No garment combines simplicity and utility like the scarf. Minimal in design—essentially, it's just a long rectangle of cloth—the scarf most nearly approaches the ideal of one size fits all (which is why it's such a ubiquitous gift, either store-bought or amateurishly hand-knitted by an ambitious sweetheart). And, as every mother who has ever forced a muffler on her kid on a cold day knows, it works. That scratchy swatch of wool will protect her kid's neck from the cold (at least until he rounds the corner and takes it off).
But forget throwaway gifts and the indignities of childhood. This is about style, and what you may not have recognized as an oppressed kid with an itchy neck is that scarves have style in spades. Ask any rock star. Worn right, a scarf is a dashing complement to any ensemble that can broadcast a range of messages.
Wear a scarf under a top coat and looped tight to the neck with one end draped neatly over the other, and you're a swell with very important business to attend to. Layer it loosely around the neck and put on a sport jacket, and you're the dashing man-about-town who wants a splash of color without having to wear a tie. Drape it on top of your jacket, and you're a movie director (or an Episcopal bishop). Toss it across your shoulder and you just don't give a damn (or are rooting for a soccer team).
Cloth selection is the key to comfort. You hated scarves as a kid because they were rough. Treat yourself to fine wool or cashmere. Silk is the smoothest choice and offers the greatest range of patterns, but it's not as warm. Scarves with one side silk and the other fine wool are a sublime compromise. Silk in solid white is the best accompaniment to formal wear. Cotton, soft yet not as warm, has its place in old-school scarves or for showing allegiance to a favorite sports team.
Consider fine scarves from such renowned makers as Pringle of Scotland, Begg Scotland (known for its signature paisley patterns), Ermenegildo Zegna (pictured right, $375, www.zegna.com), David Chu, Missoni and Canali. Or you can take the category to a higher plateau with the Loro Piana Sciarpa Winston Marmotta (pictured at center, $2,000, along with the company's Sciarpa Fraganza, $675, left, www.loropiana.com). One side of the Winston is cashmere and the other marmot. We're betting it won't itch.