Imagining early 19th c. ladies in their thin, unstructured gowns of muslin and silk during the winter makes us shiver in sympathy with them – especially imagining those gowns in a drafty drawing room before central heating. But fear not: in the late 18th c., the British East India Company had nobly come to aid of shivering ladies.
The first shawls were imported in the late 18th c. from Kashmir, where they were worn primarily by men, but English and French ladies were quick to adopt them. Long, rectangular stoles handwoven of impossibly soft and warm cashmere, the shawls featured deep borders with boteh (pine cones) or paisley motifs on each end. The shawls had everything a lady of fashion could desire: they looked gorgeous over the plain gowns, they were as graceful and flirtatious as a fan, they were warm, and they were really, really expensive.
Madame Riviere, above, painted by John-Auguste-Dominique Ingres in 1806, demonstrates exactly why the shawls were such a flattering style. She was famous for her shawls; one theory suggests that they were costly gifts from a guilty husband who bought them for her to make up for his numerous infidelities.
Soon a cashmere shawl from India became the status wrap, much like mink stoles were in the 1950s, and any 19th c. fashionista worth her style-salt could spot a fake one of ordinary English or Scottish wool at twenty paces. The Napoleonic Wars that made shipping perilous only drove the prices higher and made the shawls even more desirable, and the English blockades forced French ladies (or rather, their husbands and lovers) to pay exorbitantly for smuggled shawls.
"The elegance of a woman can be equated with the quality of her shawl, or rather, of its price" declared the Journal de Paris in 1805, and who are we to argue? The drawing above dates from the 1880s, long after the style was current, but it still shows the wide variety of ways in which the shawls were worn.
We NHG think that as historical fashion goes, these cashmere shawls were pretty cool (or rather, pretty warm) and we're sure we'd write MUCH better books if we had one of these wrapped around our shoulders.
For more about early 19th c. cashmere shawls, check out one of our absolutely favorite costume/art history books, Ingres in Fashion by Eileen Ribeiro.