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The Hermès Scarf Explained – All You Need to Know About the Famous Carré

The Hermès Scarf Explained – All You Need to Know About the Famous Carré

The Hermes Scarf Explained - All You Need to Know about the Famous Carre

There is an urban myth that every 20 seconds, somebody somewhere in the world buys an Hermès scarf. According to the current creative director of Hermès, Nadège Vanhée-Cybulski, French people are exposed to Hermès from an early age onwards. “Your mom always has a scarf; it’s one of the first objects you look at as a child, and you know it’s precious.”[1]. Whether this is the reality or not, the so-called “carrés” – their square-shaped scarves or foulards, are prestigious and sought-after and have even become collectors’ items.[2]

Until today, Hermès has released over 2,000 scarf designs. What many people do not know is that Hermès has collaborated with over 150 artists from all over the world to bring them to life.[3] Let’s explore how this popular product came about and what may be the reasons for the myth and desirability of these carrés.

You can also watch my video here:

Understanding the History of the Hermès Brand – How It All Started

In order to understand how the carré Hermès was created, it is important to know about the history of the brand. The House of Hermès was founded by Thierry Hermès in 1837 as a harness workshop. Its leather products were hand-stitched with a waxed thread which made them more functional and durable. This workshop was located in the then rue Basse-du-Rempart in the 9th arrondissement of Paris and its products were sold to the aristocracy of the post-Napoleonic era. After Thierry’s death in 1878, his son Charles-Émile took over and expanded the product range by saddlery. His sons Adolphe and Émile-Maurice supported him in the business and they delivered the Hermès products all over Europe, Russia, North America and Asia. Two years later, they moved the workshop to the now infamous 24 Faubourg Saint-Honoré and added a boutique. The business was renamed “Hermès Frères” to emphasize the family aspect. The first leather bag of the house was designed which was called “Haut à Courroies” which literally translated means “high belt”. It was also called “HAC” and it was a bag to carry saddles and riding boots. It was the time of the arrival of the automobile and the bag soon became very popular with automobile fans.[4]

The Hermes Scarf Explained All You Need to Know about the Famous Carre Detail

Émile-Maurice had four daughters and, hence, decided to involve his son-in-law Robert Dumas in the business. The latter soon adopted the name Dumas-Hermès to show the ties to the family. Until today, Émile-Maurice is celebrated as the visionary of the Maison. He started to venture into travel accessories (such as leather wallets for road maps, driving gloves, luggage and even silk scarves for racing). He is said to have applied the strategy of putting himself into the customers shoes – What could Hermès make which would be useful to their customers? Émile-Maurice was behind the design of the bag which was later called “Bolide” – the first carryall which also feature a zip compartment. Émile-Maurice had been inspired by the opening and closing system of the hoods of military cars during a trip to Canada. He used what is known today as zip or zipper on many of his products. He also had a yellow cowhide leather trunk made for Ettore Bugatti and his first Bugatti Royale car. Looking back, it becomes clear how they established the brand as a luxury player. In the 1920s, Émile-Maurice launched the first fashion collection for the house.[5]

Émile-Maurice Hermès Introduces Silk Scarves

At the same time, Hermès started to sell silk scarves which they sourced from Bianchini Férier, a highly reputable silk producer in Lyon who also supplied fashion designer Paul Poiret. Adding silk scarves naturally fit to Hermès and its equestrian experience, as the 19th century jockeys replaced the heavy suits with silk twill shirts which often reflected the owner’s colours or the family coat of arms. Furthermore, Hermès was associated with high-quality materials and silk fit into that image.[6]

Even though Bianchini Férier enjoyed a good reputation, Émile-Maurice and Robert Dumas where not entirely satisfied and decided to produce the scarves themselves. Robert had a creative passion – he actually wanted to become an architect before joining Hermès – and he made ink drawings which should become the basis of the scarf section. Robert was made artistic director and Hermès managed to understand the changing needs of their customers at the time: They travelled by train, they crossed the Atlantic, they loved spending their holidays at the French Riviera or in the mountains in winter. In 1927, Hermès added jewellery to their product range, a year later watches and sandals. In the 1930s, they partnered with Neiman Marcus for their first sales outlet in the USA.[7]

According to a Chinese legend, Empress Leizu discovered silk.

In 1937, just in time for the 100th anniversary of Hermès, they launched the first carré. As mentioned before, silk had been a precious material long before the Hermès scarf. Already in 3000 BC, the Chinese Empress Leizu (嫘祖), also known as Xi Lingshi (西陵氏), discovered silk when she enjoyed her tea under a mulberry tree. A cocoon fell into the tea and unravelled. Leizu is also said to have been inventor of the silk loom, – at least this is what the legend has tells us. The textile soon became an important trading commodity and contributed to the wealth of China. From the Romans and the Greeks who used silk fabric to dry their faces, to the Egyptians, many cultures regarded silk as a prized fabric. In the 12th century, knights brought the scarf of their lady as souvenirs or good luck charms to battle. In Croatia, textiles were used as codes for the rankings within the military – the higher ranking soldiers wore silk scarves, the lower ones cotton. In the 17th and 18th century, the popularity increased as trade with Asia became more established. The composer Ludwig van Beethoven turned his silk scarf into a trademark in the 19th century and Queen Victoria bought shawls from the town of Paisley in Scottland and, consequently, increased their popularity. With the beginning of aviation, pilots wore silk scarves around their necks to protect their skin and they also used them to clean their goggles. After World War I, there was a surplus of silk fabric in Europe which was then used up by the fashion industry.[8]

Greta Garbo wearing a turban.

When Hermès launched its carré, scarves were popular among actresses, socialites and celebrities. Josephine Baker, Greta Garbo or Gloria Swanson were fans of silk scarves which were folded to be worn as headbands, belts, bows or ribbons for the flapper dresses. They were even turned into turbans, often kept together at the front with the help of a brooch.[9]

The famous “We Can Do It”-Poster from 1942.

Even during the war, the scarf did not lose its importance. In the American “We Can Do It”-poster from 1942, the strong woman in a work overall wears a red and white polka dot scarf to keep her hair away from machinery. Often, scarves featured patriotic slogans or helpful tips to uplift the people during the war. At this time, Queen Elizabeth II started to wear the Hermès scarves – her passion for horses certainly drew her to the house and throughout her life, she was seen wearing the French carrés. On an official portrait which served as the basis for a stamp commemorating her birthday in 1986, the Queen wore a Carré as well.[10]

Queen Elizabeth II was an avid lover of the carré.

The First Carré Hermès

“Carré” means square in French and it is a silk scarf with the measurements of 90 cm x 90 cm. Émile-Maurice had a vast private collection of artworks and objects which have served as inspiration for many scarf designs. The first carré was inspired by a board game of his collection and Robert Dumas and Hugo Grygkar brought it to life. Dumas designed the sketch for a woodblock engraving with a central image of the players.[11]

The first carré “Jeu des Omnibus et Dames Blanches” from 1937.

In “Jeu des Omnibus et Dames Blanches” the central players are surrounded by the horse-drawn carriages of the two competing Parisian horse-carriage companies called “Omnibus” and “Dames Blanches”. The design was seen as witty and the colours and the pattern complimented the outfits of the 1930s which were simple, tailored and structured. The carré was then made of Chinese silk which was twice as strong as other silk available and could be used in many different ways. This scarf was the first of many Hermès creations which was shown in a women’s magazine. The themes of the scarves had to relate to the work of Hermès and could not have any military relation as Émile-Maurice was a pacifist.[12]

Brand Identity – Packaging & Logo & “Ex Libris”-Carré

The Hermès packaging is as iconic as the scarves themselves.

The war also affected Hermès and an iconic marketing tool actually came about by accident: Up until 1942, Hermès used cream-coloured packaging, but due to shortages during the war, their supplier only had one colour left – orange. This “make do”-colour eventually became iconic for the brand. In the 1950s, the logo of the brand – the “Duc carriage logo” – was created. It is actually based on Émile-Maurice’s Ex Libris, a stamp on the bookplate to show the owner. This logo which is now printed in white on the dark brown ribbons for the orange packaging is based on an artwork by Alfred de Dreux “Duc attelé, groom à l’attente”, which used to hang in Émile-Maurice’s office. Since 1946, the Ex Libris has been accompanied by this horse carriage.[13]

The “Ex Libris”-scarf from 1947.

The Ex Libris was also turned into a carré with the same name in 1947. Hugo Grygkar used the Ex Libris as a base and surrounded it with four horse-drawn carriages which were based on ink drawings in Émile-Maurice’s collection. In the centre, there are Émile-Maurice’s intertwined initials flanked by the winged caduceus, the attribute of the Greek god Hermes. In 1948, Dumas and Grygkar met Monsieur Gandit who owned an engraving workshop in Bourgoin-Jallieu. He had met the printer Arnaud during his time as a war prisoner. Both promised each other that after their imprisonment, they would work for Hermès. Gandit and Arnaud came up with a type of print based on the techniques used in Lyon which would allow exact printing and colourful designs. In many iterations, the printing was monitored and improved and until today, the designs are laid out on the floor to judge them according to composition and symmetry. Shortly afterwards, Hermès entered the silk tie business in 1949. It was born out of the necessity of many male holidaymakers who were refused entry into the casino of Cannes without a tie.[14]

Celebrities like Catherine Deneuve loved the Hermès scarf.

The silk scarf was immensely popular in the 1950s which is also due to Dior’s “New Look” which was launched in 1947. This was also when Robert Dumas took over the leadership of the house. (He was behind many successes such as the Kelly Bag.) Actresses and celebrities wore the carrés as headscarves or simply around the neck. Catherine Deneuve and Sophia Lauren were seen with the carrés. Grace Kelly wore two scarves with her swimming costume – one as a hair accessory and one as a skirt over the costume.[15]

Grace Kelly with a carré turned into a sling to support her arm in 1959.

In 1959, she was spotted on the yacht of Aristotle Onassis using a carré as a sling for her arm after being stung by a wasp. The pattern of this scarf was no coincidence either: it was the “Deo Juvante Monaco” by Hugo Grygkar which was based on the motto of the Grimaldis and their coat of arms. Audrey Hepburn became an unofficial ambassador for Hermès – she even wore a headscarf on her wedding day in 1969. In the 1960s and 1970s, the scarves were worn by the likes of Bianca Jagger and, of course, Jackie Kennedy who wore them as headbands or bandanas with her famous sunglasses. In the Seventies, it became an accessory for extravagant men such as the Rolling Stones.[16]

Madonna with a silk scarf.

In the 1980s silk scarves “softened” the look of the career women and Madonna repopularised them as headbands with opulent gold jewellery. It was “the” time for these accessories. By then, Jean-Louis Dumas (the son of Robert) had taken over and knew that Hermès needed to revamp their image and started advertising campaigns shooting the models in denim and silk scarves. (He was also the brain behind the infamous Birkin bag.) In 1985 and 1986, the Indo-French collaborations were celebrated and some carré-designs were Indian-inspired. This is also closely linked to the “Magiciens de la Terre”, a contemporary art exhibit at the Centre Pompidou in 1989 which brought artists from all over the world to Paris and was a major milestone in moving away from the overly Eurocentric representation in the arts. As a consequence, Jean-Louis started to research artisanal knowledge, traditional techniques and beauty ideals.[17]

In the 1990s, the scarf entered mainstream popular culture thanks to rappers like Tupac and movies such as Clueless. Even Luciano Pavarotti was a big collector of the carrés which he wore to protect his voice.[18]

The first “Hermès Editeur” edition was an hommage to artist Josef Albers.

In the new millennium, Hermès, again tried to popularise the scarf amongst a younger audience, for example, with a collaboration with the Parisian store Colette called “J’aime mon carré”. Since 2005, the “Hermès Editeur” edition has been revisiting its close relationship with the arts. For the first edition, the works of Josef Albers, the painter, lithographer and colour theorist who was also at the Bauhaus, were the basis for the limited edition “Hommage au Carré”. The design team pushed technical limits with the new “edge-to-edge”-technique – there are no borders between the colours and still the colours do not blur. In 2010, Daniel Buren who is known for his large installations, worked for this edition with the house and in 2012, Japanese artists Hiroshi Sugimoto created 20 designs with Hermès. These were based on polaroids collected by Sugimoto over ten years to document light and colours.[19]

Today, the silk scarf is experiencing a revival. Other houses such as Dior or Versace are incorporating them in their designs again. 

What Makes the Carrés So Special and How to Authenticate Them?

The Hermes Scarf Explained All You Need to Know about the Famous Carre Imperiales

The carrés are always of the same size: 90 cm x 90 cm, they sometimes come in the sizes 60 cm x 60 cm and 40 cm x 40 cm as well. There are exceptions in sizing for special editions. Their weight is about 63 grams. The edges of the silk foulards are rolled by hand from the back towards the front and then fixed with tiny stitches and silk thread. According to Hermès, their artisans have to undergo a two-year training programme.[20]

Hermès carrés and art go hand in hand. Since the beginnings, the brand had artists from around the world – from illustrators, to graphic designers or even museum curators – create the artworks which are printed on the silk foulard. As mentioned above, when a design is finished, the foulard is laid out on the floor so that the complete creation can be inspected.[21]

The Hermes Scarf Explained All You Need to Know about the Famous Carre Longchamps

The special thing about the carrés is their composition. The designs are structured around the diagonals or along circles within the square – a techniques which is often used for paintings. The design may look accidental; but nothing is left to chance. Every composition and design are meticulously planned. The scarves often show an immense amount of details. Their characteristic is also related to symmetry: at first sight, the design looks symmetric but at a closer look, it is revealed that there are differences so that there never is 100% symmetry. I would call it “asymmetric symmetry” or even “un-symmetry”.[22]

The Hermes Scarf Explained All You Need to Know about the Famous Carre Kermit Oliver
Detail of the signature by artist Kermit Oliver.

Many of the carrés have been signed by the artists – with the exception of Hugo Grygkar who never signed his creations. These signatures are often hidden or incorporated in the designs – sometimes it is a full name, sometimes a shorter version or even only the initials[23]

The Hermes Scarf Explained All You Need to Know about the Famous Carre Hermes Copyright
Detail of the copyright note of Hermès.

Similarly, some carrés display “Hermès” visibly, some have a small Hermès lettering, sometimes with a © and often as hidden (simliar to the artists’ signatures), some feature both. If you would like to check the authenticity, I recommend to find out the name of the design and find the originals online and compare.[24]

Bear in mind that the artist’s signature or the Hermès lettering may be a hint but it does not automatically mean that your scarf is not authentic if you cannot find them on your carré.

Some carrés have the name incorporated in the design. I recommend laying out the scarf on the ground, because it is easer to find the details. Furthermore, you get to appreciate the whole design of the scarf.

The Hermes Scarf Explained All You Need to Know about the Famous Carre Andalousie
Some carrés have the name as part of the design.

Due to Hermès’s legacy, many carrés feature equestrian themes until today. During World War II, riding and hunting themes paired with animals were popular, e.g. “Les Chats Sur l’Toit” by Charles Pittner, (1942), as well as the regattas in Cannes (Hugo Grygkar, c. 1940) and French Cuisine (Robert Dumas, 1945). The private collection of books, art objects and other curiosities of Émile-Maurice served as inspiration for many of these creations.[26]

The immense amount of ideas and designs has contributed to the myth and brand value of Hermès. There is an anecdote involving Robert Dumas telling his son Jean-Louis that the “fridge” was filled with enough designs so that he could enjoy some quiet years. But also his son filled this “fridge” and until today, it is exciting and daunting at the same for artists to have a design stored. On the one hand, it is satisfying that a design was selected for this “inventory”, because it may be launched. On the other, it could also happen that it never leaves that inventory.[27]

Since the carré’s launch, there have been quite a few classic designs which have been reissued in a number of colours, e.g. “Brides de Gala” (1957) by Hugo Grygkar, “Les Clés” (1965) by Cathy Latham, “Cliquetis” (1972) by Julia Abadie, “Springs” (1974) by Philippe Ledoux, or “Les Trois Mousquetaires” (1981) also by Ledoux but finished by Rybal.[28]


Footnotes

[1] Graves 2023, p. 127.

[2] Graves 2023, p. 53, 104 + 127.

[3] Graves 2023, p. 53 + 104.

[4] Graves 2023, p. 6-14, Hermès 2023.

[5] Coleno 2010, p. 24, Graves 2023, p. 14-18, Hermès 2023.

[6] ibid.

[7] Coleno 2010, p. 24, Graves 2023, p. 18.

[8] Ancient Origins 2023, Coleno 2010, p. 23, Graves 2023, p. 103, Steiger 2023, p. 21.

[9] Graves 2023, p. 104-107.

[10] ibid.

[11] Coleno 2010, p. 18 + 24, Graves 2023, p. 18-19.

[12] ibid.

[13] Coleno 2010, p. 17-33, Graves 2023, p. 20, Hermès 2023.

[14] Coleno 2010, p. 39, Graves 2023, p. 32-37 and 110-121, Hermès 2023.

[15] ibid.

[16] ibid.

[17] ibid.

[18] ibid.

[19] Graves S. 40-43.

[20] Graves 2023, p. 20, 25 + 74.

[21] Graves 2023, p. 25.

See Also
7 Fashion Facts about Coco Chanel The Basics You Should Know about her Designs

[22] Coleno 2010, p. 17.

[23] Graves 2023, p. 61 + 75, Hermès 2023.

[24] ibid.

[25] ibid.

[26] ibid.

[27] Coleno 2010, p. 46.

[28] Graves 2023, p. 71-73.


Sources

Ancient Origins 2023

Nadine Coleno, Le Carré Hermès, München 2010.

Laia Farran Graves, The Story of the Hermès Scarf, London 2023.

Hermès Official Website

Steiger Private Collection


Disclaimer

This article is based on the personal, views, experiences and research of Elisabeth Steiger, no fees were received by the organisations and people mentioned above. 


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