Why were shawls so fashionable around 1800?

Shawls in early 19th century France

Shawls in early 19th century France

In the late 1600s shawl was not yet an English word, though it was beginning to turn up in travellers' descriptions of clothing they had seen in southern Asia. In the 1700s fine cashmere shawls from Kashmir and India arrived in Western Europe. At first they were not treated as clothing, but used to ornament the home, like other exotic, decorative novelties.

Imported Kashmiri shawls were skilfully hand-woven, often with richly patterned borders, and were very expensive.  Characteristic designs included the curving fruit or leaf motifs that we now think of as paisley pattern.

By the end of the 18th century a fashion for wearing shawls was under way. Dresses at the time were becoming softer, with a high waist and a narrower silhouette than earlier full-skirted styles. In plain colours, they were a perfect background for decorative shawls.

Around 1780 UK weavers started to manufacture what they called “Indian shawls”. By 1800 the trade was well-established. Light Regency or Empire dresses in pastel muslin were nicely complemented by warm shawls in vibrant shades.  The most fashionable shape was a long rectangle, around 8 feet by 4, but squares were also manufactured.

The shawl was very chic in Paris, the centre of fashion, and this reinforced its popularity in other European countries. Portraits of leading French ladies like the Empress Josephine and Madame Récamier, a “style icon” of the early 19th century, show them draped with flowing shawls. In 1810 Napoleon gave seventeen Kashmiri shawls as a wedding gift to his second bride; his first wife, Josephine, owned sixty.*

Over the following decades the UK, France, and Austria developed flourishing shawl industries. Experienced weaver-manufacturers adapted looms and techniques to imitate Indian design. Yet they never quite found a substitute for the best Himalayan cashmere yarn used in pashmina and similar fabrics. Kashmiri shawls were hard to beat. Imports of fine quality shawls from the region continued alongside the thriving trade in home-grown imitations. While Europeans were learning from Asian design, Kashmiri weavers were not unaware of Parisian trends.

The best alternative to true cashmere was a blend of silk and wool. Pure silk was sometimes used, and later in the 19th century wool-cotton blends were used too. Printed cotton shawls came onto the market – some quite high quality, intended for light summer wear. At first there was usually a multicolour printed border round a plain centre. As the trade got better at imitating Indian calico fabric, shawls with all-over printed patterns were also produced.

As fashions changed, so did the shawl. By the 1830s, they were still essential items in the wardrobe of elegant ladies, but woven shawls were now available to “middling” women too. They worked better with the new wider skirts than fitted coats would. Improvements in looms made it easier to produce the large, typically Victorian shawl covering the entire upper body while also draping down over the skirt.

By the 1870s fashionable ladies were no longer fond of shawls. One reason was the popularity of bustles. It was difficult to drape fine fabric elegantly over a skirt that stuck out at the back.  Also, cheap, mass-produced wraps were widely available by then, making the better ones seem less exclusive and desirable.

The late Victorian period was a sad time in the history of shawls. Some beautiful hand-woven antique shawls were cut up for dressmaking purposes, or used as curtains and allowed to fade. But shawls will never disappear from fashion. They are too versatile for that.

*According to Mary Dusenberry in Flowers, Dragons and Pine Trees: Asian Textiles in the Collection of the Spencer Museum of Art

See also Pamela Clabburn's Shawls for more on shawl history in the UK.


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