“From diplomatic gift to fashion trend, literary trope to colonialism’s violent accessory, the cashmere shawl is the star of Textile Orientalisms. Expertly weaving historical and literary sources, Suchitra Choudhury spins a vibrant tale of this culturally rich textile, intertwining the object and its many soft powers with British Empire scholarship.”
Susan Hiner, author of Accessories to Modernity: Fashion and the Feminine in Nineteenth-Century France
“Suchitra Choudhury weaves together entangled histories and discovers that the humble shawl is in fact a powerful symbol of empire, trade, industry, class, gender, design, and fashion, as well as being a symbol of identity, authenticity, family, and belonging.”
Leonie Bell, director, Victoria and Albert Museum Dundee
“A magisterial exploration…. Suchitra Choudhury has dug deeply in the archives of British India to reveal the shawl’s multiple meanings as a desired fashion accessory and orientalist icon. Linking the fashion system to imperial governance, gender and class insurrection, her book demonstrates that despite its privileged place at the heart of British domesticity, the ‘old Cashmere shawl’ possessed an uncanny power to disturb and disrupt. An important, original, and long-awaited contribution to the literary study of British India.”
Nigel Leask, author of Stepping Westward: Writing the Highland Tour, c.1720-1830
"The definitive work on the subject of Cashmere and Paisley shawls in all of their intricate significances within eighteenth- and nineteenth-century English history and fiction.”
Deborah Denenholz Morse, Sara E. Nance Professor of English, College of William & Mary
The first major study of Cashmere and Paisley shawls in nineteenth-century British literature, this book shows how they came to represent both high fashion and the British Empire.
During the late eighteenth century, Cashmere shawls from the Indian subcontinent began arriving in Britain. At first, these luxury goods were tokens of wealth and prestige. Subsequently, affordable copies known as “Paisley” shawls were mass-produced in British factories, most notably in the Scottish town of the same name. Textile Orientalisms is the first full-length study of these shawls in British literature of the extended nineteenth century. Attentive to the juxtaposition of objects and their descriptions, the book analyzes the British obsession with Indian shawls through a convergence of postcolonial, literary, and cultural theories.
Surveying a wide range of materials—plays, poems, satires, novels, advertisements, and archival sources—Suchitra Choudhury argues that while Cashmere and Paisley shawls were popular accoutrements in Romantic and Victorian Britain, their significance was not limited to fashion. Instead, as visible symbols of British expansion, for many imaginative writers they emerged as metaphorical sites reflecting the pleasures and anxieties of the empire. Attentive to new theorizations of history, fashion, colonialism, and gender, the book offers innovative readings of works by Sir Walter Scott, Wilkie Collins, William Thackeray, Frederick Niven, and Elizabeth Inchbald. In determining a key status for shawls in nineteenth-century literature, Textile Orientalisms reformulates the place of fashion and textiles in imperial studies.
The book’s distinction rests primarily on three accounts. First, in presenting an original and extended discussion of Cashmere and Paisley shawls, Choudhury offers a new way of interpreting the British Empire. Second, by tracing how shawls represented the social and imperial experience, she argues for an associative link between popular consumption and the domestic experience of colonialism on the one hand and a broader evocation of texts and textiles on the other. Finally, discussions about global objects during the Victorian period tend to overlook that imperial Britain not only imported goods but also produced their copies and imitations on an industrial scale. By identifying the corporeal tropes of authenticity and imitation that lay at the heart of nineteenth-century imaginative production, Choudhury’s work points to a new direction in critical studies.
Suchitra Choudhury is a research fellow supported by the William Lind Foundation at the University of Glasgow and an independent scholar. Her articles have appeared in Textile History and Victorian Literature and Culture. She is the cocurator of the display Paisley Shawls in Literature at Scotland’s Paisley Museum (2023). More info →
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