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When International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde goes to the G8 summit in June, she may well be wearing a scarf – a fashion accessory that she’s become known for, and one that’s been drawing more and more attention. In fact, the BBC recently identified scarves as a “new power symbol” for women.

True, just as some men choose amusing neckties to enliven monochrome suits, many women who work in an atmosphere that requires conservative business apparel will wear scarves to add a fillip of color and distinction.

But the trend is anything but “new.” In looking at the history of scarves in the 19th and 20th centuries, it’s clear that the allure and power of scarves has always existed – and persists.

A single piece of cloth

The scarf is the most simple form of adornment: a single piece of cloth. For this reason, it’s one of the most versatile clothing accessories, used for centuries across a variety of cultures, for a range of purposes.

Many Muslim women wear headscarves for modesty, while ladies of a certain age favor scarves with a triangular fold to protect expensive or elaborate coifs.

A scarf can be a political statement, and can denote a wearer’s affiliation or beliefs. Early 20th-century crusaders for women’s rights used their clothing to promote their cause, wearing scarves in the movement’s colors: white, green and purple.

During World War II, scarves expressed nationalist sentiments. The British firm Jacqmar produced designs with propaganda-themed slogans. One featured the phrase “Shoulder to Shoulder” on a map of England emblazoned with British and American symbols. Another design mimicked a wall covered with posters urging citizens to “Lend to Defend” and “Save for Victory.”

An elegant fashion

But in Western culture, the scarf is most prominently known for its use as a fashion accessory, one that first gained widespread popularity in the 19th century.

The fichu is a typical 18th- and 19th-century style that can be seen as the forerunner of modern scarves. A piece of fabric worn lightly draped on the upper chest and usually knotted in front, it provided modest covering but was also an opportunity to add an especially fine textile – sometimes lace edged or embroidered – to an ensemble.

Lightweight, finely woven silk and cashmere shawls from India were one of the first fashionable scarf styles. Empress Joséphine – the first wife of Napoleon – had an extensive collection (thanks to her husband’s travels), and the style persisted through much of the 19th century, spawning cheaper imitations fabricated in other parts of Europe, notably France and Paisley, Scotland.

Like much of high fashion, scarves can signal one’s status, and limited edition scarves – often only made available to favored customers – can act as specific indicators for those in the know.

For example, fashion houses send scarves, often during the holidays, as thank-yous to loyal clients. Those produced by Parisian couturiers during the 1950s were especially chic, often designed with sketches of the maison; others displayed printed patterns in the whimsical, painterly style of the era.

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