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Un Schall de Cachemire, le comble du bon genre...

Aktualisiert: 31. März 2021

Les schalls de Cachemire sont toujours à la mode. Une petite maîtresse ne laisse plus son schall dans l'antichambre; elle le place sur le dossier de son fauteuil d'une manière négligée, et ayant soin de le draper de façon qu'il soit en harmonie avec le reste de sa parure: un schall blanc ou ponceau, c'est assez bien: un schall pistache est encore mieux, mais avoir un schall noir, c'est le comble du bon genre. (Journal des Dames et des Modes de Francfort No 13, 26 Mars 1804, p 349)

Un Schall de Cachemire, le comble du bon genre...

The indispensable accessory, the sine-qua-non, if we are to believe the Journals of the time period and the paintings and fashion plates of the period.

Lady of Fashion with Grecian Hair, white dress and a long red shawl.
Les schalls de mode sont les schalls longs, de mousseline teinte en cramoisi turc (comme celui qu'offre la gravure) ou en bleu turc [...] Journal des Dames et des Modes (de Francfort), No 33, 10 août 1801 ©Alessandra Reeves

A Shawl or Schall, or Shall, or Schaul, or Schaal, or Châle or Challe or simply a “Cachemire” - Spelling is optional as already noted by Bohn. I will adhere to Shawl in this article - is as much a challenge to the lady of today as to the lady back then. This article is related to the recorded conversation between Tanja and myself, where we cover these topics - please visit our YouTube Channel by clicking above if the conversation is of interest to you. We didn’t really prepare the conversation, it may be a bit erratic, and I hope this article is easier to follow. Our conversation does not have the aim to be a scientific discourse, nor does this article claim to be such (If you are looking for this, you will need some more years of patience) - our conversation and this complimentary blogpost has for its aim to make life a little bit easier to re-enactors and living history people, who do not have the time or interest to trawl through source material for months.

Questions we try to cover:

- What is a shawl?

- What is the proper size? - What is the best colour? - How to wear it?

- Where to get it? (And last but not least: how to pay for it.)

I briefly brushed the subject in my article “Why not have a simple white dress and a camisole to go with? You'd cover evening and daywear easily?” (2017) on Pavillon de la Paix

Tanja as photographed during our Shawl-Talk, July 2020 © Picture: Fabrice Robardey for Les Soirées Amusantes

What do I understand under a “Shawl”?

Let me begin with firming up the concept of shawl, as I address it here.

A shawl is a sizeable piece of cloth, to add a touch of colour to our dress, to help to enhance our personal style, as well as supply some warmth.

The materials of choice can be: Silk*, wool, embroidered muslin, tulle, and most expensively Cashmere.

Journal des Luxus und der Moden, Tafel 29, Oktober 1799: "Erlauben Sie mir, daß ich Ihnen hier eine junge Dame vorführe, die mit dem Umschlag ihres Shawls die schöne Mittelstraße zwischen theatralischen Ansprüchen und affectierter Nachlässigkeit zu halten weiss. Ihr Shawl hat ohngefähr 2 1/2 Elle Breite, und hing von der linken Schulter vor bis zur Erde gerade herunter, legte sich rückwärts in breite Falten, und wurde am andern Ende mit der linken Hand so gefasst, dass auch hier noch einige schöne Falten fielen, und der Gegensatz der Krümmung zu dem grad herabgehenden sich vortheilhaft hob." ©ThULB, Klassikstiftung Weimar, DFG

How big is it supposed to be?

What is the proper size? As a re-enactor/Living History person I often wonder why so many ladies today prefer to opt for a short stole with an inappropriate paisley motive, instead of looking at the period examples, especially as we live in an age of an abundance of information**.

To sum it up: Sizes vary, but the general idea is 2.5m x 1.2m as the minimum I would recommend, to create a pleasant drapery, for my own size of 168cm I’d opt for 3m. (There are some shorter originals, sometimes referred to as “écharpe” or “étole”- a sash)

Period sources mention a ration from 2:1 over 4:1,2 to 6:1 (See Bohn), thus 3m of a modern width of 1.2- 1.4m is an easy size, even allowing for some fringes at the ends There are also square shawls, often folded into a triangle - though less present not any less correct.

What Colour would you like?

As I found myself answering questions about colour again and again during dances or other events, I would like to hand that question off to people who wrote, painted and illustrated 200 years ago: As mentioned during our conversation, I used Pinterest to prepare boards with different coloured shawl themes. Of course, they aren’t complete. I add to them whenever I find something interesting, but I hope they will offer some assistance.

Close-up image of an Indian Cachemire shawl
Shawl of Indian Origin, ca 1800, property of Tanja Grebe. © Picture: Fabrice Robardey for Les Soirées Amusantes

So far I can’t tell that there was the colour to have, it seems to boil down to personal preference of the wearer.

Yet also to the origin. Bohn mentioned that shawls imported from India were usually [...]Gewöhnlich ist es zitronengelb oder blaßweiß im Grunde, dabey mit zerstreuten kleinen Blumen und Kanten geziert.[...] - though not every shawl in the period was of Indian origin, or of cachemire (they were rare and expensive. Though what about the conundrum of the pattern? Well, to be quite blunt, not every shawl needs botehs (The teardrop / pine cone shape we tend to to call “paisley”), and in my opinion it is better to opt for a plain shawl, instead for one with wrong pattern or the wrong size - Shawls without patterns or with sewn on side ribbons (called “chefs'' in the journal des dames) were an alternative already in the period, as real Indian shawls were prohibitively expensive. Some of Joséphine’s collection are said to have cost between 15 and 20’000 francs ***

Thus I think, if I would have been a lady living in the period, my choice would have been a simple piece of fine wool fabric, as that would tick all the boxes: Right size, still a luxury item by its colour and cost, and a warming layer of the wardrobe. 3m of a good quality cotton muslin (what could be embroidered if you like to spend the time on it) or 3m of fine wool in a colour of our choice can be an easy and affordable way to improve our kit.

The Pleasant Drapery

The question on how to wear shawls was already a matter of discussion in the period. Inspired by Lady Hamilton’s attitudes, transported into the elegant society by Barbara von Krüdener, the way a shawl should be draped was quite clear, though not always easy. It should be elegant, sophisticated, effortless, framing the elegant figure as well as possible. Karl-August Böttiger, my beloved gossip and early classicist addressed it in his book “Sabina” (1801) “In holding her coat an ancient Roman lady possessed all the artifice and skill an elegant lady of our days - with our day he means 1801 - handles her shawl and train. Especially the most graceful effect of drapery.”

Woman in a white dress, with a shawl draped over her shoulders
The soft wool of the European Shawl draped from one shoulder. © Picture: Fabrice Robardey for Les Soirées Amusantes

In his footnotes he recommends visiting the statues at the Louvre (though he doesn’t call it Louvre yet) - and that is a very good hint. I myself am also involved in Roman Living History, and while practicing at the Basel sculpture collection during an event, something just clicked, suddenly I didn’t see the Roman in the mirror anymore, but 1800 and ever since then my Roman pallas have double duty as shawls in 1800. I can only recommend taking your shawl and practice, in company of statues, or alone in front of a mirror. Practice is key to wear it elegantly and with ease - keeping in mind that elegance isn't achieved if nothing more can be added, but if there's nothing left to leave away.

Where would I procure a shawl?

If we would have wanted to obtain a real Cashmere shawl in the period, I dare say it would be similar to ladies today wishing to obtain a Kelly bag. It would take connections to the vendor and a lot of money. The shawl would be a piece of textile jewellery, a sign of sophistication, of being a woman of means, of status. Many vendors were located at the Palais Royal, which might give you an indication to the status of their wares. The more affordable options were French made copies or plain shawls enhanced by adding woven borders onto them, these solutions would have been easier to obtain.

Detail of Alessandra's Shawl. Scottish or English copy of an Indian shawl, ca 1815. © Picture: Alessandra Reeves for Les Soirées Amusantes

For us today, finding antique textiles is rather similar: It takes time, building connections, continuous search, and willingness to spend quite some money on such an antique textile, as well as some time and money to store it safely. If one really feels the need for an antique textile, be prepared to look at 4-digit sums - and it doesn’t matter if this is now Euro or USD. Sometimes one can be lucky and find one in the 3-digit range, but the good ones have their price, and they are worth it. I also feel I need to add this: These shawls are textiles which have survived 200 years, wars and what not, in my opinion they deserve better than being dragged along to every outing, where a plain (modern) alternative would be the safer option.

My own modest collection combines some low budget variations (both period and modern), and two shawls I treasure greatly, who are carefully kept in storage boxes and acid free tissue paper and only taken out for high end events, where I can avoid as many dangers to them as possible. And still I worry constantly each time I take them out, because they not only represent months of scrimping and saving, but are irreplaceable antiques.

Replica Shawl worn during a visit to Dowager Duchess Anna Amalias Town residence in Weimar, the so-called Wittumspalais. ©Picture: Sabine Schierhoff

So for more general use, including 1st person interpretations in museums education I prefer using my good solid coloured wool shawls (unless of course it’s a talk where the shawls take centre stage, and still I wouldn’t wear them on the way there)

The plain coloured ones warm and enhance the look as desired, are as acceptable as the real thing, and I don’t have to worry about ruining an antique textile. I hope I was able to include the matters we touched during our conversation, feel free to drop us a line if you have further input or questions. More detailed articles are in the works, and will be published on Pavillon de la Paix, possibly with a cross-post to Les Soirées Amusantes, depending on the subject. Pavillon de la Paix is primarily concentrating more on interesting tidbits found in source material, to enhance our understanding of the period.


* Most woven silk shawls still on the antiques market today were more produced and preserved in England, sometimes we see Spitalfields shawls in antique textile sales. Silk Shawls can be very fragile depending on the way they were stored, I personally wouldn’t use an antique.

** Sizing compared to other examples. Please use the links to access the full files. - Kashmir Shawl at the VA Museum number: IS.96-1948 3340 x 1290mm incl. fringe,

© V&A Museum, Accession number: IS.96-1948 3340 x 1290mm incl. fringe

- Shawl from Kashmir, HMB ca 1825 (note the different colour blocks and the elongated botehs)

3330 x 1420mm with an 80 mm fringe

Shawl from Kashmir, HMB ca 1825, 3330 x 1420mm with an 80 mm fringe

- A muslin shawl with foil embroidery at the Musée national de la Malmaison Accession No. M.M.40.47.3144C measures 2970 x 940mm

A muslin shawl with foil embroidery at the Musée national de la Malmaison M.M.40.47.3144C measures 2970 x 940mm ©RMN Château de la Malmaison

- A Scottish or northern English shawl, ca 1815 2640 x1220 mm (private collection A. Reeves)

A Scottish or northern English shawl, ca 1815 2640 x1220 mm (private collection A. Reeves) ; Picture © D. Thalmann

*** Comparing this to the price of the Journal des Dames was 36 francs for a full year, to salaries ranging from 250 francs a year for an agricultural worker to an average worker earning ca 700 francs a year, to an editor at 2000 per year, to mind boggling 60k a year for functionaries puts the price of those cashmere shawls into proportion. More information can be found here:

Further Reading period sources:

- Bohns Waarenlager oder Wörterbuch der Produkten- und Waarenkunde 1806 - Journal des Dames et des Modes - Journal des Dames et des Modes de Francfort - Journal des Luxus und der Moden

- Le Journal de Francfort - Morgenblatt für gebildete Stände (Cotta ab 1807) - Weimarische Wöchentliche Anzeigen I am aware that those sources are not in English, due to the nature of my research field they can't be. I do offer transcriptions at times at Pavillon de la Paix, what might be of interest to you. The list is not conclusive.

Further reading secondary sources: Monique Levi-Strauss “Cashmere, a French Passion”

Cristina Barreto & Martin Lancaster “Napoleon and the Empire of Fashion”. SKIRA 2010

Emmanuelle Papot (Juillet 2011)

Céline Meunier “Dans les armoires de l’impératrice Joséphine” RMN 2016

Acknowledgements or as Kotzebue put it "Der gute gebildete Mensch kann nicht allein geniessen": To Sabine Schierhoff and Cristina Barreto-Lancaster, for their conversation, encouragement and new leads to follow up, and their patience with my excitement about every new detail; To Tanja Grebe for her enthusiasm and enjoyment of shawls; To Christian Tanner & Fabrice Robardey for the filming, editing, their encouragement, the shared laughter, the many cups of coffee; To my husband, for tolerating the piles of books everywhere and my "εὕρηκα" moments at 2am.

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2021년 3월 29일 wurde auch Zeit, dass dieser schöne Blog aus dem Dornröschenschlaf wachgeküsst wird - und dann mit einem so wunderbaren Artikel (samt Video auf youtube)! Vielen Dank für die Arbeit und ich bin schon gespannt, welche Artikel und wortwörtlich Enthüllungen in Sachen Shawls, Schalls, Schals etc.pp. noch folgen!

Gruß, Sabine

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