A land like Kashmir is not just a realm of beauty but also has a soul. It has been and will continue to be nourished by its rich heritage of arts and culture; and that was so steeped in its past. It is through these artworks that Kashmir reached the highest level of fame. Most believe that its beauty has inspired these works of art. But what lies within the cocoon of Kashmir is an endearing story that has reached the farthest corners of the world. It didnt even spare the tales of mid-Victorian novels. Read about the Kashmiri shawl and how it reached every nook and corner of the world
The Victorian fascination of Kashmiri Shawls
It all started with John Keay in his book 'The Memorable Company'. He mentions that the Merchant’s Hope, which set sail from Surat to England in the year 1613. This marked the beginning of the domestic economy. He substantiated, “Instead of English tweeds revolutionizing Eastern fashion, it was Indian cotton that was about to invade English domestic life. Napkins, table cloths, bedsheets, soft furnishings, even dress fabrics became an indispensable part of the English household.
Indian textiles took over these households. Cashmere also known as Kashmiri shawls became an important part of their lives. Little did they realize that they had fallen in love with the soft fleece from Kashmir.
Kashmiri Shawls: An Indispensable Commodity
These Kashmiri shawls, known to them as Cashmere, became an integral part of their lives.
It was the French Noblewomen who first adorned it sometime in the 1700s. But later these shawls became even more popular as the years passed by. Sometimes by the 1850s, there was this strong desire within the middle-class women to also adopt this style.
It is this reason why these shawls feature in these Victorian paintings, mostly a trademark of respectable English womanhood and a magical garment. It was also a gift that was expected by wives of noblemen and royalty who returned from India.
An essay written in the 'Household words' in 1852 says, “When son or grandson comes home from travel, far or near, his present is a new shawl, despite the fact that the supply that arrives from Asia over bleak continents and wide oceans, can only be for the rich and great.”
There was also an American Bill Brown who termed these shawls as 'material unconscious'. That because these shawls were a status of pride, especially when women stepped out of their houses.
Vivid images that warm the heart
In Elizabeth Gaskell’s "Mary Barton", a group of girls was described as wearing ‘the usual out-of-doors dress. This is worn by a certain class of maidens’. It was narrated that when John Barton’s sister, Esther, returns from an exile, she had put away this opulent shawl and wrapped herself in something rather ordinary. With the shawl, those women were also considered the symbols of sanctity.
So powerful was the Kashmir shawl that even if a woman who belonged to the impoverished class wore it, her social prestige would instantly rise.
In the text "Villete", an Irish woman is employed by a rich English household; and only because she knew a pure Cashmere shawl. The writer of this article adds, ”I feel quite sure that without this Cashmere, she would not have kept her footing even for two days, but she managed to for over a month.”
Capturing the writers' imagination
Cashmere shawls dominated the imagination of writers and historians as well as the people, especially in the nineteenth century. In the “Art of Dress: Fashion in England and France”, Aileen Ribiero says, “By the early 19th century, imitation Kashmiri shawls were being produced in Norwich, Paisley and Edinburgh, either of cotton or silk mixed with wool or very fine wool. However, nothing could match the real cashmere shawls for lightness and warmth and this is clearly marked in contemporary literature.”
These Cashmere wraps produced from the undercoat of the Changthangi goats were of unmatched fineness and quality. And this could not be disputed.
Besides, there were also famous portraits of noblewomen adorning these shawls along with the rich literature found. The most known image was of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, while the others too were impressive. According to Robert Rosenblum, “They were a hothouse ambiance of dense and indolent luxury.”
Kashmiri shawls in the later periods
By the end of the nineteenth century, these shawls were being collected as artifacts for museums, but even today its value has been retained.
In today’s contemporary world, the Kashmiri shawls are reputed for their timeless nature and the classiness they possess.
With a rich tradition that spans centuries, this fascinating textile art has captured the minds and hearts of people across the world, who have an interest in art and antiquity. While its value may be high, it is also lost in the market of imitation shawls that are doing the rounds everywhere.
Due to lack of knowledge and sometimes the affordability aspect, many buyers get sucked into this trap without realizing it.