Cultural Context

Paisley Shawl Paisley Shawl

At first glance, we do not denote the same importance to quotidian objects that we designate for art, music, and even literature. We surround ourselves with tangible possessions, belongings for which we provide ourselves reason for purchase without understanding the depths of why we feel compelled to have them. We use these ordinary, seemingly unremarkable, objects throughout our lives without once stopping to analyze the way they create a tangible space for us in society, explaining our economic status and social constructs, our hopes and dreams. Though we may buy a car with the assumption that its value and appearance will carve out a special stage for us, it soon becomes merely a vessel by which we transport ourselves to places otherwise out of reach. The things within reach, however, remain despondently overlooked, overused, and undervalued. Dresses are worn until fashion forces them out of style, catching dust at the back of a closet or in a cedar chest. Quilts remain folded at the foot of the bed; creases become permanent designs as comforters and mass-produced linens take the place of handcrafted coverlets. It is only with time that these belongings lose the simplicity of the everyday and gain an important role in history. Memories, lifestyles, and expectations are woven in with the inanimate threads compiling a threadbare, Paisley shawl. A once elegant and lavish piece of panache, the shawl is a feeble remembrance of a lineage of determined, successful men and women. Though its existence cannot tell us a complete narrative of their lives, it is capable of giving insight into their relationships, ideals, and, largely, their identities.

The Paisley shawl from the Kansas State Historic Costume and Textile Museum embodies the lifestyles of four generations of women across four separate states. From New York to Minnesota to Kansas to Oregon and back, the shawl passed from hand to hand, daughter to daughter, symbolizing a singular thread that binds the family together across time and space. From its birth overseas as an exquisitely elite wrap, it found its way into the lives of a family who both admired its beauty and used it for a more practical purpose. This piece of apparel emanated from a cultural upheaval in the early fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, overtook a highly-evolving period of fashion in the nineteenth century, and landed in the laps of the family of a physician and surgeon in New York in 1863.  The shawl presents a story of unconventionality; the shawl itself resides in the liminal space between essential and accessory, just as the women who preserved it resided in the space between familial and academic. The manufacture of the shawl, its purpose, and the lifestyles of the women it encountered seamlessly come together presenting a family who, despite appearances, made their own space in society.

Shawls were simple constructions in the 1800s; in fact, they still are. They mainly consist of a single layer of fabric, sometimes a double layer, front and back, if durability is its main affect. It is simplistic in its shape, taking on the form of a rectangle, both easily wearable and transportable. Nearly any material can be fashioned into a shawl because of its simplicity in structure; however, wool, silk, and, and, more recently, cotton are the most prominent textiles by which they are formed. While the materials are important aspects by which shawls are defined, their most appealing and thus demarcated details reside in the colors and patterns that make up each individual shawl. Innovations throughout history have allowed for the mass production of shawls today in many different colors, patterns, and materials, which have effectively raised the level of production while synchronously lowering product value. The Paisley shawl is at the beginning of this mass production; one of the first jacquard looms that replaced the busy hands of weavers generated this shawl only a few short years before its proficiency stole its profit and popularity.

Cultural Context