Headscarf Rollercoaster

In the 1950s and 1960s, the best way to preserve a bouffant hairdo outdoors was to loosely tie a large headscarf around the head and secure it under the chin. This common practice seemed ordinary and timeless to a growing girl like me. In rainy Seattle, scarves provided the go-to protection from rain for females of all ages. No one could imagine that the ordinary garment would come to have political meaning.

The other day, I saw a light drizzle outside and wanted to cover my head. I liked to think I had only one thing in common with Mr. Donald Trump: a baseball cap wrecked our hairdos. Without thinking, I grabbed a scarf instead of a cap, just as I’d done thousands of times. However, when I began to put it on, I stopped. Then I quickly tied the scarf behind my head, on the nape of my neck, the way I’d seen construction workers do, and headed out. I only wanted to get to the grocery store and not ponder the political issues of my head gear. But I had the vague thought that our culture assumed women who covered their heads with scarves, tied or folded beneath the chin, must be Muslim.

Later that day, I wondered why it bothered me to possibly appear Muslim. I have Muslim friends and, if anything, I would imagine I’d want to feel solidarity with them. I honored their religion as much as I did the beliefs of my Jewish, Hindu, Christian and Buddhist friends. When I visited Turkey, I frequently wore head coverings and didn’t think twice about it.

One day, a week later, I realized why I refused to spontaneously tie the scarf under my chin, and I didn’t like the reason. I felt safer if I didn’t look Muslim. When I was a young woman, I thought I would somehow be exempt from domestic violence. Unfortunately, as the years progressed, I found myself physically harassed by males at times, just like one third of all women in America. As a result, when I went outside, I remained cautious around men. I’d feel even less safe if I appeared to be a Muslim woman. This cold reality disturbed me, but resonated as true.

Now that I’m aware of this subconscious urge, I can make a conscious decision to wear a headscarf tied under my chin when I want to, even though, in America in the 2020s, it’s extremely out of fashion. I’m thinking that the traditional headscarf look should be ready for a comeback. My Muslim friends decorate their scarves with beautiful rhinestones and beads, giving them a contemporary look. An embryonic impulse was born that I might someday do something similar, but I had no idea how that would ever happen.

In the past week, I surprised myself by becoming a creator of scarves. When I started printing, painting and drawing my art on long, floor to ceiling silk scrolls, I also began to create smaller sizes, 30″x30″, scarf size. I photographed the final design and sent it to a specialized silk printer, who printed on silk, scarf size. 

           My work studied muscular range of motion by applying wet paint to a person’s moving area on the body, such as the neck. When the model moved her head in all possible directions, traces of what that movement looked like appeared.

When I used this as a design motif, I created a fun “neck” scarf, loving the pun.

I found the shoulder’s range of motion to be a spectacular 180 degrees, resulting in lovely arcs under the arms.

When I created a bigger composition, a “shoulder” scarf, tied to barely cover the shoulders, appeared.

In a person’s back, six major muscle groups intersected, creating spectacular range of motion imagery, seen in the photo below. The upper right image contained the results of all this movement, almost resembling wings.

When I played with this design, I made a shawl, to cover people’s backs.

Even if American head scarf fashions are working against me at this cultural moment, I’m having fun creating silk scarves. In July of this year, I plan to take twenty scarves to Venice, Italy for my one-person exhibit of the floor to ceiling silk scrolls. It’ll be fun to see if Italian women (and maybe the men) go for them. As for me, I’m going to enjoy wearing my new “neck” scarf and might become brave enough to put it on my head and tie it beneath my chin.


2022 July 15-November 13
Kaethe Kauffman – Yoga: Interiore e Eterno (Yoga: Interior & Eternal)
Castello Gallery 925 Galleria
Venice, Italy
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