May 1, 2016
The Allure of Luxury: The Impact of the Kashmir Shawl on Dress and Design in Persia
Talk by Jeff Spurr

Some pictures
click on the thumbnail for the full picture.

For millennia, export goods have been finding highly receptive foreign markets. Some have also proven to be effective vehicles for the transmission of visual ideas, readily appropriated by the receiving cultures. Such transcultural artistic phenomena represent a marriage of sorts: few valued imports are simply accepted unmediated by issues of taste and use in the recipient societies; complex feedback mechanisms are frequently at work. In the context of international trade in the early modern era, the Kashmir shawl had few equals, the closest parallel being provided by Chinese blue and white porcelain of the Yüan and Ming dynasties. This luxury textile combined rare and fine materials, notable warmth and lightness, an exacting technique of production, and beauty of design. Wherever it was introduced from the 17th through the 19th centuries, the shawl was quickly embraced for practical use and status display, and became a model for efforts at local emulation, and a vector for design ideas.

This paper addresses aspects of commercial, social, textile, and costume history of the Kashmir shawl in relation to Persia, following a description of the emergence of the shawl as a decorated object in early 17th century Kashmir. In order to make my case, I focus particularly on the manner of use of the shawl and shawl cloth (jamawar/yardage) in Persian attire and other textiles starting in the 17th century, and argue for the Kashmir shawl’s priority in time, and its dominance over the local development of similarly woven and decorated shawl cloth (termeh), principally in Kerman. I bring evidence to bear particularly from the practice of oil painting for the depiction of elites in Persia starting in the second half of the 17th century, and the evidence of travelers’ accounts throughout the period in question to support my argument. I also briefly demonstrate the appropriation of shawl imagery in later 19th century rug design during the revival of the carpet-weaving industry in Persia and the Caucasus.

Jeff Spurr is an independent scholar of Islamic textiles — with a particular focus on the Kashmir shawl and textiles of Central Asia — and of the history of photography in the Middle East. At Harvard University, he devoted 26 years to documenting Islamic visual culture and to the development and management of collections of historical photographs (ca. 1850-1970) of the Middle East, broadly defined. He has curated or co-curated several exhibits, and co-authored books, published articles, and given papers in both fields, and at the intersection of the two.

Spurr has a sustained interest in human rights and cultural heritage, and has focused particularly on the fate of libraries and archives in countries subjected to conflict. In that regard, he engaged in such activities in reference to Bosnia-Herzegovina, where he initiated and managed the Bosnia Library Project (1996-2005), dedicated to rebuilding devastated academic library collections. and Iraq, documenting, publicizing and endeavoring to ameliorate the condition of academic libraries and archives, about which he has written and spoken extensively, starting in 2003. He is also an activist in the service of Palestinian rights.

return to home page