Scarves in the 19th Century

The 18th century saw the birth of the shawl as a fashion garment, however it was in the 19th century that the shawl reached the peak of its popularity.


In France, Napoleon's second wife, Empress Marie-Louise, continued the fashion for shawls, but with French rather than Indian designs. In Britain, Queen Victoria was presented with shawls by the Shah of Persia, and by Indian princes, and amassed an admirable collection. She also supported the Scottish shawl industry, wearing Paisley shawls on many occasions, including on Royal visits abroad. Fashion magazines were full of 'how to wear' advice and classes were widely held for young ladies to learn how to wear shawls in the most becoming manner.

CrinolineCrinoline (photo: © Wikipedia)
With the move toward fuller skirts in the 1830s and the subsequent development of the crinoline, shawls became more fashionable than ever, and even indispensable - any kind of coat being very difficult to wear with such enormous skirts. Indian-style shawls were now available on the mass market at every price point, and it was probably this ubiquity which increasingly encouraged fashionable ladies to look elsewhere for shawl inspiration. One style that became very popular, and which also worked over the fashionable crinolines, was the burnous - a semi-circular shawl or cape worn in Tunisia. The burnous was particularly popular in the USA, and much worn by theater-goers.

Other mid 19th century fashions were the fichu, a cape-like scarf tied or clasped with a broach at the breast, black lace (often worn as a shawl or a mantilla) and scarves of white chantilly lace. Scottish tartans and 'plaids' were also popular, and popularized by Queen Victoria's love of all things Scottish.

No fashion lasts for long, and in the 1870s women's dresses changed again, the trend being toward a much slimmer, more natural silhouette. With straighter dresses, shawls became less useful and - with the development of the bustle - gradually fell out of fashion. For a time, however, there was a vogue for remodeling shawls into a type of coat called a visite. A visite had long sleeves and a slit at the back to allow the shape of the bustle to be seen.

With the end of shawls, there was - of course - a revival of scarves, stoles and boas of various kinds. Liberty & Co., the grand London department store, had opened in 1875 and its Asian and oriental-inspired scarves and accessories were all the rage. Richly embroidered Chinese shawls had been imported from Canton since the mid-19th century, and became increasingly popular towards the end of the century.

Liberty & Co. was also important in popularizing the new Art Nouveau style. Long, trailing and beautifully embellish scarves matched the mood of the movement, as did rich fabrics and elegant prints such as the Liberty 'Peacock Feather' design of 1900.