Fashion accessory: the shawl
The shawl is a generally square or triangular piece of material worn by women across their shoulders, over the top of their dresses, as an additional layer of warmth. In Asia and the Far East, shawls were traditionally worn by both men and women. The item of clothing arrived in Europe during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries following the development of British interests in the region. From this period, Persia and the Kashmir region became rivals in the production of finely embroidered or woven fabrics.
During the Directory, Consulate and imperial periods, the shawl was to prove the accessory every self-respecting woman about town needed in her wardrobe. Rare and highly sought-after, the shawl was often made of the finest, most expensive materials, in particular cashmere. Josephine, the future empress of France and renowned fashionista, owned numerous examples and was one of the first ladies to own one of the exotic shawls brought back from Egypt by Bonaparte, despite some initial reservations (she remarked in a letter to her son, Eugène, “I have received the shawls […] They seem most ugly to me. Their great advantage is their light weight. I do not believe they will catch on; no matter, I like them for they are extraordinary and warm.”).
She quickly changed her opinion of them, and proceeded to put together an enormous collection. An account from the period remarked, “The empress Josephine was passionate for them, and I am sure no-one else ever had such a precious collection [of shawls]. At [her home in Navarre], she had one hundred and fifty [examples] of a most incomparable beauty, and of great value too. She sent designs to Constantinople, which were used to make shawls as pleasing to the eye as they were precious. Every week M. Lenormand went to Navarre and sold her the most striking examples he had. I saw ones in white, sprinkled with roses, cornflowers, parakeets, peacocks, etc., which I believe are unique to Europe. Each one, we estimated, was worth fifteen or twenty thousand francs.”
Cashmere (wool from the Himalayas) was initially imported from faraway, oriental countries such as India, but after the introduction of the continental blockade – designed to prevent Britain from exporting its products to Europe – it was placed on the list of banned items. To mitigate this loss, a French mill owner, Guillaume Ternaux, introduced French cashmere, an invention that saw him inducted into the Légion d'honneur. Nevertheless, it took France a while to refine the product in order to match the imported foreign fabrics for weave quality and delicacy.
The shawl, and in particular its elongated form, could be worn in a number of different ways. As well as hanging over the shoulders, it could also be knotted around the front, pulled across the chest or even wound around the head in the style of a turban. It was a warm accessory that could both negate the need for a jacket and complement an outfit. The cashmere shawl played an important role in Parisian bourgeois and high society, and was often handed down through the family, from mother to daughter.
The latter years of the empire were however less kind to the shawl, and it was gradually replaced by more practical, warm items of clothing, such as the hooded witchoura, a warm, fur-lined coat, similar to the Polish wilczura.
E. Papot (tr. H.D.W.)