Cashmere was the essential hot commodity in early to mid-nineteenth century France. In fact, an 1854 volume titled Paris chez soi, says,
“In 1798 and 1799, the Egyptian campaign lent frightful importance to the fashion for shawls. Some generals in the expeditionary army, taking advantage of the proximity of India, sent home shawls of Cashmere to their wives and lady friend. From then on, the disease called Cashmere fever took on significant proportions. It began to spread during the Consulate, grew greater under the Empire. It became gigantic during the Restoration, reached colossal size during the July monarchy and has finally assumed Sphinx-like dimensions since the February Revolution of 1848.”
The Cashmere shawl, unlike most other fashion items, possesses an appeal like no other. This imperial, hand-woven textile was brought to France from the East through Napoleon. During his time, it became a cultural fetish and conjured up images of exotic delicacy and fine luxury.
French and the Cashmere Shawl
Frank Ames, in his history of the Kashmir shawl, describes the first point of contact between fashion and empire.
“When Napoleon returned from Egypt, the generals and officers who had served under him brought back mementos of the Orient. Among these were Kashmir shawls, which they wore around their waists as belts.”
From being a war souvenir, it soon became a fashion necessity, not just for its beauty but also its functionality and provided warm coverage. In fact, it might seem ironical, but Cashmere shawls permitted ladies to dress scantily in public and still remain decorously covered. Cashmere, which was once an integral part of the military, and indicated conquest & strength, was feminized. It was subsequently moved into the domestic sphere of fashion. It became a status symbol in the mid-19th century and became a trendsetter after Empress Josephine adorned it. Following her, every fashionable lady required a Cashmere shawl to complete her wardrobe and stand among the social elite.
And there's more…
Cashmere was an indicator of economic status. Although it is believed that Josephine owned several shawls, it was the Cashmere that held the highest value. Apart from looking at it from a social and economic standpoint, it also signified feminine virtue. It was considered an heirloom from a mother to her daughter or was purchased before her wedding. Journals reiterate that cashmere was an accessory reserved for married or marriageable women. Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu calls it “distinctive”, that quality of uniqueness that the dominant social group cultivates in order to maintain its place in the hierarchy. Basically, it was coveted by all, but not everyone could have it.
Also read: Kashmiri Shawls During the Dogra Period
A leaf in French literature
Honore de Balzac, definition of “distinction” is similar to Bourdieu’s. It provides the structure for the analyses of a few texts in French literature that establish a link between the fashion trend and broader social commentary. In one of his stories on Parisian life, Balzac makes a clear distinction between the two kinds of Parisian women. One can imitate the proper lady and the other can’t.
Cashmere in French Novels
According to Bourdieu, taste is a social construction. It's not just a barometer of social standing but also social meaning. A clear illustration of this is mentioned in Balzac’s novel Ferragus, written in 1833. Here, the female protagonist, Madame Jules, is seen through the eyes of her jealous admirer, Auguste de Maulincourt. It is when she delicately steps off a carriage and enters into a stately apartment. While she is being trailed by him, she later steps out again and enters a flower shop to buy a hair ornament for the evening soiree. When she arrives at the ball in the evening, she is the cynosure of all eyes due to the simplicity of her dress, which is equated with nobility. The colour of her outfit is white, which reinforces her virtuous nature. There is a phrase that is most used for her, ‘less is more.'
Jules’s apparent foil arrives a little later and accuses her husband of having a clandestine affair. She is the exact opposite of Jules, because of her inappropriate attire, which in turn reflects her low social standing. Jules wears a pure white Cashmere shawl that makes her stand out, while Balzac describes,
"Ida’s shawl is doubly inappropriate. First, she wears it like an open curtain at a bedroom window. Gaping and trailing on the floor, it leaves little to imagination"
Cashmere in more Books
Another of his novels, La Cousine Bette, also takes up the analysis of society through the prism of a single-family. The family has complex relations with elements from all social levels. A peasant, Bette was brought to Paris to stay with her beautiful cousin, Adeline, who was married to a wealthy soldier part of Napoleon’s army. Bette is envious of Adeline’s yellow Cashmere shawl and is supposedly the reason for her “poor relations” at material and emotional levels.
Bette’s fascination for the shawl reflects her craze for Cashmere, but also her yearning for power and prestige. Adeline’s yellow shawl signifies imperial luxury and a cultural sign as well. The shawl is linked to Bette’s “imperialist” fantasy of both wealth and honor. The novel, also represents marital bliss, since Adeline received it as a gift from her husband. Finally, even though it is old, Bette wants to pursue it because it is considered chic and timeless and an avenue to enter the fashionable circle.
Cashmere was a fetish for French women and remained so for a long, long time. Today, it is still an “object de desire” and is considered the most stunning and elegant of all shawls. Unfortunately, the market is full of imitation shawls that nullify the painstaking craftsmanship that goes into making this ‘art of the royals’.