In France, after the Revolution there was a democracy of fashion. All levels of society were able to participate. Expensive silks, which would have been the preserve of the aristocracy, gave way to cottons, linen and muslin. The fashionable silhouette needed no corsetry, padding or panniers. The form was simple and inspired by the clothes of antiquity. By the late 1790s this had evolved into the familiar shape of the ‘Empire Line’. Within the fashionable democracy some women wanted to enhance the style further by adding expensive accessories to their dresses.
Early Costume Parisien fashion plates show embroidered reticules, fichus and plain shawls. But by the early 1800s the first ‘Cashemire’ shawls started to appear in fashion plates.
The Cashmere shawl became an object of desire for those who could afford it and the ultimate accessory. To understand why, you need to appreciate how much one of these shawls would cost. The shawls were only produced in the Kashmir region and the spinning and weaving process was complicated due to the nature of the goat’s hair fibers. It is said that one shawl could take up to three years to weave. Then there was the further expense of transportation by land and sea to Europe. One bill from ‘Lenormand’ for a green cashmere shawl for the Empress in 1809 shows a price of 1920 francs. That is the equivalent to many thousands in today’s money.
|Kashmir goat painted 1819.|
Not only a shawl
|Mans waistcoat 1780-90 V&A Collection|
|Robe made from cashmere shawl c. 1797|
There are two late 18th century examples of clothes made from cashmere shawls in the Victoria and Albert Museum. However, in France the actual shawl dress or 'robe de cashemire' started to appear in Costume Parisien by 1804.
One of the most famous wearers of this fashion was Josephine, Empress of France.
“Josephine- She had from three to four hundred shawls; she used them for dresses, for bed covers and for cushions for her dog. She always wore one in the morning which she draped over her shoulders more gracefully than anyone else that I have seen. Bonaparte who thought she was too much covered by these shawls, would pull them off and sometimes threw them into the fire. Josephine then called for another”
Mme de Remusat, Memoires.
As a costume maker it is interesting to understand how they would cut a shawl to make a dress. The paintings of the period offer many clues to their construction. It is obvious that the two ends of the shawl length make up the skirt part of the dress. A painting of Josephine and of her daughter Hortense shows the bodice is part of the centre of the shawl with the side border clearly visible. They are both caught at the shoulder in a tunic style. This could be a reference to classical fashion but also for practicality to use smaller parts of the centre of the shawl with a seam at the shoulder covered by the decorative pin.