Shawls have long been made in a wide variety of materials, including wool, tulle, lace and muslin, but it is hard to rival the sheer elegance of silk.
In the 18th century, Spitalfields in London became the centre of British silk manufacture and it was here that the finest all-silk
shawls were made. A wonderful example from the Regency period, which is now in London's V&A Museum, has a dark ground and a colourful
border of wheat ears and English flowers that subtly form the classic cone motif that is so well known from Kashmir and Paisley shawls.
Pure silk shawls became fashionable in about 1809 and were produced throughout the Victorian age and particularly in the Edwardian period. These very attractive shawls,
and later 20th-century examples, can be purchased quite reasonably and make an extremely interesting collection.
THE FASHION FOR SHAWLS
From the beginning of the Victorian era, shawls, in a variety of materials, were an essential part of ladies' dress. Many were imported from the East, but they were also produced in large numbers at textile centres in France, England and Scotland. Their heyday was the mid-19th century, but they have been produced and worn right up to the present day in a variety of changing styles.
Up to about 1870, the shawl was chiefly an item of outdoor clothing, and in fact was the only thing which could be worn over
the bulky crinoline dresses of the time. These earlier shawls were usually square, double
square or triangular in shape. As fashions changed
they became larger: by the 1860s an average square shawl measured up to 1.85m or 16ft square, while the long double square shawl (usually
known as a 'plaid') was 3 x 1.5m / 10 x 5ft. Queen Victoria was known to favour the plaid style, folded double and worn around the shoulders. As a result, plaids became more popular than the folded square or triangular shawl, which was worn with the point banging down the back.
After 1870 the shawl went out of fashion as an outdoor garment. Capes and jackets looked much more elegant over the new-style dresses with protruding hustles. By about 1875 the
shawl was only worn outdoors by the old and the poor, although ladies of taste now began to wear a smaller, lighter version as an evening wrap. This fashion continued throughout the Edwardian period. In 1908, for example, evening shawls were worn around the neck with a collarless open cloak, or were draped classically around the shoulders. The fashion for silk evening shawls continues to this day:
as evening wear has become more glamorous and revealing, many an elegant lady has covered herself with a silk shawl, to keep off both the draughts and unwelcome attention!
Silk shawls may be bought at antiques auctions or from specialists in antique clothing or fabrics. The fabrics can be quite fragile, so, if you want to preserve their condition, you shouldn't wear your shawl, or drape it over a sofa or table as the Victorians did! Dust and light can cause irreparable damage and fading, so store your shawls carefully. Pack them in acid-free tissue paper, in cardboard boxes rather than plastic bags, to allow the fabric to 'breathe'. Repairs are sometimes feasible but can be expensive. If in doubt, obtain the advice of museum textile experts.
Many different types of silk were used in the making of shawls, which came in a variety of colours, patterns and styles as fashions changed. These factors can offer clues to the approximate age of a shawl. In the 1830s, silk crepe was popular, and was either plain, embroidered or printed. The 1830s also saw a fashion for vivid colours on a dark ground.
Pure twilled silk, called 'levantine', was used up to the 1840s, and silk shawls made in the Spitalfields area of London were especially prized. Before 1840, only the borders of the shawl were patterned, although by 1850 the pattern had spread over the whole shawl. In the 1840s, Chinese crepe and changeable or 'shot'
became popular, and shawls were often made in these fabrics to match dresses. Black silk shawls were produced throughout the period, but in the 1850s black silk gauze and netting were especially popular for summer wear. In the 1850s and 1860s, black Chantilly lace over light-coloured silk was fashionable. Black Maltese lace and heavy Spanish lace were also used at this time.
From 1860 to 1870, many silk shawls were imported from China, often in light cream colours with embroidered flowers. This decade was the heyday of the famous Norwich firm Clabburn, Son & Crisp, who made plaids of pure silk, often with a deep crimson warp. Some of their later designs seem to foreshadow the graceful patterns of art nouveau.
After 1870 the large heavy shawls were replaced by smaller, evening shawls, often of heavily embroidered silk and lace. The deeply fringed black silk shawl was popularized after the death of Prince Albert in 1861, and soon became a classic item of evening wear which lasted well into the 20th century. Edwardian examples may have brilliantly coloured silk embroidery in floral designs on the black ground.
During the 1920s and 1930s, shawls became yet more exotic as the oriental look was once again popular. The silk shawl was a medium for the new designs of art deco, and you may come across examples in bold geometric patterns and vivid colours.
Black silk shawls were particularly popular for evening wear in the late 19th century, with most having brilliantly coloured silk embroidery along borders and edges as well as long, elegant fringes.