A craze for the east

Vic­to­ri­ans loved ‘In­dian’ de­signs, which were pro­duced all over Bri­tain

BBC Earth (Asia) - - History -

Vic­to­rian fash­ion was heav­ily in­flu­enced by In­dia – thanks to the use of In­dian fab­rics, in­clud­ing cot­ton and silk, in the mak­ing of Bri­tish clothes. Bri­tons also adopted and im­i­tated In­dian pat­terns, style, mo­tifs and even gar­ments – such as py­ja­mas and the Kash­mir shawl.

Bri­tish women had worn the Kash­mir shawl – to pro­vide a lit­tle ex­tra warmth over short-sleeved, light­weight dresses – since the mid-18th cen­tury. Soon it had be­come a sym­bol of sta­tus, re­spectabil­ity and fash­ion, but one that was well out of the reach of all but the wealth­i­est women.

How­ever, in the

mid-19th cen­tury ev­ery­thing changed. By then, the de­mand for the shawl had reached such a crescendo that mills in Nor­wich, Ed­in­burgh and Pais­ley, near Glas­gow, be­gan pro­duc­ing im­i­ta­tions. Sud­denly women of lim­ited means could ac­quire shawls that, to the un­trained eye, ap­peared to be made in In­dia.

Sev­eral em­po­ri­ums opened in London to cater to the de­mand for both Bri­tish and In­dian-made shawls, among them the Lib­erty depart­ment store. Open­ing on Re­gent Street in 1875, it had soon ex­panded its range of In­dian goods to stock not just shawls, cloaks, scarves and jew­ellery to adorn the body, but In­dian fab­ric, fur­ni­ture, car­pets, rugs, in­cense burn­ers and brasses to dec­o­rate the home.

A wo­man wears a Kash­mir shawl in c1810, be­fore mass-pro­duced im­i­ta­tions flooded the mar­ket

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