November 18 2009
The default Christmas present for men is in danger of being, well, tied in knots. A scarf is just about the easiest thing a chap can throw on during the chillier times of year. It’s a swatch of thermal colour guaranteed to make the scrawniest neck and drabbest overcoat look, at worst, cosy and, at best, dashing.
The problem is that scarves have become victims of their own success. When I was growing up nobody thought twice about the hows and wherefores of wearing one, provided it kept you warm. Decades on, the blogosphere is buzzing with scarf etiquette about the “right” and “wrong” ways to wear an accessory that has remained largely unchanged since the days of the ancient Romans, who knew it as a “sweat cloth” and wore it to wipe their fevered brows after a hectic schedule of slaughtering Christians.
Where once there was just the classic flip, one length wrapped around the neck and tossed nonchalantly over a shoulder, there now exists a labyrinthine diversity and lexicon of scarf knotting. Hence the double flip and the double wrap (only possible with long scarves, this begins with a short end over one shoulder and the scarf wrapped around the front twice and the other end flipped over the other shoulder), the knot and flip (a basic single knot with one end tossed back across the shoulder) and the classic knot. And, of course, the current Zeitgeist knot, the Chelsea or European casual, as employed by every fashionable youngish Turk from David Beckham to Brad Pitt. To achieve this, the scarf is doubled up, passed around the back of the neck and the loose ends pushed through the loop and tightened.
Into this mire steps Burberry, which you might have thought would have a traditional take on scarves. Think again. This winter, Burberry men are wrapping up in snoods. Described by the company’s creative director, Christopher Bailey, as an “easy throw-on piece for the British winter”, snoods – in case you don’t already know – are woollen tubes with neither beginnings nor ends; woolly rings that are pulled down over the ears to the neck. Burberry has them in checks, stripes and cable knits, in plum, grey, sand and black (from £125). Top of the range in cashmere, is the beige, black, white and red Burberry check (£195).
Christian Dior is also going down the snood route. The range includes monochromatic silk, wool and cashmere, and wool and silk mixes (£150-£380) and an all-around, black wool collar shape knitted scarf (£90). The year’s biggest scarf surprise is Brioni. The Italian brand still uses only cashmere, as ever placing skin comfort as its number-one priority. But it has torn up its scarf style guide, previously defined by thin silky items, opting for generous chunky comfort over elegance with scarves in manly shades of burgundy, grey and black (£390).
Barbour’s great gift, in addition to making foul-weather clobber that lasts until hell freezes over (and even then it’ll repair it), is making a fashion out of anti-fashion. Its country-house, grouse-moor look is as far from cutting edge as the loincloth is from couture, yet it never fails to hit the spot. Tartan lambswool scarves made in Scotland have been at the heart of its range for centuries. It has added the ultimate university wrap, the Felted Stripe (£39.95), ideally worn à la classic flip.
In keeping with the company’s current mission to make clothes that function in the city and on the grouse moor, this year’s Cambridge silk-backed cashmere scarf (£129) has a chunky green side for outdoors with smart navy silk on the reverse for the train to Liverpool Street.
Sporty New England style is the theme of Gant’s scarves (£39-£69), while Aquascutum’s head of menswear, Graeme Fidler, is adamant that its defining house-checked scarf (£145) is best “worn looped twice around your neck”. That would be a double flip, then.
I love the thought of Loro Piana’s knitwear designers squatting down with Mongolian nomads in the far-flung wastes, and over cups of green tea, or whatever brew Hircus goat herders imbibe, convincing them to harvest the fine fibres by careful combing instead of using their traditional methods. Each cosseted goat produces a mere 30g-40g of usable fibre. The resulting “baby cashmere” is a fabric even more precious than Loro Piana’s regular cashmere. The delicate Sciarpa Diamond Navette (£550) is an ethereal scarf that is as light as a feather, and the Aylit Hamilton (£1,025) pure gossamer in claret, grey and black paisley, and stripes.
Nicole Farhi likes fellas in chunky knitwear. It softens the male edges, making the Farhi man friendlier and unthreatening, the sort of man you’d like to have afternoon tea with by an open fire. Furthermore, she embraces the myriad ways scarves can and should be worn in ikats, bold university stripes and checks (£99-£120) knotted, flung, tucked in or draped decoratively outside the coat.
Naturally, the knotty issue of scarves hasn’t gone unnoticed by Jeremy Hackett, whose key contribution this winter, within a range of some 34 styles and weights (£40-£130), is an irreverent scarf (£100) in navy, wine and grey and black, within the label’s Mayfair collection. Each bears an embroidered logo of crossed brollies and a bowler, reminiscent of Les Clefs d’Or. The scarf, he says, has “come a long way from being the obligatory, though welcome, Christmas present,” while conceding that using the “correct” knot is increasingly complicated – so much so “that I am thinking of offering classes for gentlemen who thought that wearing a scarf was purely a practical matter.”
Phew, help may soon be at hand.