The shawl of beauty and grace

Madame-recamier-by-francois-gerard 1802

An old familiar friend of a painting, but do we ever look at the shawl?

Joanna here, talking about that fashion accessory of the Seventeenth, Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries, the shawl.

Why shawls? We wear form-fitted, sleeved outer garments mostly — coats and sweaters and parkas and anoraks and Macintoshes — in the Twenty-first Century and feel pleased and practical doing so. Why did folks spend centuries throwing loose garments around themselves that didn’t button up and had to be draped and fidgeted with in a manner that may strike us as awkward?

I think an ideal of feminine beauty was at the root of it. The drape and swirl of a shawl, the varied possibilities with all their minute adjustments were alluring to the watcher. Displaying the shawl was an art, and this length of silk or wool might well be the most expensive object a woman wore.

So let’s talk paisley, since we’re talking shawls.

Paisley is based on a repeated, teardrop-shaped design pattern called a bota or boteh – a word that means  “shrub” or “cluster of leaves” in Persian.

Wenches star shaped tile from iran 1262

A decorative Persian tile from 1262. The boteh design comes from such roots

 This boteh is an ancient pattern, widespread in rugs, paintings, and tiles. It's an abstract shape that probably comes from the simplification of many sorts of feathers, fruit, flowers and so on in older designs. That is, there's no one origin. It's derived from many complexities that lost detail as they were copied and recopied.

In the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries the East India Company imported these Indian designs to Europe where they became immensely popular. Soldiers returning from service in the East brought back lovely, expensive scarves of silk and soft Kashmir (cashmere) wool to their sweethearts and family. The British version of the scarves might cost more than 20 pounds. Sir Walter Scott’s French bride Charlotte Carpentier was given a Kashmir shawl in 1797 for her trousseau that cost 50 guineas, a huge sum in those days.


A fine shawl wrapping up mother and child 1825

Period portraits are full of these Kashmiri scarves gracefully swirled round the shoulders of women in flimsy low cut, high-waisted dresses. The survival of generations of scantily clad British beauties doubtless depended on these lengths of wool.

Wench british hand loom wool asilk 1810

British wool and silk paisley shawl showing boteh 1810

Almost as soon as the imported scarves arrived, they were copied enthusiastically by European weavers, among them the craftsmen of the Scottish city of Paisley, so much so that the Persian design ended up named "paisley" after that city in Renfrewshire, Scotland, far, far from the exotic mountains and plains of the East.

The handlooms and, after 1820, Jacquard looms, of the misty north produced quite a good imitation of the original Indian product. But it was  not a perfect likeness.

Throughout the import period, imported Kashmiri shawls were more expensive and preferred over the British version. The colors were more varied. Even at the height of Scots weaving they were using a mere 15 colors as opposed to the more than 40 colors used in the Eastern imports. The quality of foreign weaving superior, and the fabric itself was lighter. British shawls were made from sheep’s wool. Kashmiri scarves, from softer, more supple, more lustrous goat’s hair. And Kashmiri weavers used the “twill tapestry technique”.

Those of you in the know about weaving technique will recognize that this means the horizontal (weft) threads of the pattern do not run all the way across the fabric but are woven back and forth around the vertical (warp) threads to where the color is needed again. This is the way Europeans weave tapestries. And no, I knew nothing about weaving technique before I looked this up.

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Shopping in my Closet

Cat 243 Doverby Mary Jo

I know people who lead wonderfully uncluttered lives.  They don't overbuy and if they no longer need an item, out it goes.  I admire such people, but alas! I am not one of them.

An online friend used the phrase "shopping in my closet" when she told of pulling out a couple of items she'd forgotten she owned.  She found a garment she needed so she didn't have to buy anything new, but the phrase resonated with me.  It suggested exploding closets with mysterious and possibly dangerous depths, too much Stuff, and a meditation on Too Many Clothes and Never A Thing to Wear.

Dressy jacketsExploding closets are a real issue since my house is not new enough to have massive walk in closets that are larger than the room I lived in my freshman year in college. (No, I'm not exaggerating.  That room was turned into a broom closet in later years, I'm told.) But even if I had a giant walk-in closet, all closets are finite, so eventually there will be Too Much Stuff.


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The Well-dressed Maid.

Joanna here:  Most of us have a picture of what a historical housemaid should look like.  
E. Phillips FOX - Déjeuner, 1911 

She'll wear black with a crisp white apron pinned to her bodice and a little cap on her head.  A Downton Abbey maid; an Upstairs Downstairs maid; a Victorian or Edwardian maid.  And for Victorian era maids, this is an accurate picture.
The maid would buy her own clothing, with the type and style stipulated by the mistress. 

A housemaid's dress is of some importance. When engaged in her morning work, washable materials are the best; a wide holland apron should always be worn over [an apron] of white material whenever house-cleaning is going on. If the servant be required to appear at the front door, or wait upon the family whilst at dirty work, by casting aside the outer apron she is able to appear at a moment's notice in a presentable manner. For afternoon wear in the winter, very dark or black French twill dresses are suitable, inexpensive, and easily washed. In the summer light cotton materials look best. At all seasons a neat white crochet cap is the best head-gear.
      Cassells Household Guide, c.1880s

George-kilburne 1Where heavy work was required, the maid would try to get that done in the morning and change to better and cleaner clothing after the worst of it.  This is not just for neatness sake.  The maid is representing the household.

If the parlour-maid answers the door, she should be neatly attired, and ready at a moment's notice to present herself creditably before strangers. A servant of good address at a professional man's door, is as much a matter of personal recommendation of the employer as the situation of his residence. Some amount of forethought on the part of the mistress is necessary to ensure cleanly appearance in a door-servant; but the attempt is worth making, if only for the sake of favourable first impressions on the part of strangers.
      Cassells Household Guide

One purpose of the Victorian maid's clothing is to establish her position in the social hierarchy.  The servant's clothing is this era is a sort of uniform that show she is a servant.   How embarrassing for all concerned if she were unmistaken for a lady of the house or a guest.

Thus the lady's maid, even when she has the perquisite of cast-off dresses, would not wear them going about her duties.  If she wears them on her day off, she'd best nip out of the house smart and not be seen.  "As a general rule, ladies do not like to see their maids dressed in the clothes they themselves have worn – except in wearing a black or a dark-coloured silk – the difference in the social scale of mistress and maid renders this unpleasing." Cassells Household Guide

Taking just a moment to talk about the nanny's clothing. 
Maidservant carrying breakfast tray albert goodwin 1893This is more likely to be light colored and easily washable, with black saved for 'best' when she brought the children out to meet guests and the family after dinner.

The dress of a nurse needs some words of comment. Long skirts should not be worn, tripping little children up, as they are liable to do. Gowns made of washable materials are most suitable. These are easily cleansed if soiled by nursery duties, and cost but little to renew. A waterproof apron worn under the ordinary white apron will be found a great comfort to a nurse, and might be supplied with advantage at the cost of the employer. Every nurse should also be furnished with a long, loose, warm wrapper, made like a dressing-gown, for night wear, when her duties require her to rise from her bed to take a baby to and from the mother's room. This garment should be purchased by the mistress, and kept for the use of any nurse who may succeed to the situation.
     Cassells Household Guide

Leslie,_George_Dunlop_-_Her_first_place before 1921But what about the Regency?
Moving a couple generations back in time and looking at the clothing of a Georgian or Regency maidservant, we discover an entirely different situation.  In 1760 or 1800, a maidservant wore essentially the same clothing as others of her class.  She wasn't required to buy special clothing to suit her job. 

Perhaps the maid dressed better than her cousins back home because she might have access to her mistress' castoffs.  Contemporary journals and letters complain of maids wearing clothing unsuitable to their station and their work.  But whether the maid wore her lady's silks to sashay about the parlor, dusting, or saved it for her day off, or thriftily sold it to the used clothing dealer, it must have presented a continual temptation to finery. 

There was no distinctive 'uniform' required for the Regency maid.  No necessity for drab and black.  No regimentation.  When the maidservant opened the door to the Regency hero she was as likely to be wearing flowered muslin as black serge.

The housemaid by william henry pyne 1827

Gilroy the stays

The chocolate girl jean ettienne liotard
Joseph Caraud - The Levee













What about you?  Have you ever had to wear a uniform?  Was it good, reasonable, proper to wear one … or just a pain in the neck?

Did it make you feel differently?
Do you treat people differently because they're wearing a uniform?

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