On Shawls

Anne here. It's the 1st of April, but I doubt we're in the mood for silly jokes, but maybe I'm the April fool, because today, I was halfway through writing this blog on shawls, I went looking online for an image I knew I had buried in the old computer, but didn't want to dig out — this one, which comes from a book I own by Auguste Racinet. Pure shawl porn, don't you agree? I love all the various styles in which a shawl could be worn.




But guess where I found the image? In a blog I'd written for the Word Wenches back in 2012, on the topic of — you guessed it — shawls. Not a bad blog, if I say so myself, but it covered a lot of the territory I'd planned to cover today. Curses!


But after a bit of grumping around, I decided to soldier on and write a second blog on shawls. Not as informative as the first, which you can read here, but hopefully entertaining enough.

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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?