The Strange Gender Politics of Scarves

Why Marketers Need “Manliness”

“11 Manly Ways to Wear a Scarf.” This headline from Business Insider in my Facebook feed grabbed my attention. I had just recently viewed an informative and inspiring video tutorial on the many ways to wear a scarf. The video featured a woman, and involved many different drapes, twists, braids, and knots–all very lovely. Seeing this headline, I wondered how the “manly” ways of wearing a scarf might

differ.

I took a look, and was not terribly surprised to find that the manly ways differ little from how women generally wear them. I myself regularly wear scarves in five of the ways suggested in the manly tutorial, and if you look at recommendations for how women can wear scarves, you find mostly the same styles. For example, in this one for women, you will see that while there are a few styles featured that do not appear on the Business Insider post, in fact most of them are the same, with the key difference being the patterns and colors of the scarves.

So, why do men–or more likely, some men–need to be convinced that scarves are manly? Because when men do something or are associated with something perceived as feminine–in this case, wearing a scarf–they are viewed as not masculine, and this is a socially dangerous area for men (and boys) in US society. The implication is that if you are not masculine, then you are feminine, which means, as a man, you are gay. The scarf is a key target

of this concern. Google “Are scarves gay?” and you will get half a million hits, many of which are questions submitted on discussion forums by men desperately wanting to know whether wearing the scarf they purchased will compromise their masculinity.

Scarves have been worn by both men and women for thousands of years, and in some societies, were even used to denote the status of warriors. In the 17th century the cravat, the precursor to the neck tie, took off in Europe and it too was popular among warriors and the nobility. The lineage of the scarf has long been involved in traditional notions of masculinity, so why is it viewed as something feminine that must be made masculine today?

I’ve got a working theory. Over the last decade scarves seem to have exploded in popularity as a fashion accessory for women and girls. Of course in cold climates they serve a utilitarian warming function, but in many cases, they are worn simply in the interest of style and aesthetic. It is accepted in our society that women and girls wears “accessories,” items that are non-functional from anything but an aesthetic standpoint. For men, however, it’s a different story.

In her book Dude, You’re a Fag, sociologist C.J. Pascoe documents how teen boys police each other’s style while in high school. With the exception of the black boys in her study–who encouraged each other to take pride in their clothes and shoes–those she observed discouraged each other from taking their dress seriously, and considered it “gay” if a boy showed interest in looking polished and put together. Pascoe points out that the way the boys lobbed “gay” at each other did not suggest that they thought the target of the word was homosexual, but that he was failing to be normatively masculine. He was not behaving in a powerful, strong, tough, and in-control fashion. In this context, showing interest in accessories like scarves is dangerous because it could lower a boy’s social status in the eyes of his peers.

I suspect there may be an issue of class also at play in the gender politics of scarves. Consider that the lineage of the scarf came down in Western societies through society’s elite. Dress has historically been determined by one’s class position, and in large part dictated by one’s profession. So, it stands to reason that throughout modern history, working class men–those doing society’s physical labor–would not regularly wear scarves, as they could get in the way, or be a danger, depending on the kind of work. For working class men who perform physical labor to earn their living, toughness, strength, and endurance are what define masculinity.

In this socio-historical context scarves have been encoded with meaning that signals frivolity, wealth, non-physical labor, and an upper class lifestyle of leisure. The scarf is not tough, and so, it is not masculine, or “manly.” This is why, in order to expand the market for scarves, marketers have taken to campaigning on behalf of the manliness of the scarf.

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