When French women wore cashmere

In the Paris of the 1950s, Monique Lévi-Strauss and her anthropologist-husband, Claude, would stroll through the Paris Flea Market, “lured,” she writes, “by our love of the unusual.

“What a marvellous time that was: when we could eat our meals off a dinner service made at Creil-Montereau a century earlier but that cost no more than new china; when I used to wrap a cashmere shawl (once the pride and joy of a nineteenth-century aristocratic lady) around myself like a cloak in the evenings.”

Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908-2009) – one of the foremost thinkers of the 20th century, who promulgated the idea of our binary approach to language and perception (young/old, male/female, etc.) – drew his wife’s attention to shawls.

“He was amazed to note that shawls worth a fortune a century before had, for the moment, lost all their value,” she tells WAG. “He encouraged my research and shared my pleasure every time I made a ‘discovery’ in my documentation or whenever I found a piece that I could identify.

“I cannot pretend that I apply my husband’s working methods to my research. But I will gratefully admit that he taught me to think with rigor and to verify and cross-check before making any statement or identification.”

Among the fruits of such intellectual vigor is Lévi-Strauss’ “Cashmere: A French Passion, 1800-1880” (Thames & Hudson Inc., $80, 320 pages, 298 illustrations, 285 in color), which plumbs a nation’s fascination with a fabric and one of its most fabled uses.

Cashmere originally comes from Kashmir, the lush valley nestled beneath the foothills of the Himalayas that has been fought over by India and Pakistan. There the soft down shed each spring by the wild goats of Tibet and Central Asia was sorted and spun by women – but woven on handlooms by men assisted by young children – into shawls so warm and yet so light they could be threaded through a ring. These cream-colored shawls – almost 6 feet long and about 4 feet wide, with decorative borders on either end that were about 1 foot in height – became all the rage in France thanks to Napoleon’s campaigns and the mercantile efforts of the East India Company. Stunning and costly, the shawls were a prized status symbol, as seen in the first-rate paintings of the neoclassical, or Empire, period that are among the great pleasures of this book. These include Antoine-Jean Gros’ 1809 portrait of “The Empress Josephine,” which shows Napoleon’s wife in a dress made of a shawl with a red, blue and green pine, or paisley, border. A red shawl is wrapped around her waist and thrown over her left shoulder for contrast.

As the appetite for these treasures increased, French manufacturers undertook their creation, using a technology that resulted in richly patterned, textured shawls that resembled abstract paintings and elaborate landscapes.

“The use of the Jacquard mechanism, which consisted of a series of punched cards that was commanded by a pedal under the weaver’s foot, allowed the weaving of larger and larger patterns,” Lévi-Strauss writes in an email interview. “Beginning in 1834, the design of one pattern could occupy one quarter of the surface of a square shawl. Ten years later, in 1844, one single design could spread over half the surface of a long shawl. …”

But as with many a passion, the fashion waned.

“The use of the bustle came into fashion around 1868. This cushion in the shape of a crescent was worn in the back, under the waist, and was meant to underline the smallness of the waist. A lady wearing a long shawl over the new silhouette created by the bustle might look like a camel. The shawl and the bustle were simply incompatible.

“The ladies, nevertheless, remained sentimentally attached to a shawl they had received as a wedding gift from their future husbands. Some turned their shawl into a coat or a dressing gown. Others hung it as a door curtain or used it to cover their piano.

“Nowadays, the textile industry produces lovely woven or printed shawls with cashmere motifs. They cannot compare with the past masterpieces,” Lévi-Strauss adds of the works in her book, which may be worth anywhere from $2,000 to $50,000. “But (the new shawls) do give us great pleasure and comfort.”

While Lévi-Strauss praises cashmere for being “soft, light, warm and sensuous,” noting that “a cashmere textile draped around your shoulders enhances your looks,” she does not collect shawls today.

“My incentive was not to possess shawls but to have them handy at home in order to study them, to verify on them every hypothesis that came to my mind while doing my research.”

Though her memory has weakened and her step slowed, Lévi-Strauss is still reading and writing.

“I read books in French, English and German,” she says. “I write my memoirs for my grandchildren. I enjoy cooking and meeting people of all ages. I believe I am a lucky person.”

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