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Shawls: Modern Classics

Thursday, 17 September 2009

shawlsWhen we say «shawl», we imagine a cold frosty winter, evenings by the fireplace in the cozy countryside house and a beautiful woman with a warm shawl on her head. But then summer comes, and she drops it on her shoulders, and the shawl, now long-fringed and decorated with big bright flowers, attracts numerous admirers. It seems that the shawl is a traditional Russian accessory, since to survive the inclement snowy Russian winter one has to be ingenious in protecting oneself from the hard frost. Actually, shawl is not Russian at all. They originated in the East, and the world joined in the admiration for this light and warm wrap.

Going East

What would the Europeans do, if the Indian artisans didn't give them a brilliant idea that one needs to get back to the antique traditions and wrap oneself in a big beautiful wrap? The first shawls, or «shals», were part of traditional Persian costume, worn by both males and females. Shawls were also part of the traditional male costume in Kashmir, which was probably introduced via assimilation to Persian culture. They were woven in extremely fine woollen twill, some were even said to be so fine as to fit through a ring. They could be in one colour only, woven in different colours (called tilikar), ornately woven or embroidered (called ameli).

First shawls - square-shaped wraps which were folded to form a triangle and wrapped around the head thus completely hiding the body under heavy and luxurious Indian fabrics - were manufactured in Kasmir, in the XV-th century. A traditional Indian shawl was made from pashminas, fine, but very warm fabrics. Simple pashminas were worn even by shepherds, but soon this wrap was a favorite of the royal persons and became hardly accessible for mortals. Pashminas were embroidered with gold, decorated with a long fringe and precious stones. This was a truly royal gift presented to the most distinguished guests.

In the early XIX-th century, the shawl has conquered Europe. The grand conquest began with... the Emperor Napoleon who after the invasion of Egypt was presented with a lush shawl in the Oriental style, which, upon return to France, he handed over to his lover, Empress Josephine. She was so fascinated with the oriental wrap that soon shawls were manufactured all over France.

Silk shawls with fringes, made in China, were available by the first decade of the XIX-th century. Ones with embroidery and fringes were available in Europe and the Americas by 1820. The importance of these shawls in fashionable women's wardrobes declined between 1865 and 1870 in Western culture. However, they became part of folk dress in a number of places including Germany, the Near East, various parts of Latin America, and Spain where they became a part of gypsy dress especially in Andalusia and Madrid.

Around this time, the production of shawls commenced in Russia. The earliest Russian shawls much imitated their Indian counterparts in shape and coloring. Later the Indian colors were combined with the traditional Russian floral motives. The prints on the shawls exploded with blossoming big or small flowers. This ornament was used on the entire surface of the shawls or along the margins. The Orenburg shawls, celebrated even in songs, were very well known throughout the world, and year after year received awards at world exhibitions.

Casual Wear

Two centuries later, shape and purpose of the shawls were almost the same. Today, wool shawls and pashminas are used for warmth, while silk and chiffon shawls remain stylish accessories. Once again, the world is crazy about the Russian motives, and the ethnic styles had never left the catwalks. Suffice it to mention the names of designers who are currently producing shawls to prove that this wrap is not passee, and the shawl is actually might be only approaching its heyday.

For several seasons, Alexander McQueen offered silk shawls with skull motifs, and he was not the only fan of this design. A leopard-printed chiffon shawl by Louis Vuitton has become a hit and a favorite accessory of many celebrities.  A scarf by Carolina Herrera brings us back to the traditional manner of wearing it - tying tightly around the neck.

You shouldn't, however, confuse a shawl with a stole. This colorful oriental accessory should be recognized by its traditional triangle shape, which sets it apart from other wraps.

The functionality of shawls is bordering on unlimited. If worn on the shoulders, shawl is excellent for masking chubby or emaciated arms in a revealing dress, dressing up drab apparel, adding volume to flimsy silhouette and draping full breast. Silk, chiffon or organza shawls or pashminas with oriental or traditional Russian prints, bearing the logo of the legendary brand, worn around the head or on the shoulders, will immediately transform the simplest outfit into dazzling, stylish and original attire.

If you think shawl is outdated, deserving only to be forsaken in the depth of your grandmother's chest, flip through the glossy magazines and you will see that this triangle-shaped wrap is donned by the famous models, actresses, and singers. Do you need another reason to take the lead from the stars?

Inessa Hyder


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