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Learn about the complex history of the Kashmir shawl at The Boteh Kashmir & Paisley exhibit on now at Lacis Museum of Lace and Textiles.

IMG_20180629_183815612Featured in this unassuming display are examples of both hand and machine woven shawls popular in Europe during the 18th and 19th centuries. The common shawl motif we know as paisley was originally referred to as boteh, a Persian word that means bush or shrub. Shawls began to appear in the eleventh century made from the fine underbelly hairs of the Himalayan goat. Using a twill weave, each shawl was handwoven and could take up to three years to complete.

In the 1700s these shawls became prized objects  when Kashmir royalty gifted them to occupying British officials. The fashion for Kashmir (cashmere) shawls among the wealthy in Britain and Europe created a demand impossible to fulfill.

Fast forward to the early 1800s when the Jacquard loom was created allowing for mass manufacturing of fabrics with intricate designs. The fashion for shawls, available only to the wealthy, could now also be enjoyed by middle-class Victorian women, although the quality must have varied.

IMG_20180629_184353649Lacis has hung the shawls on walls each with a magnifying glass to allow for an even closer look. Some of the collection is displayed on mannequins, which gives the viewer a good idea of how they were worn and why they were so popular, particularly during the fashionable hoop-skirt era. The fullness of the skirt is a perfect means for showing off one’s expensive shawl.

As you enter the exhibit there is an Introduction Label (museum speak), offering some history and general background. Along the way there are Object Labels with descriptions and dates of each shawl and illustrations of how women sported their shawls.

I recommend this exhibit to historians, textiles enthusiasts, weavers, costumers, anyone interested in fashion! The Boteh of Kashmir and Paisley is on now through February 2, 2019. Lacis Museum of Lace and Textiles, 2982 Adeline Street, Berkeley.

On a side note – the fashion history podcast Dressed: The History of Fashion recently posted an episode all about the shawl. For a detailed explanation of the history check out Cashmere With a ‘K’: The Controversial History of a Shawl.  (Not the most professional presentation, but still very informative.)

 

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That's me! At The Gaskell Ball, c.1995.

That’s me! At The Gaskell Ball.

Speaking of the Scottish Rite Center, once upon a time I used to be a regular at the Gaskell Ball held there in first floor Grand Ballroom. The Gaskells were formal Victorian balls and I learned about them back in the mid-90s at the Starry Plough Pub where I showed up every Monday night for Irish dancing. Yes, I was quite the dance-enthusiast.

Gaskells were great fun for the quick-paced waltzes, mazurkas, and my favorite, polkas, but I was also enchanted by the gowns. Many of the women dancers were members of various local costume guilds so they donned their own creations, often putting on the finishing touches in the Ladies Lounge mere seconds before the Royal Britannia Grand March, which was the start of the evening. And I have to share that the ball really wasn’t a success until one of us (never me) lost her hoop skirt on the dance floor. I was always impressed with how unimpressed the gentlemen were whenever this happened – Oh, another lady lost her hoop – one might casually say maneuvering around the embarrassed dancer.

Looking at the full-length gowns in satin or velvet swishing around the dance floor teased my desire for the elegance of times past. I also reveled in the decorum and near perfect manners on behalf of the men, dressed in tails, top hats, and white gloves, which were worn to protect the ladies’ gowns from soiling. Some gentlemen wore military uniforms others kilts! They’d bow and ask for a dance, escort a lady on and off the dance floor, treating us with distant respect as if we were made of fine porcelain. At that time, it all made my heart race. Independent spirit be damned, at least for a few hours every other month.

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Although most attendees sported Victorian, anything formal was allowed and I went Art Deco the first few times but it wasn’t long before I wanted to fully partake in the era with my own Victorian gown. So, a project was launched. I started at Lacis in Berkeley, a shop known for lace and antiquity. I discovered the reproduction pattern company, Past Patterns and chose an 1831 gown, just before Victoria’s reign but close enough, and the name of a local seamstress that I was told was up to the challenge, Debra Starks.

Backside.

Looks pink but it was a true peach.

Next I found fabric at a fabric store right down the street from where I was living (those were the days) – a cotton brocade in peach. Now, let me say I was not rolling in money and this was not an inexpensive endeavor but I did have a second job as an actress in mystery dinner theater. Every penny I made working on the weekends went for my Victorian Dress Project and that made it all even more special.

I had several fittings with Debra and she made the dress to perfection, as original to the 1830s as she could get with no zippers but only snaps and hooks. I opted for a crinoline, which came from a bridal shop and I recall the saleslady did not understand why I wanted a crinoline if I didn’t also want a wedding dress. Undergarments included bloomers and a chemise. Even though 1830s style footwear would have been more of a slipper I wanted (ah, needed) a bit of a heel. I went for Peter Fox shoes in cream with lace detailing. I had my hair curled and used ribbon to tie it up.

Those first few Gaskell Balls in my lovely dress were a dream as I too finally got to swish around the dance floor. Over the years I have also worn the dress to a masquerade ball, a costume Christmas party, and I really enjoyed showing it off in a Victorian literature class I was taking in graduate school.

My Victorian dancing days are a thing of the past and sadly, the Gaskell Ball is no more but I still have the dress and once in a while I consider passing it along. But really, how can I do that? It’s a part of my personal fashion history.

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