Photo Blog: Preservation Begins at Home

It has always been a point of pride for me that my mum made her own wedding dress. She was only twenty when she got married (forty years and counting now), in the early days of the 1970s when Victoriana revival was at its height. My mum had received a portable Elna sewing machine of the kind you see below as her high school graduation gift, and it was on this tiny machine that she made her wedding gown.


As I said, I’ve always been proud that my mum made her gown, but as a somewhat experienced seamstress myself I am now also in awe of her abilities to have created the gown she did on such a tiny machine.

However, the dress has sat on a wire hanger — yes, I know, horror or horrors! — for decades. So, during this year’s spring cleaning of closets and such, I absconded with the gown, some wooden hangers and a great deal of tissue paper and batting to properly hang and thus preserve the gown for her. I do not claim to be a conservationist, and I did not have the resources to do everything to the height of museum standards, but this is a sentimental rather than a historical project. My mother has inspired my career in so many ways; so properly hanging her wedding gown was my way of taking the skills I’d acquired working with museums to give back to her.










Not perfect, and not done — I had to manipulate the tissue after taking the photos until the gown looked “happy” on its new hanger, and added a little bib of tissue between the collar and the gown. All that’s left is to sew a cover.


Molly Gibson’s Dress, or Blame Mrs Gaskell (again)


It has taken me quite some time to find my sea legs as a dress historian. I have recounted how a single passage in Elizabeth Gaskell’s North & South led me to discovering the field of dress history, but my initial focus was the clothing and textiles of Jane Austen’s novels for the very simple reason that I thought they were prettiest. My inclusion of the end of the Romantic era in my dissertation was rather begrudging because the clothes was just so funny looking! Nothing like the elegance of the eighteenth century or the Regency/Empire period!

Since graduation, I have struggled to decide who I am as a dress historian, as much because once out of school the sheer breadth of my field was overwhelming as because of the economy. There were my own conflicting interests — eighteenth-century saree adapted into gowns by returning nabobinas, meisen kimono, the entirety of the 1920s and 30s, appropriation versus appreciation — which then conflicted with advice I received from established dress historians. There were too many eighteenth-century dress historians already, that did or didn’t matter, there weren’t enough folks looking at Japanese dress, there were too many, etc.

In my last post on meisen kimono, I discussed doing a phd on the topic. I still love the concept and would like to write a book on them some day — but finding a phd program proved impossible. It was either a topic that was being overdone so that by the time I graduated everything I had to say would already be published, or there wasn’t enough information about it. No one knew who could supervise me. No one knew where I could do such a phd. Which is even more discouraging when you’ve had to talk yourself into the topic.

Enter Molly Gibson.

I was re-watching the BBC adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters a little over a year ago and the scene in which Molly goes down to dinner in her plaid silk gown (screencap above) caught my attention in a way it never had done before. I’ve transcribed the exchange between Molly and Mrs Hamley about her gown below.

Mrs Hamley: That’s an unusual dress, Molly. Is it the tartan of your father’s clan perhaps?

Molly: No. Papa said it was not like any proper tartan he’d seen. He said it was quite outlandish.

When reading the book, I’d never noticed the bit about Molly’s plaid gown all that much except to giggle — ‘Anything but that horrid plaid silk,’ Mrs Hamley thinks later in the book — but this time it struck me. Not surprisingly, being the only dress historian in my programme in Edinburgh, I wrote quite a lot about tartan. I even created a “virtual exhibition” on tartan and its history as an assignment in my ‘Culture of Display’ class. Quite a great deal of what I learned I used in a post over at Worn Through, so I won’t reiterate it here, but I have carried on my studies of Scottish culture and material culture over the last four years. It was a private indulgence I always thought of as nostalgic for my time in Edinburgh, not necessarily publishable or reasonable for a dress history career.

But Molly Gibson reminded me of something that does make it academic and publishable — especially as my rewatching came on the heels of Karl Lagerfeld’s Edimbourg collection for Chanel: Scottish dress as the exotic other. What most people don’t realise is that while Molly’s dress was considered in poor taste by the more gentile residents of Hollingford (who as a teenager hasn’t worn something all the rage and then looked back and cringed, after all?), it was part of a general trend for all things Scottish that was spurred on by three things: the lift of a parliamentary ban on highland dress (including tartan) in 1782, the novels of Sir Walter Scott, and Royal endorsement.

George IV visited Scotland in 1822 — in the words of the Keeper of Scottish History at the National Museum of Scotland, because he was looking for somebody to love him and he wasn’t going to find them in his wife or in England. Under the tutelage and management of Sir Walter, it became a mythical “gathering of the clans” and the king himself wore full highland dress that cost the modern day equivalent of £100,000 ($167,700). The problem was, this vision of pre-Culloden Scotland was the work of Sir Walter Scott’s romantic imagination, not history. The Highlands had been nothing like what he described, and tartan was only seen in the south when trouble was afoot. In the words of Neil Oliver, host of BBC Scotland’s A History of Scotland, ‘… [Scott] painted with bright colours, and a broad brush. He turned Scotland tartan. We were all highlanders, now’.

A generation later, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert created their highland retreat of Balmoral — for which Albert designed the tartan. At this point the myth of “clan tartan” — most of which were arbitrarily decided upon when requested — was well-established.

Tartan, strangely for us, was considered as exotic as any Asian or Middle Eastern fabric at the time. It also had an element of danger due to the false idea that it was worn by Bonnie Prince Charlie’s supporters (they actually wore a white cockade). A perfect example of this can be seen in this turban in the Victoria and Albert collection. Yes, a tartan turban. Très exotique. And if you read the descriptions on fashion plates for the period between 1780 and 1840 you will find phrases such as “plaid” and “hat a la Marie Stuart” increase around 1820. Scotland seemed as remote to many people in England as India. Even today many people in England talk about how they’ve never been to Scotland because it’s such a long ways away; four hours by train! So this attitude that Scotland is remote is still very much a part of the British mindset.

In the world mindset, the idea that will not die is that of the Romantic highlander. With its origins in Scott’s first novel — and the first ever popular historical novel — Waverly, we see it today in the Outlander series — both the books and the new Starz series (look for a future post dissecting what is wrong with the costumes) — and in an entire genre of romance novels that I just discovered: “Scotland and Highlands” historical romance. I’ve read rather a lot about Highlanders. They really, really weren’t sexy, or particularly kind. Trust me. Barbaric, torturous punishments for crofters who failed to pay rent; families so poor they had to survive the winter by bleeding their cattle for protein; men leaving their wives and children to do all the farming and house work and building because to do it would mean he was “no longer a man”. The men fought, and if there was no fighting on, they sat around and watched their wives and children worked. See what I mean? Not sexy.

It’s not just books and television. We see this romantic Scotland on the runways of today as much as it was found in the women’s magazines of Molly Gibson’s time. I mentioned Karl Lagerfeld, but Vivienne Westwood, Ralph Lauren, and Alexander McQueen have all done “Scottish” collections, with only the latter trying to rip the romantic ideal apart.

After the exasperating struggle trying to find any program where I might do a phd on kimono even if I didn’t like the program, I am awash in choice, advice about proposals and people to contact regarding Scottish dress and material culture as the exotic and romantic “other”. It’s also a profound relief to have finally found my way as a dress historian. Not what I’m “supposed” to be, not what others have told me to be, but what I have chosen to do.

Blame Mrs Gaskell. Again.

Meisen Mystery

Yonemarus@Kiyomizudera with my first host family, the Yonemarus, at Kyōmizudera, Kyoto

I did not start out as a dress historian. I came to dress history in a round about way (described in my post about Indian shawls here). I started as a Japanese major, because I thought I was going to become an interpreter. So, spending the summer I was 20 in Osaka, Japan (see image above) was the culmination of a long-held dream, and words will never be able to describe the gratitude I felt towards my parents for finding a way to make it possible for me.

I’ve long thought this initial ambition has influenced the way I look at textiles and clothing: as a visual medium of cultural exchange, understanding, and occasionally, unfortunately as appropriation or a method of colonial oppression. Since language, like art and clothing, does not exist in isolation, my undergraduate career can more accurately be described as an all-out wallowing in Japanese studies of culture, art, literature, and language… at least until budget cuts in the CSU system required me to change gears if I wanted to graduate in a timely manner.

The program wasn’t cancelled per se, but it was so defunded that when I went to my advisor about my next semester’s class I was told that they didn’t know when they would be offering the courses I needed next. So I switched to Linguistics and a Japanese minor, had a number of my classes and their units dropped from my records because they weren’t accepted at my new university and was very bitter for a number of years, in that ‘logical’ way of twenty-one year-olds. I went in to academic administration instead of interpretation, was hired at an arts school where I daily handled student work and realised I really wanted to handle art — especially garments and textiles — as my career and my interest in museum studies was born. A year later, I discovered dress history as my niche and here I am.

thumbnail-2010_013_ForrestCavale (1) Furisode with a design of Mandarin ducks; 20th Century; Dye and gold on silk; © CCJAC

I do not regret my path. What I regret was that I let bitterness over circumstances beyond my control — and the fact that in my program I was scorned and belittled by my classmates for always receiving high grades, at least until they wanted help studying for midterms and finals — infuse a subject I had well and truly loved with bitterness to the point that I let it go. I was bitter for so long I would not even contemplate looking at Japanese dress and textiles. My road back to Japanese studies, and into the area of East Asian dress and textiles, began two and a half years ago with my 久しぶり post, discussing an event at a local Japanese art museum I had patronised quite a bit between the ages of 17 and 23. “久しぶり” (hisashiburi in romaji) is what you say to people you have not seen in a long while, or when describing something that you have not done in quite some time. In the nature of Japanese it means literally “it’s been a long time”, but it can hold several unspoken connotations of joy, longing, or even a poignancy. It seems fitting in this situation.

My rediscovery of the Clark Center led to the CSA, Western Region Symposium paper I discussed in a Worn Through post last year, wherein I revealed my discovery of a type of kimono called heiyō-gasuri meisen, or meisen for short, which were popular in Japan from 1915 until about 1945. I, like most, imagined kimono as either the simple, small-patterned examples we typically see today, or the beautiful furisode you see above. Nothing prepared me for meisen, which were heavily influenced by Western art movements at the time, such as art deco, cubism, and maybe even surrealism. The example below strikes me as as surrealist in its design and imagery as Schiaparelli’s famous Lobster dress.

2005_086_v Women’s kimono with Penguins and Cracked ice pattern; 1915 – 1945; silk; © CCJAC

Meisen are unique not only for their patterning, which is so unusual — the size for one thing is exponentially larger than traditional motifs — but also the construction of the fabric. You can see in the detail images below that there is a sort of bleeding effect on the design, or as though the penguins and their ice are slightly out of focus.


2005-086 detail

This effect is achieved by stencil-dyeing the warp and weft threads before they are placed on the loom; when the fabric is woven, the stencil doesn’t line up exactly — giving a simulated-ikat effect, supposedly with less work. Of all the meisen I looked at and handled at the Clark Center in preparation for my paper, this one remains my favourite. I don’t know if it’s just so outrageous (the others as you will see at Worn Through are more abstract), or because the penguins are adorable, or because I am trying to imagine what colour obi (obi are always in a contrasting colour, see the picture of me in yukata below) would be worn with it when I envision a woman walking down the street in it. It is also, in my opinion, rather flamboyant for a married woman’s kimono. Typically, brighter colours and more audacious patterns are reserved for furisode — the red one above is a perfect example. Furisode literally means ‘swinging sleeves’, and they are worn by young, marriageable-aged women. The swinging sleeves are considered flirtatious, and the bright colours and bold patterns attract attention, preferably of eligible potential-husbands. The shorter sleeves on the Penguin meisen indicate it was made for a married woman, so this pattern is contrary to the usual expectations of a woman of that station, in addition to its surrealist elements.

The reason I find meisen so mysterious is that they were popular at a time when the Japanese Military Complex was on the rise, and there was a distinctly anti-Western attitude within the society. Japan excelled at milling propaganda textiles — as seen in the multiple examples in Wearing Propaganda, edited by Jacqueline Atkins and published in conjunction with an exhibition of the same name. The best example I have seen of this anti-Western stance in textiles is in the hanjuban below. Hanjuban are a short under-kimono worn by men (note the very short gap between sleeve edge and join as opposed to the far longer one for the penguin meisen). With the exception of children, kimono were not made of these propaganda textiles, instead it was very popular to make undergarments such as the hanjuban out of them so that as your kimono or yukata slid up your sleeve, a bit of this patriotic fabric would be seen.

Hanjuban-1 Hanjuban with Mickey Mouse and military motifs; c. 1930; printed cotton; © Thomas Murray

What is fascinating about this hanjuban is that you can see that it was originally made out of a (for lack of a better term) pro-Western fabric featuring words in English, Western objects such as crayons and notebooks (Japanese writing materials were very different), and even Mickey Mouse. You can see all of these elements in the detail image below.


The sleeves, however — the part that might be seen by other people — have been covered or replaced with the typical propaganda textile at some point since the hanjuban‘s original construction. This is a strong indicator that it was socially unacceptable to express pro-Western sentiments, or to admire any aspect of Western culture.

At the same time that meisen were being produced and worn.

As I said in my initial post, I have more questions than answers. Who was wearing meisen? Where were they being worn? Were the wearers unaware of the Western influence on the designs, or was it acceptable because it was a complete absorption and re-adaptation (improvement in the eyes of the Military Industrial Complex?) of the Western art and design?

I have been told that a great deal has been written about, or that there is a revival of interest in meisen recently. This may be true, but the only information I can find are in books I will have to order through Kinokuniya from Japan the next time I’m in San Francisco. I know that LACMA has an entire exhibition planned for later this year which I will absolutely be going to. Probably multiple times.

I have bounced around various topics of interest for potential phd work for the last three years: an expansion of my master’s thesis; examining Scottish tartan from the perspective of the exotic other; and meisen. The latter I have been encouraged to pursue by more than one person of repute in my field. I have long resisted because of that slight tinge of bitterness that still remained, and because I was already invested in my European textile research. But recently, Japan and its textiles have been creeping back into my life. I have been encouraging and helping friends embarking on their Japanese studies, and remembering when I was 20, wearing yukata to matsuri in Osaka, struggling with humidity for the first time ever in my life,  not bitter in the slightest, instead laughing at the double takes by train riders to see a white girl in yukata and not falling over. I am apparently a source on kimono and Japanese dress and social history for a young woman completing her master’s degree in textile history in the UK, after conducting an interview via email. And I recently unearthed all the images you see of me in this post along with all my other souvenirs from that summer in Japan during a frantic search for something completely different.

There may be a revived interest in meisen within the dress history community, but considering the number of eighteenth-century specialists, I can’t see that my ‘jumping on the bandwagon’ will actually overcrowd it. And I am inherently curious. I want to know who the women (and possibly men?) were who wore these garments. I want to know if it was in defiance of the military, or if it was in ignorance of the designs’ origins. I want to know where they were worn, and where they were made. And I love the idea of “occidentalism” as opposed to “orientalism”. And the interpreter in me loves the conversation between East and West in a simple fabric. I think that through meisen, I have found a way to shed the bitterness I carried for so long without realising it. And that through meisen, I have found a way to marry my two academic paths, and my 20-year-old self’s passion and hopes, with my 30-something-year-old’s present knowledge, experience, and ability to pick myself up and dust myself off when circumstances beyond my control knock my feet out from under me.


Yukata-1 with my second host-mother, Akuta-san, on the way to a matsuri.

Thoughts on reenactment and historical costuming

Several months ago my Worn Through colleague, Serena Dyer, posted a rebuttal on her personal blog to a Guardian book review dismissing historical reenactment-based research. Serena’s rebuttal is not only well-written and excellent, it coincided with an increased interest on my part in such research. It also inspired me to interview by email two colleagues who do both reenactment and historical costuming as much for fun as for research and education, Katy Werlin and Sarah Goodman.

Since my very first dress history conference, I have greatly admired the work of those academics who could recreate and wore the clothing they discussed over those who — like me — simply spent a lot of time in the library and speculated. At that conference in 2011, the presentation I remember most vividly was the discussion of Madame Vionnet’s patterns and a recent revelation by a woman who herself had a design background that Vionnet did not cut her pattern pieces on the bias; she cut them with the grain of the cloth, then turned them, and in that masterful way created her so memorable bias-cut gowns of the 1930s. Since I could barely sew at the time, I was in awe of the ability to not only understand the patterns so intimately, but to remake them to test the theory. It revealed how Vionnet’s construction techniques themselves have made her gowns so inimitable even today.

I longed to integrate such abilities and insights into my own work, but I could not fathom how I would. Especially considering my then-rather pathetic sewing skills.

I have long experienced historical reenactment as a spectator, rather than as a participant. It will possibly surprise many people to learn that I am somewhat shy, and so I had no faith in my ability not to be so self conscious that I would be unable to maintain a character, as required in historical reenactment.

My first Renaissance Fair was at the local city college when I was nine. I was mesmerized by the Queen and her court, and most especially by the joust — especially the horses. Since then the fairs in my home town have become more of a public crafts fair where people dress up as everything from fairies to eighteenth-century pirates, rather than the slice of sixteenth-century life and material culture I originally fell in love with. About six years ago — long before I had decided to abandon reason and logical job prospects to become a material culturist and dress historian — I had the opportunity to go to the large, Northern California fair at Casa de Fruta where I encountered several “ladies” of the court who were able to not only answer all my questions about various aspects of their attire, but they did so without breaking character for even a breath. I’m still impressed.

My love of that first fair, and the Northern California fair, are born of my intense curiosity and desire to understand how people in these times actually lived. It is this same curiosity that led me to become a material culturist who focuses on dress and textiles. So a certain unspoken prejudice in the academic world against reenactors and those who do historical costuming even just for fun has always confused me. No, you cannot actually be a sixteenth-century courtesan or a medieval knight, or an eighteenth-century blacksmith, but surely spending a day or a week in their clothing, and adopting their mannerisms and activities will give you insights into their world that a library book never will?

My friend, Katy — now an assistant curator for a costume collection in Chicago — wrote about ballet and its costumes in the eighteenth century for her master’s thesis. She tells me that reenactment and historical costuming have been vital to informing her about how the clothing of the time influenced movement, a vital aspect of understanding dance and dance costuming. Katy tells me she has always loved dressing up, and that from this was born first her work with reenactment at local Renaissance Fairs, and later historical costuming just for fun. She separates the two based on historical accuracy in her costumes. For reenactment she tries to be as accurate as possible — including hand sewing and using historically accurate textiles such as linen, etc. For her ‘for fun’ costumes, she might use the sewing machine for long seams and only hand-sew the details, and she will use contemporary fibers and textiles — which are easier on the budget than all-accurate fabrics.

I met Sarah while she was out with a group of friends who all enjoy dressing in eighteenth-century costumes at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco. Thankfully I was with my mother, because the above-mentioned shyness would have left me admiring their beautiful sacquesrobes à l’anglaise, and other garments from afar, whereas my mother got me an introduction. Sarah also came to reenactment through her first Renaissance Fair — which she attended as a pre-teen and was absolutely convinced she would loathe. Instead, she fell in love at first sight of Puritans regaling visitors and reenactors with insults and threats of damnation. She now not only does eighteenth-century clothing with her friends (who even go on period-themed vacations together, and during one created this gem of a video which cheers me up every time I’ve had a bad day), she still does reenactments with the Society for the Creative Anachronism where she portrays a sixteenth-century courtesan. Sarah has found historical reenactment and costuming most useful in her own research in giving her insights into the attitudes and beliefs of the period that school history books often ignore in their way of simplifying things into ‘royalist bad, revolution good’. Her master’s thesis is examining the chemise à la reine (I’m very much hoping I’ll get to read it), and thus she looks a great deal at France before the revolution. Her research and her reenactment work have revealed that there are a number of ideas about race and feminism that were actually set back by the revolution.

Katy informs me that more and more people are beginning to take reenactment and costuming seriously in the academic world, though Sarah says she usually waits to get ‘the feel’ of the individual’s attitudes before she lets it be known that she does the costuming. This leads to less altercations with those who still cling to the same attitudes as those expressed in Serena’s Guardian article — that it’s really just pointless and that ‘dressing up’ can teach you nothing. Katy points out though that reenactment, etc, has become more associated with ‘experimental archaeology’ in recent years, which my brother, the military historian, can attest has turned previous attitudes about such things as armor and how swords were held and yielded on their heads. (One of his new favourite Youtube videos is of an experimental archaeologist in full plate armor doing a series of cartwheels to show how easy it was to move.) This association somehow gives reenactment more validity. I like to think that it is a prejudice of academia being discarded.

Katy also points out that people tend to dismiss reenactors on the grounds that they must agree with the sentiments of the people they are reenacting — that those portraying Confederate soldiers must approve of racism and slavery, etc. As she herself says, ‘an interest in a particular group of people at a particular time doesn’t mean you agree with them’.

Since that first conference three years ago, I have begun working with my local Shakespeare in the park theatre company as a costumer. It was a trial-by-fire way to improve my sewing skills, but they have improved! They are not where I would like them to be, but perhaps historical costuming is just the next step I need to advance.

I was going to end this post by saying I envied both Sarah and Katy their wealth of knowledge about their historical time periods due to their costuming and reenactment experience (which I do). But I think instead I will end it with a public promise to discard my shyness and join a costuming group myself. Both Sarah and Katy have reassured me that costumers do not expect everyone who joins to already be an expert seamstress (an assumption I long held and quite honestly hid behind) — they welcome newcomers with little or no sewing skills as much as they welcome those with years of experience. And who knows … I may just become the sort of academic I most admire in the process.

“Indian Shawls”

With Monica’s guest post, and subsequent discussions by Lizzie at The Vintage Traveler, I have been inspired to revisit a topic dear to my heart — Kashmir shawls, and their European imitations.


‘I have spared no expense in [Edith’s] trousseau,’ were the next words Margaret heard. ‘She has all the beautiful Indian shawls and scarfs the General gave to me, but which I shall never wear again.’

 ‘She is a lucky girl,’ replied another voice … ‘Helen had set her heart upon an Indian shawl, but really when I found what an extravagant price was asked, I was obliged to refuse her. She will be quite envious when she hears of Edith having Indian shawls. What kind are they? Delhi? with the lovely little borders?’

 — Elizabeth Gaskell, North and South, p. 9

I discovered Elizabeth Gaskell, I’m embarrassed to say, not through her wonderful novels, but through the dramatized BBC miniseries for North and South. It was a period piece, the costuming was beautiful, there was a handsome leading man… That was more than enough to gain my attention.

I loved the series so much that in 2008 I bought the book. Little did I know then that the passage above would not only spark a keen interest in Indian shawls (as discussed in the preface to my friend Monica’s guest post back in January), but would set me on a new career path, and even take me to India.

My annotated edition of North and South was extremely valuable as I knew very little — still know very little — about Victorian society, and the references and explanations provided by Patricia Ingham taught me why certain events within the novel had the repercussions and reactions that they had. However, within the first ten pages I was frustrated, as I could not understand why Indian shawls were so coveted, let alone what they were. I embarked on a quest to learn. I soon found out that they were actually Kashmir shawls, made of cashmere, and woven in the Kashmir region, all of which was lumped together as “India” in Britain at the time of their discovery (seventeenth century), and throughout the time of the shawl’s popularity (late eighteenth, and well into the nineteenth century). They were handwoven of rare and expensive materials, and were difficult to import, especially with near-constant wars and rivalries with France, making them a rather exclusive status symbol, and one that was extensively copied. Thus making the originals even more valuable. Along the way, I also discovered an entire academic field that had been unknown to me, alternately called costume, fashion, or dress history.

Long story short, I ended up in Edinburgh, earning a degree in Art History, focused entirely on material culture — specifically dress and textile history. It seemed only natural when I decided to explore the influence of India on British dress and material culture in my dissertation that I would need to do an entire chapter on these “Indian Shawls”, and how they not only saved the British silk-weaving industry, but inspired major technological advancements in the pursuit of better and more intricate copies, and how a uniquely Indian pattern came to be known in English after the Scottish town of Paisley.

Cashmere (a bowdlerization of Kashmir, where the fibre was mistakenly believed to originate), comes from Himalayan goats. In order to survive the extremely cold winters, these goats have adapted their coats to be very soft, but very warm. The problem is that cashmere cannot be farmed the way wool or silk can, or at least couldn’t be back in the eighteenth century. To get the best quality cashmere, herders had to wait for the goats to shed the fur and then collect it. The outer layer was useless to the shawl weavers as it was too coarse from exposure to the elements and to foliage, rocks, etc., to be of use. The inner layers, though, close to the skin have the seemingly miraculous quality of being extremely fine, and ridiculously soft, while being very, very warm. Once collected, carded, spun, and dyed, the shawls were thin enough to be drawn through a wedding ring — and they still are. Patterns remained in families for generations, and the weavers worked by hand on floor looms, creating intricate patterns that would eventually become the modern Paisley (and which help us to date the shawls now):

Figure 1 Figure 2 Figure 3 Figure 4 Figure 5 Figure 6 Figure 7 Figure 8

These shawls were originally worn by men in India and Persia, as can be seen in the portrait of Captain John Foote below. This portrait is one of those rare instances where we not only have the portrait, but the same museum (York), has the actual garments worn by the sitter as well. The shawls were typically gifts to favoured diplomats, or courtiers in Indian and Persian courts, given by the monarch in gratitude for services, successes, or loyalty. There are even accounts in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries of their being excellent bribes to and from the East India Company. It is not clear how they came to be worn by Western women in India, but wear them they did, and it is believed it was these women — called nabobinas by a distrustful and dismissive press and public back in Britain — who brought the first shawls back, and set a new fashion.

Sir Joshua Reynolds, Captain John Foote, 1761 – 65. Oil on canvas. York Art Gallery Collection.  Image courtesy York Museums Trust (York Art Gallery).

Sir Joshua Reynolds, Captain John Foote, 1761 – 65. Oil on canvas. York Art Gallery Collection. Image courtesy York Museums Trust (York Art Gallery).

The earliest account of these shawls comes from the love letters of the author Laurence Sterne, who wrote Tristram Shandy, to his beloved, the unhappily married Eliza Draper, who had returned to England from Bombay on account of her health. He mentions after their parting — her husband had heard she might have fallen in love with someone else, and also to protect her own reputation she returned to India — how he cherishes the shawl she left him as all he has left of her.

The returning nabobs — another bowdlerization, this time of nawab, or ruler, and used to refer to the men sent out to India to work for the East India Company — and their accompanying wives, sisters, or mothers (called nabobinas) were seen by a suspicious public as having a dangerous influence on proper British Society. There is a farcical Letter to the Editor which appeared in the Scottish publication, The Lounger, in 1785 — though written anonymously, largely believed to have been authored by Henry MacKenzie, The Lounger‘s editor — in which a Mr Homespun laments the deplorable influence of the recently-returned Mr Mushroom, but more than that his wife, on his own household and daughters:

“… everything that used to be thought comfortable and convenient formerly, is now intolerable and disgusting. Everything we
now put on, or eat, or drink, is immediately brought into comparison with the dress, provisions, and liquors [at the Mushrooms’], home-made gowns, of which they were lately so proud, have been thrown by with contempt since they saw Mrs. Mushroom’s muslins from Bengal; our barn-door fowls we used to say were so fat and well-tasted, we now make aukward [sic] attempts, by garlic and peper [sic] to turn into the form of Curries and Peelaws.” (1)

Their rarity, their colours — Indian and Kashmiri textiles were far more vibrant and more colour-fast than anything the English could produce — as well as the exoticism of coming from the subcontinent and the very foreign design aesthetic made the shawls a much-desired garment. They were particularly to be worn while on promenade, whether in London or Bath, where everyone who was anyone could see you, and it. By the late 1790s, with the shift in fashion to the more grecian directoire or Empire styles most often seen in Jane Austen film adaptations, Indian shawls gained even greater desirability: thin cotton muslins will do well in India, or even southern France or Italy, but in the chilly climates of Britain, a warm shawl that manages to retain the grecian aesthetic is particularly useful. It was also a way for the elite women of France to display their wealth in a less ostentatious way than the wigs, hats, sacques and other mantua that had made them targets during the recent revolution. Or one would be better to say it made it possible for the men to demonstrate their wealth, as dressing one’s wife was as important to maintain the appearance of being a gentleman with taste as decorating one’s house. I love the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but I’m not blind enough to want to live in them.

Jacques-Louis David, Anne-Marie-Louise Thélusson, Comtesse de Sorcy, 1790, Oil on Canvas

Jacques-Louis David, Anne-Marie-Louise Thélusson, Comtesse de Sorcy, 1790, Oil on Canvas


Kashmir, Shawl, circa early nineteenth century. Woven cashmere. Victoria & Albert Museum, London. Image Courtesy of the Victoria & Albert Museum website.

Poor, overworked, weavers working by hand in Kashmir could not keep up with the sudden and increasing demand in Europe, and very few people could afford the shawls, anyway. A shawl in the eighteenth century cost between 70 and 100 pounds, the equivalent of $9,000 – 12,000 today. This left the market open for imitators, and many clamoured to fill it. This demand for shawls coincided nicely with a drop in the British silk-weaving industry, since Britain was at war with France, and France had been Britain’s supplier of silk. The British authorities were also worried about the fashion, as the government saw it as threatening British goods, British work, and they could not earn much money off of them besides tariffs, which many traders would avoid by smuggling the goods in via the black market. In an era before digital records, there was no way to know how shawls in a particular shop had been imported. There were even schemes to bring Cashmere goats in to Britain and create their own crop of the fibre, but on the few attempts to import the animals almost none of them survived the crossing, and those that did, did not survive the new climate.

Then, a weaver in Norwich came up with the idea of combining silk with high-quality wool to imitate cashmere, and suddenly, you could have something almost, but not quite, like the new shawls for only a fraction of the cost. Weavers in Edinburgh, France, and Paisley, Scotland quickly picked up on the combination themselves. Mechanized weaving had been established in Britain and Europe since 1785, meaning that while the quality was not as good as those coming out of Kashmir, they could produce more and faster.

And as can be seen in the images below, just as with chinoiserie or Japanned furniture, the designs were obviously a Western interpretation of an Asian aesthetic beyond their comprehension.

Norwich shawl

Norwich imitation shawl

Then, in 1801, Joseph Marie Jacquard of France developed the Jacquard mechanized loom, which enabled the weavers to create intricate, all-over patterned shawls, further shifting the aesthetic back in Kashmir. Complicated patterns are still known in English today as jacquard.

Eventually, the imitation shawls flooded the market, with most of the shawls coming out of Paisley. Paisley was unscrupulous in its desire to not only survive, but to succeed — blatantly copying the designs of its rivals in Edinburgh and Norwich, and filling the milliners and drapers shops of Britain with so many Paisley shawls that the clientele soon forgot that “Paisley” indicated the place of origin, not the pattern itself. They eventually put both Edinburgh, and Norwich out of business to the point that while we can identify Norwich shawls from the nineteenth century and distinguish them from Paisley’s, there are no known examples of surviving Edinburgh shawls, despite Edinburgh’s at one point being a major weaving town. And ultimately, many of the original Kashmiri weaving towns went bankrupt and were abandoned as well.

The shawls were so popular that they altered along with the European fashions — even those coming out of Kashmir began to be almost exclusively made for the Western market. From the turn of the century through the Romantic era of the 1820s and into the 1830s, the rectangular-shaped stole with border designs was popular. However, as skirts expanded into the bell-like shape, and eventually needed crinolines to keep them so wide, that was the fashion for the 1840s and 1850s, the shawls became more square, with all-over patterns and only a blank portion in the very middle. Shawls with reversed colour patterns also became popular as then the wearer could fold the shawl in a different way to achieve an entirely new look.

The way of wearing the shawl altered as well. The directoire style was somewhat casual in the wearing of the shawl, as can be seen in the fashion plates below, but by the Victorian era, the shawl was now folded diagonally and worn about the shoulders, and often so large that the tip of the shawl would stop just above the hem of a dress, even with the crinoline.

Volare Digital Capture


Volare digital capture



Paisley Shawl, 1870. India, Kashmir, maker unknown. Photo by Monica Murgia.

The Kashmir weavers continued to work, but with such reduced numbers of operating manufacturers, the originals became even more expensive and even more exclusive, such as those inherited by Margaret’s cousin, Edith, in North and South. Or, to highlight a modern indicator, as worn by Jane Eyre when she returns, rich after inheriting her uncle’s fortune, to Mr Rochester in the most recent adaptation of Jane Eyre starring Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender. Knowing about Indian shawls has made me even more insufferable to watch period films with than I was before…


The shawl was popular for well over a hundred years, but by the late nineteenth century not even Paisley could survive the invention and popularity of the bustle.

While I was studying these shawls in Edinburgh, I had the good fortune to have a roommate from Bangalore who has since become one of my dearest and best friends. While in Bangalore myself last summer for her wedding, it was absolutely necessary when buying souvenirs to acquire my own, genuine Kashmir shawls (they have mechanized weaving in India and Kashmir now, of course, so they were affordable enough for a poor academic). One for me, and one for my mum.


The patterns are more muted and more subtle, as suits the modern fashions — a continuing tradition, if you will. But as you can see in the image above, they are still finely woven enough to be pulled through a finger ring.

Who would have thought that a single section in a novel that I became curious about would bring me here?

I don’t believe in fate. I’m quite content to believe that there is no master plan, but instead that life is nothing but a series of both happy and unhappy, unplanned accidents. One such is the gray “Indian Shawl” above, which I wear almost every time I’m heading out and the weather is a bit unpredictable.

The most eerie of all, however, came about recently in a conversation with yet another of the wonderful friends I made in Scotland. While Skyping with her about her upcoming wedding and reminiscing about Scotland and how much we missed it, she asked me if I had ever seen the BBC miniseries, North and South. I laughed and told her that yes, I had. She then told me that she often watches it when she’s in a nostalgic mood, because so much of it was filmed in Edinburgh.

Another happy accident, that brought it all full circle.

(1) Nechtman, Tillman W. 2006. ‘Nabobinas’. Journal of Women’s Studies, Volume 18, Number 4: 8 – 30.

Further Reading Recommendations:

Beardsley, Grace & Sinopoli, Carla. 2005. Wrapped in Beauty: The Koelz Collection of Kashmiri Shawls (Ann Arbor, Museum of Anthropology, University of Michigan Press).

Clabburn, Pamela. 1995. The Norwich Shawl (London, HMSO).

Irwin, John. 1973. The Kashmir Shawl (London, Her Majesty’s Stationary Office).

Mackerell, Alice. 1986. Shawls, Stoles and Scarves (London, B.T. Batsford Ltd).

Nechtman, Tillman W. 2007. ‘A Jewel in the Crown? Indian Wealth in Domestic Britain in the Late Eighteenth Century’. Eighteenth-Century Studies, Volume 41, Number 1: 71 – 86.

Nechtman, Tillman W. 2006. ‘Nabobinas’. Journal of Women’s Studies, Volume 18, Number 4: 8 – 30.

Rock, C.H. 1966. Paisley Shawls: A Chapter of the Industrial Revolution (Paisley, Paisley Museum & Art Galleries).

Rothstein, Nathalie. 2003. ‘Silk in the Early Modern Period, c. 1500 – 1780’ The Cambridge History of Western Textiles, Volume I, David Jenkins, ed. (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press):  528 – 561.

Rothstein, Nathalie. 2003. ‘Silk: The Industrial Revolution and After’ The Cambridge History of Western Textiles, Volume II, David Jenkins, ed. (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press): 790 – 808.

Shrimpton, Jayne. 1992. ‘Dressing for a Tropical Climate: The Role of Native Fabrics in Fashionable Dress in Early Colonial India’. Textile History, Volume 23, Issue I: 55 – 70.

Smith, Simon. 1998. British Imperialism 1750 – 1970. (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press).

Stewart, A.M. 1946. The History and Romance of the Paisley Shawl (Glasgow, Paisley Museum).

For the love of Paisley


I am happy to present Of Ravens and Writing Desks’ first ever guest post from my Worn Through colleague and one of my dearest friends, Monica D. Murgia.

Monica has an MA in Fashion & Textile Studies: History, Theory, Museum Practice from FIT. Her focus was curatorial, with an emphasis on twentieth century fashion designers. Her current research interests surround American fashions from 1935-1965, artistic collaboration with fashion designers, and current technological innovations that impact the fashion system. Monica has also taught several courses in fashion design, focusing on history of costume and the creative process. She writes about teaching fashion at Worn Through, and explores the relationship between fashion and art on her own blog. Be sure to follow her on Twitter and to like her on Facebook!

A few weeks ago she visited the Allentown Art Museum exhibit, The Paisley Pattern: Woven Shawls from Asia to Europe, and knowing about my passion for Indian and Kashmiri shawls — I did an entire chapter about them in my master’s dissertation — kindly offered to do this guest post for me.



I recently went to see an exhibit on Franz Kline at the Allentown Art Museum.  After taking in that show, I wandered around the other galleries in the museum.  Much to my delight, there was a wonderful exhibit on textiles.  The Paisley Pattern: Woven Shawls from Asia to Europe was a small show, but expertly done.

Paisley Shawl, 1860. Possibly France, maker unknown.
On Mannequin: Scarf, 1820. American, maker unknown.

The show’s focus was specifically on woven shawls.  These objects were prized possessions during much of the 19th century.  Fashion moved at a much slower rate.  Clothing was not disposable. Garments had to last years, and were passed down.  Because of this, many garments had to be made of conservative colors.  Shawls and scarves added variety and flair to a wardrobe.  Paisley shawls from Kashmir, India were the most sought after.  Kashmiri shawls were meticulously crafted with the best fibers, dyes, and weavers.  The shawls were woven in sections on small looms by several weavers.  Once the sections were complete, they were stitched together to create the final product.

Patka, 1815 – 1825. Jammu-Kashmir, India, maker unknown.

These paisley shawls were worn by upper class Indian and Persian men.  However, Dutch and British colonization of India introduced Europeans to Kashmir shawls.  The exotic and beautiful patterns caused an immediate fashion craze.  Textile manufacturers throughout Europe started to replicate these patterns on jacquard looms.  Jacquard looms are mechanical looms that can create complex designs with the use of punch cards.  These punch cards controls a series of operations in the weaving process.  France and Scotland became major mass producers of paisley designs via jacquard looms.  This mass production made paisley more accessible to the middle class throughout Europe.

Shawl, 1840. France or Scotland, maker unknown. Detail above.
Paisley Slippers, 1990s. Stubbs & Wootten, North America.
Purse, late 1900s. North America, maker unknown.
Paisley Shawl, late 1800s/early 1900s. Possibly Scotland, maker unknown.

The exhibit showed some wonderful examples of real Kashmir shawls and those that were produced abroad.  A favorite detail of mine was on a shawl from 1870.  The embroidered signature of the workshop is visible.

Paisley Shawl, 1870. India, Kashmir, maker unknown.



The shapes of the paisley shawls manufactured in Europe also changed.  In the 1850s, the shawls were long and rectangular.  This was to accommodate for the crinolines (hooped petticoats) and full skirts that were fashionable during this period.  As the bustle replaced the crinoline, shawls became square.  The change in silhouette meant that there was less to cover, hence smaller shawls.  Americans coped with lack of access to paisley prints by embroidering them onto shawls and scarves.  The museum had several great examples of paisley motifs embroidered onto white muslin scarves.

Full Plaid Kirking Shawl, 1840. Probably Paisley, Scotland, maker unknown.


Scarf, 1900s. Bharat, India, maker unknown.
Scarf, 1830. American, maker unknown.

I was really impressed with the wall text and featured textiles.  The curator explained such a complex history in a way that was easy to understand.  The selection of objects really reinforced the main points.  The paisley on display was so dazzling.  The complexity of design, use of color, and the skill of embroidery were on my mind long after I left the exhibit.  It’s amazing how well-made items can last such a long time.  Seeing how these shawls survived 150 years (or more) makes a wonderful case for sustainability.  All of the scarves and shawls are still stylish, even now.  I would love to own something so well-made and so beautiful.  Knowing that well-made fashion and accessories can last several lifetimes says it all: Quality over quantity.

Detail, Paisley Shawl, late 1800s/early 1900s. Possibly Scotland, maker unknown.


You can hear the monsoon coming. The spatter of rain drops on banana and coconut leaves starts at a distance then comes toward you like an ocean wave. The sound is so faint it is hard to distinguish whether it is the wind in the millions of surrounding trees, or a deluge. You register the sound when it is perhaps three miles away. Two miles away, slightly louder. Louder still, one mile.

All of this happens in a split-second, and it is only just before it breaks overhead that your mind recognizes it and braces for what is coming. Under a tin roof, the sound is deafening. Even inside a solid, wood and concrete house with terra cotta tile roofing you can barely hear yourself think. By comparison, when you are out in it, there is almost no sound at all. One moment you are making your way through the dark, using what little moonlight is filtering through the clouds to try to perceive snakes, deceptively deep puddles, and the very vague difference between the “road” and the start of the jungle or other people’s plantations. The next, you are drenched. Having lived in Scotland, I was still unprepared for the actuality of getting caught in a torrential downpour. Five seconds before I was stomping along in a borrowed Manchester United jumper, damp TOMs that still smelled vaguely of the rotten jackfruit I’d stepped in several hours and miles earlier. Then suddenly I was more properly soaked through than I would have been had I walked for miles through Edinburgh’s heavy spring rains.

Five seconds before, I was longing for home. At that moment, I wanted time to stop so I could live that moment just a little longer.

I returned from India two months ago today. I miss the people I met. I miss the colour, the clothes, and the food. India is as far away from where I live as I can possibly get on this planet. Not everyone speaks English, so don’t believe people when they tell you that. But you’re quickly reminded that you do not have to share a language to communicate with someone, or for them to share their culture  and their world with you. India taught me that it is possible to make an exquisite garment completely by hand, of far better quality than anything at Forever 21 or the Gap, in a back alley off a major commercial street not because it will fetch a higher price or make you a household name, but purely for the joy and pride of making something beautiful. India taught me that hot water is a luxury. As is enough food, and a roof over your head. It reminded me that in an economy where I don’t have much, I have a family that loves me, and which offers me unending support while I pursue a writing career, and that that will last longer than any bank account or security.

India taught me that sometimes you have to get as far from home as possible, to reconnect with yourself.

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