Article By: Indranil Halder
During my Kolkata (Calcutta)teenage years, the Kashmiri shawlwalas (shawl vendors) came to the megacity to sell their exquisite hand-woven shawls. My mother purchased several for my dad. My dad would wear them at public gatherings, at home, and on holidays. Seeing dad in a shawl, made my mum enormously happy. And the tradition continues with me here in Australia, my brother in the United States, and my dad in India.
Photo 1: Chidananda Halder in Shawl, Falaknama Palace, Hyderabad, India, 2013
The ‘men in shawl’ style Concept :
The concept of ‘men in shawl’ is nothing new. It was and is still popular in the Indian subcontinent. In the 80s, one particular style which used shawl was known as The Rajiv Look – clean-shaven, shawl across the shoulder, Ray-Bans, and lots of teeth(India Today, 2001). Named after former young Indian prime minister (1984) Rajiv Gandhi. Like Rajiv, men, in India use pure pashmina shawl or Kashmiri woollen (Shahtoosh: trade name for woollen garments ) shawl or other varieties for their stylish attire.
Historical evidence suggests, Indian shawl weaving industry date back to the 11th century AD, maybe as far back as in the 3rd century BC ( King Ashoka’s reign).
In the 15th century, Babur, the founder of the Mughal Empire in India was known for including shawl as part of the practice of giving khil’at (“robes of honour”) in his court. And the tradition continued when Kashmir was conquered by Babur’s grandson Akbar in 1586, Kashmir shawl remained part of khil’at ceremonies. It was typically gifted to favoured diplomats, or courtiers in Indian ‘durbar’ and Persian courts. Usually by the royals. In gratitude, for their loyalty, services, or successes. Mughals also introduced the making of Jamawar shawl in India. Often portraits of Indian men from the 18th and 19th century, had them wearing gold-threaded mango (or paisley) motif Jamawar shawl.
Photo 2: Nobel man in Shawl, Mughal Era style, India,18th century
Long before, Mughals arrived in India, the country had always been a hub for textile export and is being done so for the last 5,000 years. Talented Indian weavers created shawls for buyers in established and popular trade routes like the silk route, the wool road, and India’s local markets, those embraced the ‘men in shawl’ culture. With time, local Indian markets such as the Bengali market in North Eastern India developed a deep appreciation for ‘men in shawl’ style culture.
I believe, such appreciation and purchasing power helped develop and sustain the shawl craft in the Kashmir region to survive. The Bengali ‘men in shawl’ cultural concept had influenced many generations, the film industry, and fashion designers. Maya Mukerji mentioned the use of shawl in her paper, Bengal Film Practitioners: Art, Intellectualism and Morality, Victorian, while describing Oscar and Legion of Honor-winning filmmaker Satyajit Ray. She described,” In Calcutta, Ray is typically dressed in Bengali traditional clothing, pajama/kurta, or dhoti, and a shawl depending on the weather.”
In Bengali culture( India & Bangladesh), the Kashmiri shawl was used as a statement piece amongst men of high ranks. The elaborate designs, traditional texture, and exclusivity made the shawl a sought-after possession. In a portrait of Dwarkanath Tagore( one of the first Indian industrialists to form an enterprise with British partners), one can see the presence of a shawl in a steel mezzotint engraving by George Raphael Ward (1799–1879). It was later painted by Frederick Richard Say (1804–1868).
Photo 3: ‘Prince’ Dwarkanath Tagore in Shawl, The British Museum, UK,18th century
Tagore with other Bengali elite men used shawl as part of a simple but significant grand attire statement. Aruna Chakravarti in her book Jorasanko described Dwarkanath Tagore as,” In his brocade robes, priceless jamawar shawls, ropes of pearls and jewels flashing from his chest and turban, he was a fine figure of a man and commanded respect wherever he went.”
Photo 4: Indian Models in Shawl, The Sabyasachi Collection, Kolkata, India,2015
So does, contemporary Indian designers like Sabyasachi Mukerjee. In his, The Sabyasachi Collection for grooms, men can be seen wearing his designer shawls.
Today, hand-made and cheaper mill-made woollen shawls are available for men too. Men can also use cotton chaddar sort of garment made of Khadi handloom as an alternative.
Photo 5: Emdad Hoque in a shawl, Khadi, The Future Fabric Show, Bangladesh, 2016
Just like in North India, South Indian culture shawl has been used by men of distinction too. A painting of Purniya, Chief Minister of Mysore by Irish painter Thomas Hickey(1804), wearing an amber-colored Pashmina shawl is part of the royal heritage in the Yale Center for British Art. The shawl has palla embroidery motifs and sozni embroidered hemmed border. This portrait highlights the grandeur presence of ‘men in shawl’.
Photo 6: Purniya, Chief Minister of Mysore in Shawl, Yale Center for British Art, USA, 1804
Other than grandeur, a shawl also showcases Indian craftsmanship from different regions producing different types of shawls. Even though pashmina shawls are popular through time, there are other types of shawls too.
Photo 7: Portrait of a Young Indian man in Shawl, Lucknow, India, 19th century
Types of Shawls:
Pashmina shawl is weaved in the Indian state of Kashmir. Made from fleece of local Himalayan Chyangra goat. It is soft in texture. Nepal and parts of Pakistan make pashmina.
Kullu shawl is from the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh. Wool shawls from Chamba, Kullu, and Kinnaur are also sorting after. They are recognized for their patterned structure. Made from the fleece of local goats like Angora and Bihang.
Created with a special technique known as slit tapestry which has a coarser design.
Naga shawl is from the Indian state of Nagaland. Famous for its exotic look. It is done by back-strap looms. Made from colored wool, weaved together with weft patterning.
Kalamkari shawl is from the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. The designs are Srikalahasti or Machilipatnam style. Both are hand-drawn with a pen. It is a cotton-based shawl with a hand-printed or block-printed design.
Other varieties of men’s shawls can be found in the Indian subcontinent such as Wadera Shawl, Sindhi Ajrak shawl, and Dhussa Shawl in Pakistan, and Afghan Patoo Shawl in Afghanistan. They all support the stylish concept.
Photo 8: Bollywood actor Saif Ali Khan in Shawl, India, 2017
It was also introduced to Europeans. Many of whom arrived in the subcontinent by the ocean for trade and commerce just like the Armenians, Americans, and Jewish in the 17th and 18th centuries, and some admired the concept.
Global Representation :
Europeans who traded with India and admired the stylish concept of ‘men in shawl’, eventually started wearing them. The style attracted attention from painters and writers in Europe. As much as users adored them, painters displayed them in their paintings. Such is the portrait of Captain John Foote (1718 -1768) painted (1761-65) by Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723 -1792) in York Art Gallery, England. It is one of those rare paintings that highlight the use of shawls by English men. The portrait gives a sense of grandeur, importance, and accomplishment. At the York Art Gallery and Museum, one can also see the portrait and actual garments worn by Captain Foote.
Photo 9: Portrait of Captain John Foote in Shawl, York Art Gallery, England,17th century
The earliest account of the shawl in British history came from the love letters of the author Laurence Sterne. He wrote novels such as The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy. Sterne’s beloved was the unhappily married Eliza Draper, who had returned to England from Bombay on account of her health. He mentioned after they parted that Eliza’s husband had heard she might have fallen in love with someone else. She returned to India to protect her reputation. But the most interesting part was not the extramarital affair. It was the shawl she left for him to cherish. Sterne’s letters to Mrs. Draper were written in 1767 and published in 1904, as Journal to Eliza.
Photo 10: Eliza Draper’s letter mentioning Shawl, Journal to Eliza,1904
Later on, an English novel Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray( born in Kolkata in 1811) had one of his characters, Joseph Sedley carried a white Kashmiri shawl upon his return from Bengal. It is clear from Journal to Eliza and Vanity Fair that members of British settlements in India during their stay in the subcontinent may have accepted and mindfully practiced the wearing shawl.
Now, it seems like the idea of using a shawl as part of one’s attire was becoming prevalent in England and other parts of Europe such as France but ‘men in shawl’ remained subtle. In 1810, French painter Émile Jean-Horace Vernet painted a portrait of Roustam Raza. Raza (Armenian background) was the mamluck of Emperor Napoleon who served him for fifteen years as a personal attendant. The portrait has a green shawl which certainly supports the concept of ‘men in shawl’ with grandeur. Shawl remained popular both in French and English high societies.
Photo 11:Portrait Roustam of Raza in Shawl, Metropolitan Museum of Art, USA, 1810
The Maharaja Gulab Singh from the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir was required to send exclusive Kashmiri shawls for Queen Victoria, Empress of India as part of Article 10 of the Treaty of Amritsar (1846). While in 1852, author Charles Dickens described a shawl in the magazine Household Words as “if an article of dress could be immutable, it would be the (Kashmir) shawl; designed for eternity in the unchanging East; copied from patterns which are the heirlooms of caste, and woven by fatalists, to be worn by adorers of the ancient garment, who resent the idea of the smallest change”. This ancient garment was admired in European societies but still did not set in a popular trend for the concept ‘men in shawl’ with global representation.
In the 21st century, the immensely popular ‘men in shawl’ style concept in Bengali culture also started losing its dominant trend. Many from the Bengali culture, claim this stylish concept no longer exists. Swapan Mullick, Bengali author of Mahanayak (Superstar) once said,” The Uttam era, they said, when a spotless white dhoti, kurta, and chappals were the epitome of elegance—reinforced, in winter scenes, by a regal shawl—was over.”
We at Halder Bari, adore this ancient garment and are carrying forward this concept of ‘men in shawl’ as a distinguished tradition with global representation.
Whether be in India, Australia, and the USA, we, Halders, use shawl with contemporary or traditional attire or a fusion of both. We drape our shawl across the shoulders in individual styles to enhance grandeur. We encourage others, especially young men to embrace the concept of ‘men in shawl’ as we passionately believe, this style concept needs to survive and thrive.
Photo 12: Nepalese Model Ramchandra Basent in Shawl, Durga Pujo Photoshoot, HalderBari, Sydney, Australia, 2020
Our usage of the shawl with achkan, bandgala, or long sleeve French cuffed shirt is so ingrained that we keep wearing it to attend dinner at The Polo Bar ( By Ralph Lawrence), NewYork or mingle with participants of the Welcoming Cities symposium at the National Maritime Museum, Sydney or enjoy a traditional Bengali wedding at Fort William, Kolkata. To us, Halders, a shawl is part of timeless attire which is grand, distinguished, and sophisticated in style. It makes us proud to represent the ‘men in shawl’ style concept across the globe.
Photo 13: Indranil Halder in Shawl, Parliament of NSW, Diwali Celebration, Sydney, Australia, 2015