Thursday, December 3, 2009

Wrapped in Luxury: Cashmere Shawls

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Susan reports:

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.


Linda Banche said...

Oh, what beautiful shawls. Nowadays, shawls have the connotation of dowdy. But I suppose they would again become the latest fashion item if they were as expensive as they were in the Regency.

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

I'd love one of these shawls, too, Linda, but I know what you mean about shawls in general having that frumpty-dumpty rep. A few years back, pashmina shawls were all the rage, but that didn't seem to last, and now shawls seem once again relegated to the "fashion don't" page.

Clearly they haven't seem Mme. Riviere.....:)

nightsmusic said...

I love shawls! I don't care that they're "out of fashion" again. I'm not much of a fashionista I suppose. If I thought I could get away with it, I'd wear period dress most all the time. I just love it.

I don't wonder if they're thought of as dowdy now because, as time changes, so does a young person's view of fashion. Meaning, most wouldn't be 'caught dead' in something their grandmother would have worn.

Shame too, because they really are quite toasty :)

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Theo, I knit (compulsively), which is to say that I always have shawls, regardless of the fashion. I've also kept my cashmere pashmina shawl, even though the stylish folk have abandoned them (though mine came from TJMaxx, not the East India Company.)

As you say, they're just too toasty to abandon!

Ingrid said...

Isn't it interesting how terms change? Like pashmina, which used to mean the second-best quality hair of the cashmere goat. The best was tushli, if I remember the term correctly, from which the ring shawls were made. These shawls were fine enough to pass through a wedding ring.
These days a pashmina can be made from polyester and be very cheap. But Mme Riviere's shawl was no doubt made from real pashmina, and fabulously expensive.

Mme.Tresbeau said...

When pashmina shawls last became fashionable in the late 1990s, they were definitely luxury-items of fine cashmere blended with silk. Now the term has degenerated to mean any kind of stole or shawl. Street vendors in New York sell polyester "pashminas" for $8.00. Hardly in the same class as Madame Riviere's.

Vanessa Kelly said...

Thanks for posting those beautiful pictures, Susan. I, too,wear shawls in the winter, and would absolutely love a real pashmina.

Those Regency ladies sure had style, didn't they?

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

This is all very interesting!

"Pashmina" doesn't seem to be a term used before the 20th c., and certainly not in the late 18th-early 19th. Those first imported shawls are all called cashmere/kashmir -- the softest goat hair woven with a silk weft.

Not to be confused with "kerseymere" -- a twilled woolen cloth of the same period brushed to a softness that would mimic true cashmere, and maybe confuse buyers, too, with the similar name. (this info from the always-trustworthy "Textiles in America" by Florence M. Montgomery)

As to "pashmina" -- a quick google search comes up with a different definition from every source! (oh no, one of THOSE words) Some suggestions:

"a fine cashmere wool whose name comes from Pashmineh, made from Persian pashm for wool "]

"a rare Tibetan wild mountain goat, native to Kashmir; the fine wool that grows under the hair of this animal"

"The underfur of Capra-Hircus goat, it is the most luxurious, softest, warmest and lightest natural fiber. Origin: from Persian, literally: wool"

Becca said...

Amazing how so many of these fashions from the past you've been showing could be styled to work today. The quilted jacket with one of these shawls wrapped around the neck would be too cute!

Dorothea said...

A lady could cause envy and bitterness by draping an inexpensive shawl beautifully, so that it looked better than the other ladies' more costly items Hence the drawing of many ways of wearing one.

Try it in front of a mirror with you old pashmina (real or imitation) It can still look far from frumpy if you drape it right!

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