with a strip of starched muslin, raised the accessory to a badge, not of field battle, but of prestigious society acceptance. A.B. (After Brummell) neck cloths would never be just a matter of protection.
In the Nineteenth Century, men’s neck cloths began slowly to shrink, and adapt themselves, to the newer fashion of smaller shirt collars and frock coats. But small, silk neckties could hardly be expected to take the place of neck cloths in inclement weather. And so, by the dawn of the Twentieth Century, scarves – the manly word “muffler” had now come into existence as the name for a scarf that was long and narrow, rather than a folded square – became a distinct standard part of a gentleman’s wardrobe. The men’s fashion magazine Men’s Wear noted in 1928 that “All the best dressed men show a generous amount of muffler above the coat collar and the muffle is folded always in such an apparently careless way that it appears to have blown up about the neck by the wind.” A bit of sprezzatura seems to have always been an accent of scarf wearing with well-dressed men.
By the 1930s it was all there: Tartan cashmeres and white silk formal scarves, paisleys, school stripes, jacquarded patterns. About this time Hollywood’s influence was also seen, as the debonair Fred Astaire started to wear a silk scarf as a belt, and Cary Grant, among other well-accoutered actors, favoured a cashmere muffler with his tweed sports jackets.
Advances in scarves since then seem to have been more in the nature of finer fabrics, those whisper-weight cashmeres and gossamer blends which have truly made them dulce et utile, a chic complement to the contemporary wardrobe, a nice note of disclosure of the style and personality of the man who wears one.