Cashmere and Pashmina Shawls in the West

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The first mention of beautiful cashmere shawls on the western fashion scene seems to be around the mid-18th century, when these shawls were brought in the suitcases of British officers and merchants upon their return from India. There is also a reference to these shawls in Lord Clive’s rich memoirs.

An academic article from the same period describes them “as the most delicate wool manufacture in the world, so prized in the East and now so well known in England.”

At the end of the 18th century, we find evidence of the use of ‘cashmere shawl by the nobility of Europe, in portraits from that period. The rigid and formal dress gave way to a softer and more fluid style using draped “cashmere” shawls and stoles.

The wave of “return to old / classic”, towards the end of the 18th century, further fueled the use of “cashmere” shawls.

In France, the first records of cashmere shawls speak of them being gifted by Tipu Sultan’s ambassadors to French rulers around 1787. It could also be that the beautiful cashmere shawls came to France through England or followed Napoleon. military expedition to Egypt in 1798, when several soldiers brought shawls for their women. Napoleon’s partner Josephine is said to own between 60 and 400 cashmere shawls.

Josephine’s patronage confirmed the fashion, making the delicate cashmere shawl, the rectangular ‘doshala’, fashionable in Europe!

Over the years, the popularity of the shawl / stole grew because it could be draped in many ways and was sensually soft and warm. The portraits of the time (from the 18th century to the middle of the 19th century) show the ladies wearing a beautiful cashmere shawl; paisley or other floral motifs add to the richness and drama of the portraits.

As the 19th century progressed, the industrial revolution spread and many lower-market knockoffs were available everywhere, in jacquard weave or printed on cotton (lately on soft viscose). Lower cost curtains made it easy for women around the world to own a shawl and in many cases a knockoff!

It is worth mentioning here that shawl historians have discovered a very interesting similarity between the Scottish ‘Kirking Shawl’ and the ‘Kashmir Doshala’. In both cases, the shawl has a plain light color field and a deep, understated color palette for the edge in classic motifs  Kinross cashmere. In Scotland, a traditional bride would wear it to church (kirk) on the first Sunday after her marriage and the first church attendance after the birth of her baby.

From the late 19th century to the late 20th century, the shawl business witnessed many changes. The traditional large rectangular shawls gave way to the jackets and vests made with it. More shawls were left in closets (rather than being seen on the streets or public places), only to be called collectibles later. And yet others were used as ‘blankets’ to casually hang over sofas and pianos!