Friday 15 January 2021

Scarves, sashes and shawls in the Early Modern


Figure 1. Detail from V&A


Origins of the words


The term scarf first appears in English, according to the OED, in the middle of the sixteenth century. The first usages are quotes from letters in Foxes Acts and Monuments. The letters are thought to be written by Lady Vane about 1555 and appear in the 1563 edition, “I wyll supplie your request for the scarfe ye wrote of, yt ye may present my handy worke before your captayne.” and in a second letter in the 1570 edition “The Scarffe I desyre as an outward signe to shew to our enemies.” (1) Both these letters may refer to the scarf as a military item, what in the 21st century would probably be called a military sash, or possibly ecclesiastical wear.  The use of the word scarf for a fashionable item appears at about the same time. Henry Machyn’s Diary describes Queen Elizabeth on horseback in 1558 wearing “purpull welvwett, with a skarpe about the neke.” (2)


The word sash, again according to the OED, appears in 1599, but from that point until the third quarter of the seventeenth century relates entirely to eastern wear, and most specifically to turbans, the two words often being conflated. It is not until the 1680s that the London Gazette refers to “Officers Sashes and Ribons.” The use of the term sash in fashionable wear does not seem to appear until the beginning of the nineteenth century.


The word shawl is not used for something British women wear until well into the eighteenth century. The word first appears in English in the middle of the seventeenth century, but always referring to what is worn in the East. The first use according to the OED is in a work about the travels of various ambassadors, “The richer sort have..another rich Skarf which they call Schal, made of a very fine stuff, brought by the Indians into Persia.” The first mention of cashmere shawls is in a 1687 work about travels in the Levant, “At all times when they go abroad, they were a Chal which is a kind of toilet of very fine Wool made at Cachmir.”

Fashionable Use of Scarves

By 1587 scarves were one of the many things that Stubbs thought to complain about, “They must [he writes] haue their silk scarffes cast about their faces & fluttering in the winde with great tassels at euery end, either of gold, siluer or silk.” (3) and “some weare scarffes from ten pounds apiece, vnto thirtie pounds or more.” Stubbes does not indicate whether these scarves are worn by men or women.

In men’s probate inventories where colour or fabric is mentioned they are usually black silk, but this does not apply to the aristocracy. The 1617 inventory of the wardrobe of Richard Sackville, 3rd Earl of Dorset includes, “one needleworke scarffe of flowers of silke silver and gold wrapt in a carnation taffetie” (4). Being royalty doesn’t appear to have stopped people stealing from you, the three people who in 1641 “broke burglariously into the King's dwelling-house called St. James House,"   stole among other items “three imbrodered scarfes worth six pounds” (5)