Cashmere Couture: Cashmere in Western Culture

A map showing the regional boundaries of the Cashmere (Kashmir) region.

A map showing the regional boundaries of the Cashmere (Kashmir) region.

Cashmere- synonyms with luxury, soft and warm, beautiful and sophisticated; more than just a material- it’s a lifestyle.  A cashmere garment grants the wearer the power to feel unique- surrounded by warmth, beauty, and rarity; it always stands out in a crowd.  Cashmere is also a place; a land in India- tucked away in far north.  For centuries it was a place of mystery to Westerners; a place of exotic people, things, and practices.  The fabric first began to grace the bodies of rich Westerners in the 19th century- beginning in the Napoleonic era and gaining even more popularity during the Victorian age.

Living in the mountainous area of Cashmere (sometimes spelled Kashmir) are a specific type of mountain goat known as a Cashmere Goat.  Cashmere comes from this goat.  Don’t assume it’s wool though- because it’s not.  Wool comes from the outer fleece of a sheep or goat.  Cashmere on the other hand comes from the hair underneath the fleece of the goat.  During the molting season the goats are sheered and the downy undercoat of the goat’s fleece is exposed.  From there the hair is plucked or combed out by hand.  The hair is then processed, with the coarser hairs being removed to leave only the softest hair.  The amount of coarse hair remaining affects the price, the lower the percentage of coarse hairs, the higher the price.  To make one average size sweater the hair from 4-6 goats is needed.

Cashmere Goats, the source of cashmere. A fabric can only be real cashmere if it made from the downy undercoat of one of these special goats.

Cashmere Goats, the source of cashmere. A fabric can only be real cashmere if it made from the downy undercoat of one of these special goats.

The Indian sub-continent remained largely cut off from the Western world until the 18th century; when European trade and contact began to increase.  In the early 19th century Napoleon led a campaign to conquer Egypt.  During this campaign his soldiers traded steadily with native Egyptians, cashmere from India had made it’s way into Middle Eastern markets and was purchased by many soldiers.  Sent home to wives and girlfriends the material began to gain popularity in Europe.  By the mid 19th century India was colonized by the British and cashmere material was being imported into Britain from it’s native land.

In India artisans would process, dye, and weave cashmere into intricate patterns (usually a design we know as paisley) to make shawls.  These shawls would be given by members of the maharajah class to those higher then them in rank.  The word shawl literally means tribute.  When the Indians were under the control of the British many maharajah in Cashmere gave the ruling British these shawls as a form of tribute.  In fact Queen Victoria received these shawls every year as tribute.  So, I’m sure you can see why cashmere shawls became a status symbol among the upper classes in Britain.

Pictured here are Muslim cashmere shawls makers in Cashmere. They are hand weaving a brightly colored cashmere cloth. Circa 1867.

Pictured here are Muslim cashmere shawls makers in Cashmere. They are hand weaving a brightly colored cashmere cloth. Circa 1867.

Cashmere, being expensive (due to manufacturing costs, rarity, and importing) was pretty much off limits to the upper middle classes and middles classes in Victorian society- but this didn’t stop their desire for it.  Where there’s a want- there’s a market!  Since The Industrial Revolution was going on at the same time it’s not surprising that faux cashmere began to be mass produced in Great Britain.

On of the most successful factories for faux cashmere was in Paisley, Scotland.  This factory was so good- that Queen Victoria herself lent them several of her (real deal) shawls in order for the designs to be copied.  In fact the design motif we know today as paisley was copied from one of the Queen’s shawls and became known as “paisley”.  I read that the design actually has something to do with pine cones and Indian Hindu fertility Gods- which is kind of ironic!  I mean, straight-laced, prudish Victorian ladies the world over were walking around with Hindu fertility God symbols on their clothes and they had no idea!  Gasp!! 😉

If you’re interested in other Victorian fashion trends check out my article Victorian Inspired OOTD– its about incorporating Victorian trends into your everyday look. 🙂

The Maharajah of Cashmere is shown here presenting the British Viceroy to the region who beautifully colored cashmere fabrics. Mid 19th century

The Maharajah of Cashmere is presenting cashmere shawls and blankets to the British Viceroy upon his return to the area.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Today wearing cashmere is still a fashion statement.  It comes in all shapes, colors, and designs.  Wouldn’t you love to cozy up in one of these pieces on a cold winter’s day?

Cashmere Collection

 


Gucci pink top
$405 – tessabit.com

Rag bone long sleeve sweater
intermixonline.com

J Crew t shirt
$265 – jcrew.com

Burberry cashmere glove
$390 – neimanmarcus.com

Burberry plaid shawl
$385 – stylebop.com

Etro silk shawl
therealreal.com

Ciaté lipstick
$28 – montaignemarket.com

A R light blue blanket
onekingslane.com

 

Do you love cashmere?  What’s you favorite piece?  I’d love to hear about it!

xo,

Lydia