Men's Scarves - Dating A Vintage Classic

When one of my sources offered me a few men's vintage scarves I was skeptical but decided to take a chance on listing them. Surprisingly, they sold quickly and quickly grew to be one of my bestsellers making it necessary I learn a little something about their history. From the turn of the century to today, dapper scarves are still considered to be the classic men's accessory whether worn to a night at the opera or just to the movies.

Historically, the first scarves were worn by Chinese soldiers circa 3BC and men's formal attire in ancient Rome included a band of linen worn around the neck or knotted at the waist known as a sudarium. Flash forward to the early 20th century when the opera scarf was an essential formal attire accessory. Worn draped around the neck, it was white or off-white and was made of silk, rayon or cashmere. These gave way to the wildly popular aviator scarves which fell out of favor during the Depression and were generally only worn by air pilots into WWII.

So how is it that all the ones I find are from the 1930s to 1960s? I studied my fringed opera and printed scarves more closely and realized every one was made in either Canada or the UK. Obviously, scarves remained fashionable in Britain and her colonies but not in the USA where they were considered foppish. As a result, dating was difficult but I noticed how their styles changed throughout the decades. The older scarves from the 1930s and 1940s were almost always longer and wider being influenced by the aviator scarves. Scarves became shorter to approx. 50" and narrower into the 1950s. They enjoyed a resurgence in 1960s and owing to improved dying techniques, the muted colors of the earlier decades were replaced with bright colors and psychedelic prints.

Another method I use to help me determine the age of scarves is trademark search where logos can sometimes be viewed. I've seen several labels but the leading producers seemed to be the Canadian companies Currie and Forsyth and UK producers like Sammy and Tootal whose earliest trademark is 1929. For example, the Currie Men's Haberdashery and Wearing Apparel Company was established in 1856, applied for its first trademark in 1935 and changed its label design in 1954. Company history like this is a huge plus to help narrow down dates.

Americans were however quite fond of the aviator scarf which was always at least six feet long and never fringed. This scarf actually had many practical uses and was silk on one side which prevented chaffing from their leather flight jackets and wool on the other for added warmth in open cockpits. Their longer length enabled the pilot to turn his neck comfortably and wipe his goggles. The white color also served as a distress signal in an emergency but this is not to say all aviator scarves were pure white; the famed Red Baron (WWI) wore an infamous red scarf and military groups like the Flying Tigers (WWII) added their insignia. The US army also produced the scarves in black and red so the idea that all aviator scarves are white is a general misconception.

It's believed the aviator scarf was originally the opera scarf owing to the fact that only the upper crust could afford a hobby like flying planes or the luxury of the newly invented motorcar. A wealthy gentleman would certainly have had a white scarf or two in his wardrobe and would have discovered they were not only rakish but useful too. Indeed, the advent of automobiles and motorcycles brought with it a new market for trendy driving clothing and the aviator scarf was a useful natural for the fashionable motorist.

As with most fashions, Hollywood had a hand in their enduring swank appeal. Into the 1930s, A-list actors like Cary Grant and Clark Gable (pictured at top) donned unfringed, aviator length white scarves along with their top hats or wore them under dressing robes and smoking jackets both on and off the silver screen. World famous aviators Howard Hughes and Amelia Earhart were also often photographed wearing their scarves.

If it's true that clothes make the man then it's no surprise scarves make the cut. Neckties, bow ties and cravats will always have their designated places in a man's formal wardrobe however only the opera scarf adds that over the top touch of elegance. A tie adds a splash of color but a 1960s scarf offers up a flood with it's vibrant print. Moreover, those other men's accessories are both common and expected; a classic vintage scarf will always be as unique as the man wearing it.

Rita Zappitelli

Falls Avenue Vintage Fashion


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