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India shawl made of cotton, silk, and gold thread. 1790-1800, Napoleon-fashion.com

India shawl made of cotton, silk, and gold thread. 1790-1800, Napoleon-fashion.com

Indian influence on Regency dress included fine Indian muslin, used for dresses and cravats, and beautiful, expensive hand-loomed shawls. During the late 18th-early 19th century, an unprecedented number of Indian cloths, made of quality fabrics, were exported to Britain. These cloths were expressly made for the British market, with colors and chintz patterns toned down to appeal to the more restrained British taste.

While cheaper and inferior imitation paisley shawls were increasingly made in Great Britain (by 1821, shawls made in British locations like Spitalfields and Scottland would overtake the Indian exports in numbers sold), the authentic Indian shawl was highly prized for its quality, cost, and prestige. These shawls were so popular with those who could afford them that they were presented to friends and family members by merchants, soldiers, and visitors returning from the East Indies. Made of durable cloth, they were carefully handled and handed down from mother to daughter and aunt to niece over the years.

Shawls not only added prestige and style to a lady’s wardrobe, they served other functions, such as color and pattern. They definitely added warmth to the thin, gauzy, almost transparent muslin gowns that became so popular at the turn of the 19th century. The shawls lent themselves to other uses as well.

Lady Hamilton, Lord Horatio Nelson mistress, used the shawls to great effect for her “Attitudes,” as described by Mrs. St. George, who had the occasion to witness several of her performances.

From their book Drawings Faithfully Copied from Nature at Naples by Friedrich Rehberg, Engraver and Tommaso Piroli, Illustrator, 1794 4

From their book Drawings Faithfully Copied from Nature at Naples by Friedrich Rehberg, Engraver and Tommaso Piroli, Illustrator, 1794 4

She assumes their attitude expression, and drapery with great facility, swiftness, and accuracy. Several Indian shawls, a chair, some antique vases,  a wreath of roses, a tambourine, and a few children are her whole apparatus. She stands at one end of the room, with a strong light to her left, and every other window closed. Her hair (which by-the-bye) is never clean is short, dressed like an antique, and her gown a simple calico chemise, very easy, with loose sleeves to the wrist. She disposes the shawls so as to form Grecian, Turkish, and other drapery, as well as a variety of turbans. Her arrangement of the turbans is absolute sleight of hand, she does it so quickly, so easily, and so well. It is a beautiful performance, amusing to the most ignorant, and highly interesting to lovers of art. The chief of her imitations are from the antique. Each representation lasts about ten minutes. It is remarkable that, though coarse and ungraceful in common life, she becomes highly graceful, and even beautiful, during this performance. It is also singular that, in spite of the accuracy of her imitation of the finest ancient draperies, her usual dress is tasteless, vulgar, loaded, and unbecoming. – Account by Mrs. St. George, Wit, Beaux, and Beauties of the Georgian Era, John Fyvie, 1909, pp 335-336.

As I collected Pinterest images of fashion plates of elegant ladies and their shawls, I saw how much elegance and beauty these accessories added to a woman’s arm and hand gestures. The artists who drew the fashion plates were certainly aware of these effects. I have created a short gallery of an example of the beauty that shawls added to a woman’s figure and fashion statement. Enjoy.

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