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Why the humble shawl is always a perfect fit for every occasion

By Mary Kenny

Published 16/11/2015

Timeless elegance: the shawl never goes out of fashion
Timeless elegance: the shawl never goes out of fashion

I see from Parisian sources that the fashionable winter coat can now be a kind of shawl. My dream outfit from the catwalks is a gorgeous Nina Ricci designer ensemble in multi-coloured pure wool: it's a rich, wrap-around shawl which can be worn as a coat. I adore shawls - I'm a shawlie - and it's great to see that they are now everywhere, from haute couture to Primark.

The shawl is probably the most flexible, versatile and practical garment ever invented: if ever the word "inclusive" could be applied to a piece of apparel, the shawl would surely take the prize. The shawl can be warm, or cool. It can be high fashion and is used by the poorest women in the world. It can be exquisitely decorative, as in the tradition of the Kashmir pashminas from where the shawl derives, or it can be a bread-and-butter knitted covering. A cotton shawl can be a beach covering and a silk shawl can adorn a ballgown.

Although India is credited with inventing the shawl, Ireland can lay claim to a special association with it. Glance over old photographs of country Irishwomen in Cork and Kerry and the Aran islands, and they are usually provisioned by a shawl, normally in black.

Shawls were worn before anyone could afford a coat and there are some poignant stories of Connaught women in post-famine times who would share a good shawl for special occasions, or for a Sunday Mass.

In my Dublin childhood, the market-seller Mammies in Moore Street always had a shawl (and an old pram in which to move goods).

The shawl was discreet and practical for the purpose of breastfeeding. These days, we affirm the right of any mother to breastfeed her baby wherever and however she chooses: and yet, many a modern mother finds it quite comfortable to employ a shawl when nursing a babe.

Not everyone in the world is amazingly enlightened about the display of the bare breast and some women still feel an instinctive desire for a certain element of privacy in this intimate mother-baby contact.

No better garment has ever been produced for this end than the shawl. Isn't it wonderful that it is so in fashion again?

The shawl also had - and still has - the advantage of, if not exactly concealing a pregnancy, at least sufficiently covering the bump so that no one was quite sure: especially when it was no one else's business. Mothers who find it harder to lose that post-baby weight are also well-served by an enveloping shawl.

The mammies and grannies of old, who would be welcomed into the snug of a pub (in the days when a respectable woman wouldn't enter the saloon bar) would sit wrapped in their shawls: and presently, they would go home, carrying, beneath this ubiquitous garment, an extra pony of porter in a jug. When it rained, as it always did, the shawl could cover head as well as torso.

A shawl can be big enough to wrap around the body, or small enough just to cover the shoulders. A small, woollen shawl on the back of the shoulders is, to my mind, one of the best prophylactics against chest colds and coughs.

I have a beautiful, now well-worn crochet fringed shawl - you could also describe it as a wrap - which looks like a piece of gossamer: yet it's one of the toastiest things I ever had on my shoulders.

(The other very cosy shoulder-warmer I possess is a vintage fur wrap: made in Oxford in the Thirties from the natural fur of a musquash, which, as I explain to anti-real-fur protesters, is a member of the rat family. You can also be a fur shawlie).

Shawls can be any price, too, and some of the cheap ones I've seen around this autumn are great. Some of this season's shawls are also halfway to being cardigans: sewn at the side for arm-holes.

There are variations on the shawl, such as the cape, the cloak, and the poncho. The cape is also a current fashion: it may be more like a sleeveless half-coat, just fitting snugly around the shoulders. Then there's the cloak. Cloaks are fabulous - so swirling and generous: I've had a couple for yonks. They draw on the design of the flowing, long cloaks of old, which must once have been court dress.

There was an appeal recently for warm clothes for refugees in Calais and I included in my bundle one of the grandest capes that I've had for some time. I felt a slight pang in parting with it, but took guilty comfort in the thought that I must have six others, so I should part with at least one: and it is a garment with universal appeal.

The South American version of the shawl and the cape is the poncho. The poncho suits children and young people, but its main drawback is that it has to be pulled on over the head. I don't disparage it, but it doesn't have the flexibility of the shawl.

Shawls fold easily and fit neatly for packing. A generous shawl can double as a dressing-gown for travel purposes. A shawl adapts perfectly to changing weather, and to changing body size.

I quite understand that not everyone is attracted to the shawl. I gave a shawl to a cousin of mine, but it was just a bit too hippyish for her.

Some people prefer a neatly tailored look and that tailored look will never go out of fashion. But neither will the shawl, and some of us will be forever shawlies.

Belfast Telegraph

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