Significance of the Shawl

For centuries, France has been classified as a fashion capital of the world. Whether you are searching for silk, cashmere, wool or lace, France is sure to have all the luxury items you desire. Women from all over the world sought out to obtain these luxury fashions in order to portray a certain representation of themselves to society. Clothing provided the wealthy with a physical representation of social hierarchy. Although this concept is still relevant in the same respect as to the lower and middle class with clothing. In France, a shawl was a fashion accessory that could portray a variety of perceptions about the woman wearing it. There are not only social but aesthetic connotations revolving around the shawl that women wanted to represent themselves with.

Shawls and Wraps in 19th Century Art, Literature, and Fashion History |  Author Mimi Matthews

Many artists have incorporated shawls into their compositions to represent erotica, power, status, and beauty. In Edouard Manet’s Olympia, he incorporated a shawl that a nude woman seems to be reclining on, as though it has just fallen off her body and onto the chair she is on. This piece of fabric that is considered luxurious, is now being represented alongside a sex worker who was likely given this shawl from a male suitor. This shawl contains a delicate floral pattern with tassels on each corner. The shawl creates an alternate persona around the person who is wearing it, whether they be an object of desire or envy, artists continue to represent women in art with a shawl to create a narrative.

Musée d'Orsay Renames Manet's 'Olympia' and Other Works in Honor of Their  Little-Known Black Models | Smart News | Smithsonian Magazine

Women who were adorned in these luxury fabrics were exhibiting their wealth, power, and influence while wearing the shawl. In other compositions, such as Josephine Beauharnais by Pierre-Paul Prud’hon also used a rich red colored shawl, draped over the once wife of Napoleon to represent power, status, and fashion. Empress Josephine was interested in Oriental shawls and all things fashion, which was fitting, being that Napoleon’s signature color was this rich red that paired well with the shawl. This fashion craze over the ornate and beautiful shawls from around the world continued to be depicted in compositions of powerful, wealthy and beautiful women. Although, in Manet’s composition Olympia, he is toeing the line between scandalous and respectable. The shawl is now being represented alongside highly decorated women and completely nude women.

Empress Josephine (1763-1814) -

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