Hermes Silk Steam Square

Karen and me have quite a big collection of vintage silk squares…

We started collecting these in the early 1990s when they were deeply unfashionable. We buy and sell them from the store in Folkestone. Karen recently found this terrific Hermes scarf with steam engines on it – perfect for a blog post.

Hermes are world famous for their handbags and silk squares.

The company was established in 19C Paris and were harness makers for most of their history. In 1937, they began to print silk squares. The timing of this wasn’t accidental.

The business opportunity of producing silk squares was founded on the intersection of several cultural trends. I’ll describe these briefly…


The first thing to say is that it might be tempting to think of  the printed headscarf as a form of repressive head-covering. This would be a mistake. In its 20C form, the printed silk square is specifically associated with the social and sexual emancipation of women.

In cultural terms, the modern scarf devolves from the traditions of wearing military favours and of the commemorative handkerchief. We are all familiar with the idea, in chivalry for example, of knights wearing coloured tokens of favour. More recently, there were commemorative printed cotton handkerchiefs from the Napoleonic military period.

A short detour…

One of the groups of material we have in our collection are propaganda scarves made during WW2. These were made for exchange between sweethearts and cover all the major communities and services in London. These include for the Army, the Royal Navy and the Royal Air-Force, the Free-French, and the Americans. We also have various Home-Front themed scarves that commemorate the general contribution of civilians to Total War.

Now, back to the main story…

I’ve already posted about various social anxieties that emerged, at the end of the 19C, as a consequence of the development of industrial capitalism. Not least of these was the discovery of female sexuality! Of course, I don’t mean that female sexuality didn’t exist before the end of the 19C; but the normative conventions that defined female sexuality for most of the 19C were much more constrained. In addition and as I’ve mentioned before, the clinic and the prison were used to coerce those women who refused to conform to the prevailing conventions of family, hearth and home.

Anyway, at the end of the 19C women began to re- define their sexuality in a multitude of different ways. Cigarette smoking and bicycle riding were eagerly adopted as cultural signifiers of female liberation.

In this context, the scarf was both a practical and exotic accessory.


This was especially the case after the development, by Karl Nessler (Nestle), of the “permanent wave” as a widely available hair styling technique. From the beginning of the 20C onwards, women were able to style their hair in a semi-permanent way. Correctly looked after, the hair could remain styled for about a week. The only problem was that, if the hair got wet or windswept, the style would be lost.

In the circumstances, it was entirely appropriate that the printed silk square should emerge as a convenient and practical adjunct to maintaining the permanent wave. The square was quickly integrated into the fashion system after WW1.

Movement and Modernity

WW1 marked a sharp acceleration in the machine-ensemble of modern life. Motor cars, ocean liners, and aircraft became more visible . Each of these machines quickly became identified as an exemplar of modernity through a combination of technology and speed.

It wasn’t surprising that women should join this adventure.

Glamour and Luxury

It turned out that hardly anything was as glamorous as a dynamic woman. It wasn’t surprising that hermes should be at the forefront of producing hand-luggage and scarves to serve this emerging market.

The Scarf

So, the headscarf became associated with a category of celebrity female adventurer. The fashion semiotics of the scarf combined glamour, emancipation and modernity to positive effect.

The steam scarf by Hermes is a design by Philippe Ledoux, probably in the 1960s. The theme of the steam engine fits with the rediscovery, during the 1960s, of 19C culture and technology.

As usual, the design includes a number of related pictorial and typographic elements. The integration of these elements into a coherent and stylish whole is the mark of a great design.


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