How to think inside the square
Braveries in print ... design by Celine.
Sometimes, when dressing, the simplest item can create the most varied looks. In design terms, it is hard to get less complex than a single square of cloth.
Lacking seams, darts or any sort of shaping, a scarf offers no guidelines for how it should be worn. T-shirts are constrained by their necklines and armholes, trousers are clearly made for legs and not shoulders and while a belt can transform a skirt into a dress, the results are often questionable.
How to wear a silk scarf, on the other hand, is limited only by imagination. The potential for experimentation exists not just for the wearer but the designer as well. Though machine-engineered printing has allowed for an exactitude of pattern not previously possible on regular garments, the scarf has for centuries offered textile designers the ultimate blank canvas.
Audacious ... Elke Kramer sees no boundaries with her designs.
Australian fashion icon Jenny Kee celebrated this last year with the release of a range of fresh and archival scarves, all of them bright riots of pattern, that explore her decades-long design career. ''The scarf for me has always been the preferred way that I like to present my art,'' she says on the telephone from her home in the Blue Mountains. ''I can make a scarf as busy as anything but it is one big square and everything is contained within it: the colour, the lusciousness of silk.''
At present, the scarf is experiencing something of a moment in fashion but, for Kee, the medium is more than a mere trend. ''It's been a 40-year moment for me,'' she says, laughing.
In this area, Kee can claim royalty status. In 1982, to celebrate the opening of the National Gallery of Australia, she created a ''very beautiful'' large square scarf that was presented to the Queen. ''My work was never about cut, always print,'' she says of the piece that magnified the palette of the Australian landscape into a visual explosion.
How to wear such braveries in print is an individual matter. One can take cues from Celine's autumn-winter 2012 collection, where azure scarves with white and mahogany edging were tied high at the throat, with corners pointed downwards like modernist bandits, or else borrow from Dries Van Noten's orientalist-inspired turn and sit your scarf flat, straight-angled and tight at the front for a turtle-neck effect.
Then there are the braver iterations, such as the twisted turban, oversized bow or, for the final days of the beach season, the halter-top.
''The best discovery I have stumbled on is the scarf bag,'' says a Sydney designer, Elke Kramer. ''With a few simple knots in each corner, plus another two to make handles, a flat silk scarf quickly transforms into a cute slouchy handbag.''
Kramer's scarves feature everything from scattered wildflowers to cracked-open gemstones.
Kramer likes to see her prints worn audaciously, ''as a '50s-style head wrap, with a neat knot, bow or twist above the forehead. Done right, it's so elegant and glamorous.''
For Brenda Harvey, who makes scarves and bags with a slight indie twist for her label Benah, the most important factor in design is how a scarf is worn. ''I always have to be mindful of how prints will look not only flat but also knotted and draped around the body. Sometimes a scarf that looks amazing laid flat will lose its appeal when worn, which is why I like to focus on the borders, as these are generally … seen the most.''
At the winter shows in Europe and New York, the scarf was used as a final flourish, a finishing touch of silken texture or intensely clashing prints that elevated coats, jackets and shirts into complex combinations of contrast-print cravats and multilayered collars. This ''look-making'' element holds the most appeal for Kee, too. ''You put a little scarf around your neck and you've completed an outfit,'' she says. ''That's why I love the little ones, just a touch, but it's a spark, an energy … A scarf is just a little piece of colour that you can play with however you want.''
Kee does have one rule: ''Do scarves any way you want to style yourself but don't hang them off your bag - because that's when you lose them.''