What are the Differences Between a Scarf, Shawl, Wrap and Stole?

When people ask me about my online scarf boutique, www.elizabetta.net, they often ask me what are the differences between a scarf, shawl, wrap and stole.


A rectangular or oblong can usually be worn as a shawl or a long scarf

There seems to be a fair amount of confusion about these terms and no wonder as frequently they are used interchangeably.

For those who want to be fashion term savvy, here’s the scoop:

All four names represent finished pieces of fabric that are worn. They can be made from natural fibers such as silk, cashmere, wool, cotton and linen, or man-made fibers such as acrylic and polyester.

Often for decorative purposes, natural and man-made fibers are used in the same scarf; for example, a shiny gold (man-made fiber) thread may be used to embroider a wool (natural fiber) scarf.

A shawl refers to a larger item, usually rectangular, but sometimes triangular or square in shape that can be wrapped around the body. Shawls are worn by men and women.

They add a lovely finishing touch to an outfit and can be worn for warmth or can be purely decorative or both.

Shawls are used to accent an outfit, to keep the chill out, for prayer and to cover bare shoulders in formal attire; in short, a highly versatile addition to anyone’s wardrobe.


Mens Wool and Cashmere Shawl-it can be worn as a scarf, draped around the neck, or a shawl, draped over the shoulders.

A stole is very similar to a shawl. The term probably derives from the ancient Roman stola, which is the woman’s version of the men’s toga.

The term stole today is usually used to describe a formal wrap, basically a shawl made of an elegant fabric, often not as wide as a shawl, but long enough to drape around the body.

The word stole is also used to describe a wide decorative sash that is draped over the shoulders as in a graduation stole or a liturgical stole.


A Woman’s Silk Evening Stole

This brings up the modern term “wrap” which nowadays is used for both shawls and stoles.

Are we confused yet?

Scarf. Scarves can be thin and long: think of a typical winter wool scarf. In other words, an item that can be wrapped or tied around your neck for warmth and fashion.

Scarves can also be long and thin or not so thin if the fabric is very fine, and tied around your neck to add a decorative accent to your wardrobe. These can be casual or formal fashion accent.

Beautiful silk scarves are used by both men and women for this purpose.


A classic reversible mens scarf, soft lightweight wool on one side, silk on the other.

Men’s Silk and Wool Scarf, both Warm and Decorative

ladies silk chiffon scarf

A womens long scarf, this one in silk chiffon

Scarves can also be square; small ones, usually around 53cm (20.5”) are called bandanas, neckscarves or neckerchiefs and are made of a light material, usually silk, but also cotton and linen.


Bandanas, neck scarves, neckerchiefs can be worn so many ways: try one tied around your purse handle, a ponytail or your belt loop for a fun dash of color.

90cm (36”) square scarves are called “foulards” and are the classic womens scarf, once again usually made of silk, but not always. It’s a versatile size that can be worn as a head scarf, or around the neck or waist.

silk foulard

The classic silk foulard approx. 36″ square has made a wonderful return in popularity.

And last but not least are oversized square scarves which are 120cm-140cm (47” -55”) that can be worn as a head scarf, wrapped around the shoulders as a shawl or worn around the hips. This size is becoming quite popular for men as well, wrapped around the neck in loose folds.


Oversized scarves and wraps are very popular as they can be worn in so many different ways!

7 comments to What are the Differences Between a Scarf, Shawl, Wrap and Stole?

  • Jean Francois

    My wife and I were in Rome this summer and my wife was looking for something to wear over her bare shoulders/head when we went into the Vatican or other Churches. What would you recommend for those situations? Shawl or scarf or stole?

    • I recommend a shawl or stole. Lately a lot of scarves are oversized, around 54″ square and are usually large enough to cover ones shoulders. But to be safe, I’d go with a shawl/stole as you can cover your head and shoulders, plus, it can be super lightweight, easily folded and put in your bag while visiting other places and pulled out at night while sitting outdoors at one of Romes great restaurants!


  • Hey thanks for sharing this awesome blog about shawls and stoles. It is really very nice information. Anyways all these scarves, stoles and shawls are very beautiful. All designs and colors are fabulous.

  • Lorrie

    I’m attending a wedding soon and have a shawl already would it be okay to wear a scarf as well to cover up some cleavage? Lol

  • thank you for a clear definition about scarves etc

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