By Polly Guerin, the Fashion Historian
Hermes wasn’t always a kingpin of scarf makers. This global purveyor of luxury good’s first customer was the horse. When the company was founded in 1837 by Tierry Hermes it was a saddle and harness workshop in the Paris neighborhood known as the Grand Boulevards, in close proximity to the wealthy clientele whose majestic carriage teams frequented the Champs-Elysees. Soon he provided aristocratic stables all over the world with saddles and harnesses. However, as the 20th Century got underway and with the advent of the automobile, Emile-Maurice, who succeeded his father, perceived that the demand for saddlery was bound to diminish, and wisely steered the firm into “saddle stitched” leather goods and trunks for the growing number of customers traveling by car, train, ship and eventually airplanes.
THE BIRTH OF THE HERMES SCARF
The silk used for jockey’s jackets gave rise to the first scarf, “Jeu des Omnibus et Dames blanches,” which debuted in 1937. The design was inspired by a parlor game similar to the “Game of Goose” from the 19th century, with the “Dames blanches” in the center of the scarf surrounded by two circles of the first horse-drawn buses. Today this silk twill scarf is a mainstay of the product line. Originals of the Omnibus scarf fetch high stakes at the auction block, however, the first Omnibus is housed in the Hermes museum at their flagship store in Paris, 24 rue du Faubourg Saint-Honore. This petit museum is only open to Hermes’ design staff and by special permission. Passionately interested in everything equine, Emile-Maurice attend sales at the Paris auction house Drouot and eventually acquired a collection of exceptional pieces that serve as inspiration for Hermes’ craftsmen and designers: antique saddles, rare paintings (such as an equestrian portrait of Louis XIV, one of seven replicas ordered by the king for his foreign ambassadors), 16th- to 18th century equestrian books, toys and objets d’art. Menehould de Bazelaire, the curator of the Hermes private collection says, “It is still being added to with exceptional finds brought in by members of the Hermes family.” On a rare occasion and with special permission, which I acquired, several years ago I took a group of fashion students from the Fashion Institute of Technology to visit Hermes and we had a brief visit to the famed museum.
DESIGNING THE HERMES SCARF
Every year, approximately 20 new designs are added to the silk twill scarf collection, and earlier models are frequently reinterpreted in fresh styles and colors. Ever wonder why a Hermes scarf is so expensive. Well, just consider this--each scarf is crafted using a multi-step process that can require up to 800 hours of engraving and thousands of colors in a single scarf. Since 1987 Hermes concerived an annual theme for each calendar year. The highly collectible silk scarves include “Year of the River” (2005), a river theme of blues and greens; “Paris in the Air” (2006), a celebration of Paris that included a historical map; and “Shall We Dance…?” (2007). In creating new scarf designs Hermes often partners with independent artists. At an art fair in Waco, Texas Jean-Louis Dumas-Hermes, who took over the reins of management in 1978, discovered Texas painter Kermit Oliver and commissioned him to create printed scarf designs, including “Les Mythologies des Hommes Rouges,” which reflects the spirit of the American Indians, their culture and the horse. Special-edition scarves have commemorated many events in American life. In 1986, the centennial of the Statue of liberty was marked by the production of a “Liberty” scarf. “Envol,” issued in 1995, celebrated the 50th anniversary of the United Nations. Le Salon Dore was issued in 1996 for the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Responding to popular demand, in 2007 Le Salon Dore was reissued, with proceeds benefiting the rebuilding of the New Orleans’ historic City Park carousel, which had been demanded by Hurricane Katrina, which was yet another Hermes nod to its equine roots.
HOW TO WEAR A HERMES SCARF
There’s something “je n’est ce pas” special about how Parisian women seem to instinctively know how to wear a scarf, and there is no doubt that a quality silk scarf is easily recognizable on the wearer. Replicas of the famed Hermes and other couture makers have been made to mimic their celebrity, but their quality is never up to the standards of a luxury brand. When you invest in a quality silk scarf it can become a collectible, so much so, that some people even put an especially beautiful design in a large glass protected frame and exhibit it on their wall. Far from being limited to wear a scarf on your head, one can also belt it around the waist, tie it onto a quality handbag, buy two and make a blouse or a skirt, buy one and tie it around your neck halter style. If your imagination fails, books are available that give directions how to extend your scarf into a fashion item.
A BIT OF SCARF TRIVIA
The evolvement of the silk scarf into a fashion item also had its incarnation when the dancer Isadora Duncan captivated audiences with her long white silk scarves floating on the air of breathtaking movement. However, when she wore one of these long scarves around her neck whilst driving her convertible, long flowing scarf flew in the wind and caught in one of the wheels of her car and “yes” it strangled her. Let not forget those “Rosie the Riveter,” women who during World War II worked in the munitions factories to aid the war effort. They made practical application of the scarf and wrapped it around their heads to protect their hair, and prevent their hair getting caught in machines. Movie stars, models, women of rank also did their bit to promote the scarf. Who can forget Jackie ‘O’s iconic look wearing a quality silk scarf or when Sophie Loren covered her locks with a scarf, Grace Kelly called it her own and Brigitte Bardot knotted a small scarf under her chin it became the rage. If you like to wear silk scarves may you find the perfect quality silk to build a collectible collection.
Bio: Polly Guerin indulged and purchased a Hermes silk scarf in Paris and still wears it decades later. As a fashion historian and former professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology she taught “Product Knowledge,” and accessories were a major topic. Early on she was an accessories editor at Women’s Wear Daily. Polly is stepping down as a vice president of RWA/NYC at the end of 2009, but will continue to write fashion history on the RWA/NYC blog.