On Scarves

Posted February 2006
Updated October 2008

It's probably one of the more cliche'd items about open-cockpit flying.  You tell folks you own an open-cockpit airplane, and they ask, "Do you have a silk scarf?"

Well...do you?

I'll admit, the outright classic nature of it is one big reason I wear one. But, you know, they're more than just a fashion accessory.

This was brought out to me just last spring.  I'd brought my white silk scarf home to wash it, and had hung it on the shower rod to dry (high enough that the wife's cats can't reach it, thankyew very much).

The aforementioned wife happened to take a look at it.  "Looks like it's time you bought another one," she said.

I hemmed and hawed.  "Yeah, it's not really whitening up, but they're supposed to look a bit grimy..."

She shook her head.  "No, this one is worn out.  Look at the holes!"

Sure enough, she was right.  After 20 years of use, I had a number of thin spots in my silk scarf, and a couple of spots where it had been worn right through.

Pure fashion sense didn't put so many flight hours on the scarf that I wore it out.  Over the years, I have come to recognize it as a necessary item of my flight gear.  Why?

A Bit of History

To find the answer, let's turn back 90 years ago.  Why DID aviators start wearing silk scarves?

One simple reason:  The planes were wide-open, cold winds have a tendency to blow down the neck of pilots' coats.  They had two basic choices:  Wear a coat with a high, close-fitting collar, or use a bit of fabric to plug the gap...e.g., a scarf.

But there's a problem with that high-fitting collar.  A tight collar restricts the motion of the neck...makes it harder to look around, to spot the wily Hun. What's more, wool, linen, cotton, or leather tends to chafe the tender skin around the neck.

So a scarf makes more sense.  But a conventional woolen scarf isn't much of an advantage.  The scarf needs to be a soft, yet tight-weave fabric that slips smoothly by the skin while still barring entry to the cold winds.

Nowadays there are probably dozens of miracle fabrics that fit the bill.  But to the early aviator, there was only one:  silk.

A silk scarf is a perfect companion to the traditional leather flying jacket. The inside of the jacket collar is usually a bit rough, but wrapping a scarf around your neck fixes that problem nicely.

I'm not sure where the tradition comes of a white scarf comes in.  It appears to be the color of the Army Air Force's issues scarves during WWII, but it seemed to have been common before that, too.  It might be that the dyes of the day tended to run and rub off against the clothing and skin, and bleached white silk didn't have that problem.  One person has suggested that parachute silk was used, which wasn't dyed.

It might, too, be related to the claim that pilots used the scarves to clean the oil off their goggles while flying.  A white scarf would make sense, in that case, as you could ensure that you used a clean spot on the scarf rather than a part carrying dirt or oil.

However, I read one suggestion that really rings true:  The early aviators wore what were called opera scarves.

Imagine going out for a night of formal entertainment (such as an opera) in 1910.  You'll don "Evening Wear," which today we might call "Black Tie" or a Tuxedo.  Black pants, white waistcoat, black coat with tails, white or black bow tie.   But it's a cold, rainy winter night, and the car/coach you'll be riding to the event won't have a heater.  So you'll put on a top coat of the same quality and style as your evening wear, and top it off with a fancy top hat.

But the topcoat doesn't button all they way to the top, so your neck will get cold.

Hmmmm...what you need is a scarf.  And since you're dressed in white and black, the scarf better be white, too.  The picture above shows Ralph Bellamy in the 1937 movie "The Awful Truth,"  wearing an opera scarf that looks darn close to the classic  aviator scarf.

It really makes sense.  Early aviation wasn't cheap, and a number of the early aviators were affluent men who were accustomed to formal wear, and would likely have owned a number of opera scarves.  Seems like it would be pretty natural to grab one to go flying, if one's neck were getting cold or chafed.   And even the non-rich aviators would learn that any men's clothing store sold "opera scarves" which were perfect for flying.

The Spaulding company sold aviator's clothing in the post WW-I period, Schiffer Publishing sells a reproduction of the company's catalog.  In it, you'll find leather jackets, long leather coats, canvas one-piece flight suits,  leather helmets, gloves, goggles, boots, shoes, parachutes, even waders.

But you don't see scarves.  It might be that the price back then was so low that it wasn't worth Spaulding's while to package and ship them.  Or... they knew it was something anyone could buy at the local haberdashery.

Color Variations

However, it should be noted that aviator scarves weren't exclusively white.  In the movie "The Blue Max," George Peppard even wears a BLACK scarf.  Actually, it looks two-sided...one side black, the other a kind of dark gray with a dot pattern on it.  It might have represented a two-part scarf; a silk lining for a heavier-fabric outer part for additional warmth.

Interestingly, the poster for the movie shows Peppard with a RED scarf...and a frayed one at that!

And it looks like Bob Grimstead keeps that red-scarf tradition with his "Bristol Balderdash" Fly Baby.  Interestingly enough, when an aviation-collectables company named the Merchant of Glenorchy turned Bob's photo into an art deco poster (with Bob's permission), they turned the scarf white....pretty much reflecting the current style.

Over the years, I've seen any number of colors, including some that were printed in patterns.  I watched the cringe-inducing movie, "A Yank in the RAF" recently, and the title character (Tyrone Power) wore some kind of weird paisley scarf.  Logo scarves seem big, now.

Recently, I discovered a web page that mentioned that blue scarves with small white polka dots were popular with RAF pilots during WWII.   Interesting enough news, but the page then said that these scarves were still to be found in western-wear stores!  I found one displayed on the 'Wild West Mercantile' web page, and it was instantly familiar.   The big drawback is that the cowboy scarf is a large square 35" per side... not suited to the really classic look with the long tails hanging free.  However, seems to me that if you knot the scarf like a bandana and put the knot in the BACK, it should look about right, if you're wearing a coat.

J. Peterman now sells a replica RAF scarf.  It's a bit pricy at $150, but if you watch the site, they sometimes have a half-price discount.  My wife bought me one a few years back, and it's pretty nice.  It's my main scarf now, when the weather turns colder.

Buying Your Scarf

Basically, you want to buy a six-foot silk scarf.

Why six feet?  Because you are going to tie it around your neck, and wrapping it around your neck and getting it secured will take a considerable length of that.

Fortunately, there are a number of aviation outlets that sell classic white aviator scarves. Usually as novelty items...but the quality seems pretty good.  Prices typicall run about $30.  However, an online company named Major Surplus and Survival sells one for $10.  My wife says it's not as nicely made as the $30 scarves, and it's single-ply rather than the more standard two-layer ones.  But I bought a couple, and I think they're just fine.  I can use my two-ply scarves for cold weather. 

Wearing the Scarf

I know what you're thinking. You're going to take a quick turn of the scarf around your neck, and let the end trail in the breeze behind the cockpit.

One big problem with that:  Due to the slipstream being deflected by the windshield, the Fly Baby cockpit is a low pressure area.  The wind hits the windshield and gets deflected upwards then rolls under.  Thus, the usual airflow past the pilot's head is FORWARD.  Back when I wore cotton balls as temporary ear plugs, they'd occasionally come free.  I'd see them go forward, then up until they hit the main slipstream.

Your scarf will do the same thing, too, if you're not careful...as this picture of  Bob Grimstead illustrates.   Yes, the red thing in front of his chest is his scarf.

If you want the classic look of a scarf fluttering in the breeze, it's easy enough:  Just buy a second scarf and attach it to the aircraft's headrest. That'll put most of its weight outside the turbulent area.

So, what do you do with the scarf that you're wearing?

Scarf Knots

The basic thing:  You *must* secure the loose ends of the scarf.  The cockpit turbulence WILL pull them upward and forward.  If the ends or the knot are loose, the scarf will billow up in front of your face.

There are two basic knots you can use.  I use the classic square knot. I start with the scarf in front of my neck, take both ends completely around, then knot them in front and stuff the loose ends down under my shirt.  The ends aren't very long, so even if they come loose, they don't usually cause a problem. Being so short, they can't really get grabbed that strong by the wind.  I zip the jacket up almost all the way, too.

The second knot is something I call the "Hollywood Knot"  It's not really designed for open cockpits, but gives a devil-may-care look under the leather jacket.

The biggest problem with the Hollywood Knot is that the scarf ends are unsecured.  Unless you make an effort to secure those ends, the scarf WILL billow in front of your face while you fly.

But, hey...it DOES look good, don't it?

The art of tying the Hollywood Knot has been lost for generations, but I think I have rediscovered it.  It's basically a modified version of the standard double-Winsor knot, with the exception that the horizontal pass of the long end is left out.

Basically, you set up with one free end of the scarf very long, and the other very short.  Cross the long end over the short end, bring it up the middle, take it to the side it originally came from, then back underneath again.  Tighten the knot, then manually spread the top layer out.

I've added a visual guide to the end of this web page.

The top layer is essentially loose.  If you put on a jacket, it will naturally form the billowy "V" shape around your neck.  Without a jacket, the end hangs dashingly free.

Wrapping Up (No pun intended)

The silk scarf is a surprisingly useful accessory, for Fly Baby pilots.  For something that costs so little, it provides a surprising amount of comfort.  I recommend them highly.

If you wear one while flying, though, make sure the ends are secure.

Finally, be advised:  Hollywood Knot is a fearsome weapon, especially coupled with a dazzling smile.  Use it responsibly.



Comments? Contact Ron Wanttaja .

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Ron's Guide to the Hollywood Knot

This gives a step-by-step illustration of how to tie the Hollywood Knot.  It is done as if you are looking in the mirror.

One addition, suggested by a friend's talk with a WWII aviator:  If your scarf is long enough, take a wrap completely around your neck before starting with Step 1.    In other words, hold the middle of the scarf in front of your neck, then wrap both ends around until they come out as shown in Step 1.