What does fall mean to you?
Perhaps that it’s time to talk about death without it being weird? Perhaps it’s thinking of a topical-and-clever-but-cool-and-comfortable-and-cheap-and-flattering Halloween costume? Or washing your sweaters over and over, even though nothing makes them stop smelling like basement? Time to pull your Bon Iver-heavy playlists out of storage and think your saddest thoughts? Maybe “fall” to you means artificial pumpkin spice and apple flavors, and if so, that’s fine. Maybe “fall” is just a little pit stop before you get to the good stuff: the snow and twinkly lights stuff. Maybe the meaning of “fall” is inarticulable for you, but you know it makes you feel a little wild and possessed. Maybe you’re a witch? Cool!
But for a not-insubstantial corner of the internet, fall means something even better, no offense. In the world of Taylor Swift fans, in the spaces they congregate online, fall means it’s time, yet again, to ask, “Where’s the scarf?”
Taylor Swift’s scarf. Specifically, the scarf she references in the 2011 song “All Too Well,” which she co-wrote with longtime collaborator Liz Rose. This song, widely known to be about Swift’s ex-boyfriend Jake Gyllenhaal — whom she dated from October to December 2010 — references a number of details specific to their relationship, including a car trip to upstate New York and a Thanksgiving dinner at Maggie Gyllenhaal’s house. In the first verse, Swift makes this fascinating claim:
Left my scarf there at your sister's house
And you've still got it in your drawer even now
And near the end of the song, which reaches an improbable and uncomfortable emotional climax that makes me shaky just thinking about it, she makes this even weirder assertion:
Now you mail back my things and I walk home alone
But you keep my old scarf from that very first week
‘Cause it reminds you of innocence and it smells like me
Swift says this song was originally “10, 12, or 15 minutes” long, and Rose’s contribution was to trim the fat to get to the most important parts. The fact that the scarf survived this substantial editing process means it’s important, right?
What is the “significance” of the scarf?
The scarf became an important image for Swift’s fandom because many of them believe it’s been seen in public and referenced in other works. Taylor Swift is gifted at writing music that contributes to an ever-expanding Taylor Swift Mythology, and she likely knew what she was doing when she picked out this item for repeated reference. There is a famous set of paparazzi photos of Swift and Gyllenhaal strolling around Park Slope (where his sister Maggie lives with her husband Peter Sarsgaard and their two daughters) holding maple lattes. They were taken on Thanksgiving, the same day the song dwells on. In the photos, Swift is wearing a scarf that Gyllenhaal had been photographed wearing previously. Is it the same scarf? It’s not impossible. In fact, it’s not even unlikely! How many different scarves do you have? How many that would warrant musical tribute?
In Swift’s music video for “We Are Never Getting Back Together,” also rumored to be about Jake Gyllenhaal, the doofy love interest gives Swift a scarf, wrapping it around her while she’s standing outside, surrounded by fall foliage. In a 2012 interview with Katie Couric, Swift seemed surprised that fans had interpreted this as a reference to Gyllenhaal, and to the “All Too Well” scarf. Or, you might say, she was just surprised that they were so quick to figure out the reference.
It’s hard to explain exactly why the scarf is so fascinating, but to hazard some guesses: “scarf” is a funny word to say over and over. Everyone relates to the experience of assigning outsized significance to the debris of a relationship. Everyone relates to the experience of a very short relationship having an inexplicably large emotional impact, its brevity forcing you to pick something silly to cling to from a meager selection of objects related to it. Everyone likes a good mystery. Autumn in New York is a fantastic setting for a mystery. Autumn in New York is a fantastic setting for a failed love story; Jake Gyllenhaal is famous and compelling in his own right.
What’s the mystery?
Does Jake Gyllenhaal really have the scarf in a special drawer? Did he mail it back after the song came out? Did he burn it? Did he sell it? Did he give it to me?
Why does this question return every fall?
Swift’s 2012 album Red is a fall album not just because it came out in October that year, but because the lion’s share of it is transparently about a relationship that took place in the fall. “All Too Well” is a fall song, and opens with the lyric “I walked through the door with you / the air was cold.” The question of any scarf’s location is a common fall question. Have you really never asked it?
The usual search goes like this: “Where’s my scarf? It’s fall now. I need a scarf. I really need a better system for storing my seasonal outerwear. Maybe a drawer. Yeah, a special scarf drawer. Like Jake Gyllenhaal’s scarf drawer? Oh my God, I wonder if he still has the scarf. This year, I’m going to set aside a special drawer for my scarves, and I’m going to put a sweet little photo of Jake Gyllenhaal’s face on it so I don’t forget what it’s for.”
Who exactly is so concerned about the location of the scarf?
Taylor Swift’s fans have pulled apart every album with the help of her coded liner notes, as well as the enthusiasm of an enormous community on social media. They have dwelled on the scarf for the last five years, referencing it in widely circulated memes, GIF sets, and pieces of micro fan fiction.
One of my favorite examples of fan engagement with the mystery of the scarf is the bounty of fan fiction inspired by the song. Some of it is about Taylor Swift and Jake Gyllenhaal, but a lot of it uses the lyrics as a jumping-off point for totally unrelated stories. This moves the scarf beyond a silly pop culture mystery and into an ever-growing online literary canon. For example, there’s a piece called “Plaid Shirts & Grey Scarves” about two characters on Disney Channel’s Girl Meets World, which the author says was inspired by “All Too Well.” You can read “All Too Well”-inspired fan fiction about Harry Potter, ABC’s Once Upon a Time, Nickelodeon’s Victorious, and the webcomic and manga Hetalia: Axis Powers, among dozens of others. Taylor Swift’s scarf is the green dock light of our time.
Are there any new clues about the scarf this fall?
Just a few days ago, a Swift fan posted an Instagram Live video asking whether the fandom would ever get closure on the broader scarf-and-Gyllenhaal story, by way of Swift releasing the full 10-minute cut of “All Too Well.” Swift responded that she didn’t know where this version of the song was. To be more specific, she said “IT’S SOMEWHERE IN A DRAWER I DON’T KNOW I DON’T KNOW.”
In September, while appearing on Andy Cohen’s Watch What Happens Live to promote her new HBO show The Deuce, Maggie Gyllenhaal was asked about the scarf point-blank. She replied, “I never understood why everybody asked me about this scarf. What is this?” After Cohen explained, she said, “I am in the dark about the scarf… I don’t know,” and then conceded, “I have been asked this before.”
The blogosphere interpreted this statement many different ways, from “Maggie Gyllenhaal isn’t going to solve the mystery of Taylor Swift’s scarf,” to “Finally, the mystery of Taylor Swift’s scarf is solved.” Obviously this clue wasn’t particularly helpful. Though Metro UK’s Rebecca Lewis also weighed in to say that anyone who was waiting for Maggie to close the case wasn’t paying close enough attention to Swift’s lyrics in the first place: the song specifically accuses Jake Gyllenhaal of taking the scarf home with him from Maggie’s house.
It’s a cold case; we’re just dredging it up year after year as a tradition, a kind of fandom autumnal rite.
Even if we never find the scarf, doesn’t it seem like a testament to the power of personal, confessional song writing that so many people have dwelled on such a banal detail for years?
Doesn’t this seem like an exquisite and genius revenge strategy: planting into your hit song a tiny story that demands follow-up questions and guarantees that someone who hurt your feelings will be asked about it for the rest of their life?
Don’t you think Taylor Swift probably just left the scarf on a bench?
But doesn’t that make it even better? And a little scarier — just in time for fall?
Yes! Why isn’t there an episode of Lore about this? It would be fascinating, and at least as terrifying as the episode about invisible Icelandic elves.