To acquire wisdom, one must observe

The myth of the bright red scarf

I’ve just returned to my host country this term after a week of traveling around northwestern Europe. For the purposes of this column, where I went is not nearly as pertinent as what I saw.

All across Europe, there exists a secret society: the society of those who wear bright red scarves. Meetings are never held, new members are not formally inducted by way of an officiated ceremony and the group does not have a political or social agenda. Instead, members wear their bright red scarves and occasionally, in passing, perhaps in the metro or across the pavement, will pass each other knowing glances through crowds.

The look, always sly and never so obvious as to catch the attention of a non-member, is one of unspoken solidarity. This pointed glance conveys: I stand with you. My fellow red scarf-wearing comrade, we are strangers, and yet our tastes converge at this niche accessory. In a world full of neck-warming accessories that come in all sizes, colors and patterns, you have chosen the classically simple, eternally elegant bright red scarf.

That, dear reader, is solidarity. But it’s a rare kind of solidarity, one that is not earned from sitting in trenches on a battlefield or enduring hardship at the hands of a ruthless political elite. Rather, it is a tacit camaraderie that is earned by a simple yet decisive convergence in personal taste. The choice to warm oneself with a classic, striking item that elevates even the drabbest of winter wardrobes.

Now, onto the nature of this convergence. Here it is important to posit that the scarves of which I’m referring to must fulfill certain requisites, which are tacitly agreed upon by members, to warrant recognition. Firstly, they cannot be trendy. You know those massive fuzzy scarves with the long tassels that have dominated fashion discourse this winter season? Those—in red—don’t induct you into the society. Why? Because they’re not staples. Among the most important qualities that earns membership into this society is the longevity of your accessory. A big idea uniting members is that the bright red scarf is timeless. It is not a trend which will be dethroned from glory by the next big thing. Rather, it has longevity: it will stay in your wardrobe for as long as you own it. Always appropriate, never leaving a bad taste. Secondly, and though this may be obvious, it’s just as important: the color. When I say bright red, I mean bright red. Not burgundy, not crimson, not maroon. Bright red. The kind that, when worn on the lips, is impossible to look away from.

Now, what does all this mean? Here, an introduction to a Frenchman by the name of Roland Barthes may be of use. Barthes was a French intellectual, writing in the post-war era, who pioneered post-structuralism and would go on to influence the most important French deconstructionists, including Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault. Among his most important works is a collection of essays he wrote for the French magazine “Les Lettres Nouvelles.” Compiled into a book published in 1957, “Mythologies” looks to mid-century artifacts in French popular culture to decode what image of “the French” the French people are being sold. Barthes examines commodities from kitchenware to laundry detergent, and working-class pastimes such as watching wrestling matches to reveal the culture beneath mass culture.

In “Mythologies,” Barthes takes up the role of a cultural excavator and decoder. He takes up a piece of culture, for instance, the striptease, and sets out to find what it says about popular culture. He finds that the striptease desexualizes the woman in popular culture. Because the process never divulges into sex, Barthes argues, men (the foremost consumers of stripteases in the mid-twentieth century) experience a kind of revilement of their sex drives without the act of sex ever taking place. Barthes contends that this popular ritual speaks to the incompleteness of sexuality and the myth of women in the mid-twentieth century. He repeats this process across his essays, from the Cadillac to Einstein’s brain, Barthes takes artifacts of modern culture, evaluates them critically and reveals from behind the mask what cultural expressions are being implicitly sold to mass consumers. It’s a process concerned with uncovering the sly cultural messages we consume in daily life that ultimately dictate how it is that we ought to think, dress and act.

I think we can apply Barthes’ methodology to the bright red scarf. What is the bright red scarf as a cultural artifact? What does it mean? What is it saying? Perhaps more importantly, who is it saying those things to? 

The bright red scarf is a symbol of chicness. Not to be necessarily connotated with wealth or socioeconomic status. The bright red scarf is a symbol of persistence. The red scarf possessed a kind of striking style in 1950, and it still possesses that same power today. When one wears the bright red scarf, they command attention. Subtly. Not in a gaudy kind of way, but in a manner that catches the eye of passersby who walk past it and cannot help but be struck by its flashing color and ability to lend life to even the palest of complexions. 

The bright red scarf need not be expensive. In fact, I didn’t pay a penny for mine. But its inclusion into one’s wardrobe is priceless. Especially if you wear a lot of neutrals, the bright red scarf has the ability to elevate an otherwise dull outfit into one of an effortlessly chic character. It possesses that element of classiness that connotes one is self-assured and is in “it” (whatever “it” may be for the wearer) for the long haul.

Yet the best part of becoming part of this society is that as you walk along the pavements of charming old cities, sporting your bright red scarf, you’ll inevitably come across a passerby wearing one as well. Your eyes will meet for a moment; a wordless exchange of tacit solidarity will be expressed, and you will go about your respective days knowing there are others in the world who share your affection for the timeless bright red scarf.

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