September 9, 2008

Dressing On the Side: A Guided Tour To Scarf Fashions 'Round the Globe

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This summer I had the chance to visit three excellent places — Paris, France; Taipei, Taiwan; and the sunny situation we call Southern California. This meant three excellent opportunities for my favorite things (in no particular order): dancing, eating and fashion. If you know me, and if you’re reading my column, there’s a good chance you do, you know that I’m always thinking about clothes, and this summer’s travels provided both mental and physical fodder for myriad new outfits and thoughts about the current state of fashion. Today I want to talk about one of the trends that stood out to me in my first stop.
Paris, France: The ubiquitous scarf. Now, I believe that the scarf is chief among stereotyped French accessories, right up there next to stripes, berets, bicycles and baguettes. But the scarf has transcended from the days of side-tied, Sandra Dee kerchiefs and moved up to a multi-purpose, always chic, often cheap, necessity. Seeing as scarves have made it pretty successfully across the pond, I suppose I need not sing their virtues, but I’m going to anyway. First, from a practical view (I believe very strongly in fashion with a function), a scarf provides warmth in both cold weather and unpredictable air conditioning, as well as offering situationally appropriate modesty (in which I also believe strongly). Also importantly, the scarf offers an accent color/pattern/texture opportunity to play with, which can bring even just a “t-shirt and jeans” (more to come on that at a later date) into the realm of “outfit.” The source of the elusive French put-togetherness? Eureka!
Ithaca, New York: How to wear them? While many styles are available on both continents, pashminas — or pashmina-like scarves — are definite favorites. Rectangular, usually fringed and delightfully soft, regardless of whether they are in fact silk and cashmere (which, let me tell you, the kick-ass ones on the streets of Paris for five euros are not), they drape well and have enough volume to compliment even sleeveless shirts (one of my absolute favorites for summer — a scarf that fills in the front of a bare top or dress makes for a suggestive yet classy ensemble and further emphasizes the cut of whatever you are wearing). Pashminas span seasons pretty easily, but while it’s still hot I definitely recommend 100-percent cotton- light, structured and 100-percent washable, even in your sub-par Ithaca washing machine, which means you can sweat (!) and not worry.
What to wear them with? The basic gist is — anything. Big earrings are, as ever in my book, an excellent addition, but beware: Earrings can snag delicate scarves into a sad state and make you cry, so choose carefully. Also, just in general, watch out for Velcro — be it on your shoes, backpack, purse, whatever; if you let it, it will eat every item of clothing you hold dear.
With square or triangular scarves and handkerchiefs, I like to let the point drape down and wrap the ends around my neck. Depending on the length of the scarf and the degree to which you want to look like a bandit, you can tie the ends behind your neck for ultimate security and limited maintenance. It goes without saying, I suppose, but I’ll say it anyway: The silkier your scarf is the more you have to keep track of it — the absurd (but AMAZING) printed silk scarves I inherited from my mom and her trávelling colleagues are maliciously-organized escape artists. The triangle tack works well with hipster-inspired outfits; I like them with skinny jeans/pencil skirts, big earrings, and aviators. For night, you can bedazzle monotones and knits with metallics and interesting patterns, or conversely tone down a sparkly ensemble with an anchoring solid color. (What about sparkle for day you ask? Why, YES!
What to buy? I generally avoid skinny scarves, although they can be effective looped once with both ends hanging down in front to elongate the body and unite an outfit. Too much fringe on a scarf makes me a bit queasy, and crochet is, in general, on my Avoid at All Costs list (I apologize to your grandmother — my lineage is in knitting and I think it looks better). I recommend plaids of all varieties; Old Navy has some light-weight ones in subtle colors in a $9.50-$12.50 range. Another comfortable and useful variety are the “T-shirt” scarves made of some kind of knit jersey, usually viscose or cotton. I have one from H&M and one from American Apparel, which has a huge range of colors (20!) starting at $15. Gap has similar, but larger knit scarves, and a variety of other styles from $19 – $40, and Banana Republic shows a silk printed scarf tucked into a narrow belt over a knit dress, which is surprising and lovely.
But best of all, as always, are the chance finds — check for odd patterns and shapes from second-hand stores, ask your mother for any she hasn’t worn in a long time — one of my all time favorites has bizarre fake hieroglyphs and has been in the family since I was five — and check out the street vendors next time you’re in a big city — Paris included!
Tune in next time for more world-traveling fashion insights, not least among them the return of the M.C. Hammer pant (I kid you not). Oh, and a word for the men: check Urban Outfitters and American Apparel for unisex and men’s style neckwear; chicks dig men in scarves.