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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On shawls

Anne here, where the nights are getting chilly, and a woman's thoughts turn to... shawls and wraps.
I have to admit, I have an odd relationship with shawls; I love the idea of them and the look of them, and the beauty of some shawls is just breathtaking, so it's not surprising that I own quite a few shawls. However I hardly ever wear them.

I get impatient with shawls; they get in my way, they slide off me when I'm not looking, they need frequent adjustment, they dangle their ends in my coffee or champagne, or collect bits of food from other people's plates. And they never look as graceful or elegant on me as they do on other people, such as this lady above right, in an 1810 painting by Henri Francois Mulard.

Below is a lithograph plate showing a variety of ways of wearing shawls in early 19th-century France (ca. 1802-1814); redrawn from various early 19th-century sources by Durin for Albert Charles Auguste Racinet's Le Costume Historique (1888).  Isn't it just gorgeous? I blame this for my shawl addiction. I have the book it's from. Racinet-regency-empire-shawls-1888
So I keep buying shawls and drooling over pictures and displays of them because they're so beautiful. And whenever I'm tempted to buy I always wonder if whether this time, this shawl will be The One. 

I suspect women have always worn shawls or some variety of wrap. Traditionally our garments have always been less practical than men's for warmth, and as well as that, we tend to er, fluctuate in temperature from time to time. :)  On the right is one of the few portraits I found that show a shawl being used for warmth. It's by Elizabeth LeBrun, a female painter. Mostly shawls in paintings are a sexy accessory, also indicating wealth and exotic color and texture.

They're also a very useful accessory for flirtation — wrapping and rewrapping subtly draws attention to what is being wrapped, or perhaps revealed. It's the only possible excuse for some of the fine gauzy wraps and veils we see in history; decoration without warmth. Or perhaps a bit of color and movement to enliven a static portrait. 

In Western fashion history, the great flowering of the shawl took place in the 18th—19th century. It started with the import of exquisite shawls from Kashmir. Kashmir lies between Pakistan, India and China, and the shawls made there were from the fine hair — fleece, really, of Himalayan goats. The finest, most expensive fleece was collected in spring from bushes where goats had rubbed off the soft winter hair that lay beneath their coarser outer coats. The majority of shawls, however were made from pashmina, the hair from the belly of domestic goats — though these days 'pashmina' has become a generic term for a shawl. 
The word 'shawl' comes from the Persian 'shal', meaning a 'type of woven fabric'. Kashmir shawls were originally made for oriental noblemen, and the first shawls imported to Europe  were also used by men, but it wasn't long before women took control of these beautiful, warm and decorative items and men didn't really get a look-in again. 

The first Kashmir (or cashmere) shawls were wildly expensive as this portrait of the Empress Josephine indicates— the carelessly draped shawl symbolizes her possession of exotic and expensive riches of the orient.

 The art of the time is testament to the popularity of the shawl as an item of high fashion, wealth and style. 

Of course, Europeans immediately tried to imitate these gorgeous shawls, and the French, English and Scottish weavers competed fiercely to produce similar items quicker and more cheaply from wool, cotton or silk — they couldn't produce anything as light and fine and rich as the Kashmiris made. The most expensive Kashmir shawls were so light and fine that a whole shawl (more than five feet square) could be pulled through a wedding ring. 

Shawls were hugely fashionable, the finer and more expensive the better.
Catherine Willmott, a young Irishwoman visiting Naples in 1802, wrote to her brother, "As to dress, 'tis pretty much like the French, every lady with a great shoulder sheet of a shawl, looking like Mobbled Queens in the morning, and then in the evenings, exalted, through the Milliner's Apotheosis into Dianas, Junos, Hebes and all the Classic figures of the heavenly spheres. Guess where the Milliners and hairdressers go to study fashions; into the Churches among the Statues and Paintings which adorn the Tombs!"
(Note: the last part, about the hairdressers actually has nothing to do with shawls, as you can see, but I included it because it's so entertaining. Hope you enjoyed it.) 
Back in the UK, Norwich (pronounced Norritch) shawls of wool and silk were popular, but after the introduction of the French Jacquard loom, manufacturers in Paisley (Scotland) already well known for fine silks and muslins came to dominate the field. They copied the latest Kashmir shawls as soon as they arrived in port, sending their agents to London to examine each new shipment. In 1812, eight days after a shipment of Kashmir shawls arrived in London, Paisley imitations were being sold for £12. The original Kashmir shawl would have cost around £70-100. At this time, the annual wage for a maidservant was around £10, which gives you an idea of the expense —even a locally made Paisley shawl was not cheap. 

o successful were the weavers of Paisley at "borrowing" and transforming various elements of eastern designs that the name of their town eventually became synonymous with the pattern they wove. Even today we all know what "paisley" means, and it isn't a town.

But as is the way with most things, once the shawls became mass produced and cheap to purchase, they were no longer such desirable fashion items, and fell out of favor. These days they're back, though in different incarnations. Me, I'd love one of those big gorgeous Kashmiri shawls from the Regency era.

And as this blog draws to a close, let me share another of the gems of Catherine Willmott's letters; in Florence she discussed the role of the cicisbeo: "In numerous instances these cicisbeos may be call'd lovers, in many others, Guardians, and in others I have remark'd mere servants, to run about on messages, carry the lady's shawl on his arm and to conduct her from one house to another."

Clearly this is where I have been going wrong with shawls — I'm supposed to get a handsome Italian cicisbeo to carry the wretched thing.
*Patricia Rice just sent me this, as a solution to sliding shawls. Hmm, I don't know... cicisbeo or clip... cicisbeo or clip? What do you think?


What about you? Are you a wearer of shawls and wraps? Any favorites? Or are you like me and struggle with them? And which would you choose, the cicisbeo or the clip?