6 July 2017 -

Indian shawls were popular dress accessories in nineteenth-century Britain. What became known as Paisley shawls were the imitation: Cashmere-styled shawls manufactured in Edinburgh Paisley and Norwich. References to shawls inundate the pages of nineteenth-century fiction. Despite this prominence, however, literary critics have been slow to chart their value and significance. My project surveys the fashion for shawls during the 'long' nineteenth-century. In particular, it explores and analyses the way in which British imperialism was a central factor in the cultural production of shawls.

I am grateful to the Design History Society for awarding me a Strategic Research Grant, which helped to fund a trip to London for consulting a collection of shawls at the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A), enabling me to complete a publication on Paisley shawls (see reference at the end of the post). My tour included an appointment with Jenny Lister, a curator in the Furniture, Textiles and Fashion department at the V&A. As I came upon a selection of historical shawls, which Jenny had kindly curated for me, I was fascinated to see how Indian shawls and their imitations looked both similar and different to the inattentive eye. Several of these shawls were of British origin; however, what really caught my attention was a shawl made in nineteenth-century Paris, which had copied and replicated a Persian inscription so as to convey a sense of authenticity. These artefacts, and the broader historical narrative they represented, seemed to successfully bridge any cultural binary between 'the East and the West'.

Most museums are likely to hold a collections of shawls. Not surprisingly, in textile and art scholarship, shawls exist as a prominent subject of enquiry, as we know from the works of John Irwin, Pamela Clabburn, Valery Reilly and others. But given my interest in postcolonial studies and a consistent training in English literature, I rather wish to highlight the way in which the fictionalised representation of shawls can offer potential avenues for revisiting some of the conditions of nineteenth-century imperial and domestic culture. The material narrative of 'imitation' shawls, for instance, can afford significant links with 'imitation' as a larger abstract. The postcolonial critic, Homi Bhabha, we might remember, famously contended that the acts of 'imitation' or 'mimicry' by the colonised peoples was immensely political and subversive in the imperial context. Would Bhabha have described the materiality of imitation shawls as almost the real Cashmere 'but not quite'? Such interrogations and explorations, based on a postcolonial idiom, inform my critical understanding of nineteenth-century shawls.

Suchitra Choudhury

'Fashion and the "Indian Mutiny": The "Red Paisley Shawl" in Wilkie Collins's Armadale', Victorian Literature and Culture, 44.4 (2016), 817-832. DOI:


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