Before her colleagues decreed silk scarves an acceptable alternative to face masks for the general public, Dr. Deborah Birx, the response coordinator for the White House Coronavirus Task Force, had been artfully knotting and draping them around her shoulders at the administration’s nightly press briefings.
Since her appointment on February 26, Dr. Birx has become one of the stars of the 22-person team that makes up the Coronavirus Task Force. She holds the middle ground between Trump’s foolhardy optimism and Dr. Fauci’s sobering realism. While her position has been criticized, there seems to be a general consensus on her flair for fashion. Day after day, Dr. Birx has turned up in front of television cameras, a scarf affixed to her person in the most creative of ways. They’ve become something of a highlight at press briefings—perhaps unintentionally, she’s captivated the American people with her “scarf du jour.” Just last month, Washington Post fashion critic Robin Givhan wrote a story in praise of her lovely foulards. And more recently, an Instagram account has appeared chronicling each of the pretty silk squares.
The brainchild of Victoria Strout, a fashion-obsessed music marketing executive from Fort Worth, the account known as @deborahbirxscarves has a simple format. Each post is populated with a slideshow offering various vantage points onto one of the doctor’s many scarves. The captions are straightforward, providing the date of the scarf’s appearance and, if known, its label. “Me and a couple of friends would watch each press conference and talk about Dr. Birx’s latest scarf,” says Strout. “So one Sunday afternoon I thought, You know what, I’m just going to compile all the screenshots I’ve taken on Instagram.”
So why does this all matter? Well, it really shouldn’t. Fashion for fashion’s sake seems a trivial thing to focus on right now, but there’s no denying its influence. Perhaps we find Dr. Birx’s scarves beguiling because we’re style starved. After all, there are no runway shows and red carpets to speak of. Perhaps it’s because Dr. Birx’s affinity for scarves speaks to a collective nostalgia—we might be reminded of a scarf our grandmother knotted around her bag à la Babe Paley or, more generally, of pre-coronavirus Camelot-era America, when FLOTUS Jackie Kennedy sported her babushka-style head wrappings on weekends in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts. Or maybe it’s because Dr. Birx’s style stands apart from the punchy-color pantsuit or slick sheath worn by most White House women. A typical Dr. Birx look consists of a prim dress, hosiery, and a waist-cinching belt; she ties the whole look together with a literal bow via her silken scarf.
Throughout history, variations of scarves have adorned the body. It’s understood that beneath her imposing headdresses, Nefertiti wore a scarf. The Qing Dynasty’s first emperor used scarves to denote military rank (silk for the higher-ups and cotton for others). Other scarf-like textiles appear in the traditional Spanish mantilla and the fringed paisley shawl imported from India and highly coveted by women in Victorian England. But today’s iteration of the silk scarf is likely owed to Hermès. In 1932, the maison designed its first silk square, printed via woodblock in a design by Robert Dumas. And each Hermès scarf since is meant to relay its own story. Through mythologies, symbolism, and provenance, the accessory possesses a sort of totemic allure.
Per @deborahbirxscarves, on April 6, Dr. Birx wore Hermès’s Rocaille II print, which was issued in 2003 as a detailed close-up of Valerie Dawlat-Dumoulin’s original Rocaille II from 1999. On March 27, she wore Hermès’s Le Jardin de la Maharani. It was tied around her shoulders with a point at the back and paired with a lovely blue-color 1950s-esque dress, replete with covered buttons and an exaggerated collar. According to Hermès, the scarf designed by Annie Faivre in 2017 features a floral motif meant as an offering to the Maharani of Jaipur, born Princess Gayatri Devi of Cooch Behar, the third wife of the Maharaja Sawai Man Singh II. “Her tastes and culture were equally inspired by India and Europe. She marked her time through her political engagement and her determination to bring education to Indian women,” explains the Hermès literature. Given her detail-oriented nature, Dr. Birx likely knows and appreciates the backstory as much as she does its elegant design.
Originally Appeared on Vogue