What is a Shawl?

Friday, January 14, 2022
Young woman wearing combination with shawl

No piece of clothing can show off your unique personality quite like a loose covering shawl. Shawls can come in a variety of patterns and styles, from a solid all-black design with an elegant fringe, to a bold red natural fabric featuring geometric shapes and a lace trim. With all the possibilities available, you can easily find a shawl to match any occasion, including an upscale dinner, a beach outing, a cocktail party, and even a wedding. 

But just what is a shawl? 

At its most basic level, the loose outer garment known as a shawl is a square or oblong piece of fabric usually thrown over the head or the bare shoulders.1 

If you’re thinking about making shawls your new wardrobe staple, but want to learn more about how to style this loose cover, we’re here to help. In this guide, we’ll take you through the history of shawls, settle the women’s scarves vs shawls debate, and end with some tips on how to pick your perfect shawl. 

History of the Shawl

Before we look at how to style your shawl, it’s helpful to explore the origins of this loose outer garment. Knowing the history of the shawl can give you ideas for how and when to wear it. 

For example, if your shawl is made of a traditionally finished fabric or with certain ceremonial designs, you can use this background knowledge to determine which occasions are right for your shawl. 

Beginnings in Central Asia

The English word “shawl” has its origins in the Persian language. Persian “shals” were usually made of fine wool or other types of animal fleece.1 

The most well-known type of shawl today is the Kashmiri shawl, which hails from the region of Kashmir in India. These shawls are made of fleece from the capra hircus—a type of Central Asian mountain goat. The resulting finished fabric is known as cashmere or pashmina.1 

This explains why you’ll sometimes see “pashmina” used interchangeably with “shawl.” 

Growing Popularity in Europe

The popularity of shawls increased exponentially during the Regency era, appearing in various types of fabrics still used today, including:2 

  • Silk
  • Lace
  • Muslin
  • Wool

One reason for the popularity of shawls during this period was that the lightweight gowns of the Regency era did little to protect against the cold.5 Shawls were both a fashion statement and a practical necessity. 

These pieces of fabric serve similar uses today. You can pack a shawl to wear over your sleeveless summer dress for protection from the sun or throw one over your bare shoulders when that afternoon garden party turns into a chilly evening affair. 

black shawl

A Cultural Emblem Around the World

Thanks to their simplicity and versatility, shawls expanded their reach throughout the world.

For example, the Manila shawl, used by flamenco dancers in Spanish culture, originated in Canton, China. It’s a square silk shawl that’s folded in half diagonally and draped over the shoulders. Over time, a fringe was added to the original look to give this shawl its unique Spanish style.6  

So, if you’re thinking about how to wear a shawl, consider paying homage to its roots by: 

  • Showing off the fringe – When you have a shawl with an eye-catching fringe, don’t make the mistake of obscuring that beautiful trim. Wear a base outfit that contrasts with the color of the fringe to make it stand out. Play with the symmetry, letting the fringe fall from high to low across the front or creating an even V-shape in the middle of your back.
  • Throwing on a long dress – Pairing your fringed silk shawl with a floor-length dress or skirt is sure to make a statement. With this classic flamenco-inspired style, the wrapped shawl adds a certain air of mystery. Consider choosing a dress or skirt made of high-quality fabrics and weaves, such as silk, satin, and lace, to match the delicacy of the shawl. 
  • Mixing and matching – To throw in a sprinkle of you, think about modernizing your outfit while also keeping the shawl as the centerpiece. Pair your silk shawl with a pair of knee-high riding boots for a daring look, or layer a semi-opaque shawl over a backless dress. Style your hair in a low bun so that the embroidered pattern is fully visible. 

Shawl vs. Scarf

Now that you have a better understanding of what a shawl is, you may be wondering what the difference is between how to wear scarves vs wearing a shawl.  The main difference is the size and proportions. Because a shawl is designed to drape around the shoulders and hang down the torso, similar to a sweater or cardigan, it tends to be wider than a scarf. 

On the other hand, a scarf, which is specifically worn around the neck, will typically be longer and thinner than a shawl. 

a young woman wrapped in a wide shawl

Which One Should You Choose? 

If you can’t decide whether to invest in a quality shawl or scarf, you’re not alone. Both of these fabrics can be styled in a variety of ways to create unique statement looks. When it comes to choosing a shawl or scarf, you should ultimately go with whichever piece of fabric speaks most to you. 

However, it’s worth noting that both shawls and scarves come with unique advantages. Consider the following when making your choice: 

  • Versatility – When it comes to versatility, shawls are the clear winner. These pieces of fabric are large enough to layer over your top or bottom and can also double as scarves and headpieces. If you want to maximize the number of ways to style your garment, go with the shawl. 
  • Sizing – While shawls can be folded down into the size of scarves, they’re usually on the thicker side. If you’re looking for a delicate, small piece of fabric to tie around your neck or purse, opt for a square or rectangular silk scarf. When it comes to dainty, well-placed accessories that can elevate your style, scarves can do wonders. 
  • Cultural origins – If you’re drawing inspiration from a certain tradition or art form, make sure you choose the type of fabric that fits the design. Whether it’s a Manila shawl or an Irish scarf, certain patterns are unique to scarves or shawls, despite the similarities between the two. 

Finding Your Perfect Shawl

Choosing your dream shawl is no easy task. Take the following into account when deciding on this new addition to your wardrobe. 


Shawls come in as many types of fabric as you can imagine. When deciding which shawl is right for you, it’s important to consider the occasions when you might wear your shawl. This will dictate the type of fabric you should choose. Think about the following categories:

  • Quality fabrics – If you plan on wearing your shawl in professional settings or to more upscale events, such as fancy dinners or nights at the opera, choose one with some weight to it. A heavier, warmer fabric, such as cashmere or wool, will add elegance and a timeless feel to your outfit. 
  • No-fuss materials – On the other hand, if you plan to wear your shawl outside to the park or the beach, opt for an easy-to-clean material that you’re not afraid to get dirty. A cotton or linen shawl can be tossed in the wash after a long day and worn again for that weekday errand you have to run. 
  • Specialty fabrics – If you’re attending a cocktail party or even a black-tie event, a simple shawl isn’t going to cut it. Think about choosing a more elaborate fabric or weave, such as silk, satin, lace, or chiffon. Specialty fabrics will help pull your outfit together while giving it that formal evening feel. 


Make sure to take the climate and season into account when choosing your shawl. If you live in a frigid environment, that easy breezy summer shawl will probably end up in the back of your closet. Similarly, if you want a shawl that can double as a chunky winter scarf, you should lean toward thicker stitching and heavier fabrics. Learning how to tie a scarf can help you when adding a shawl into your wardrobe as well. 

For hotter climates and summery weather, choose a see-through or loosely knit shawl to complete your summer outfit or any other breathable fabric for summer. For maximum versatility, choose a wool knit shawl, which will keep you cool in the summer and warm in the winter. 

Ways to Wear Your Shawl 

Shawls can be worn in numerous ways, including on the head, over the shoulders, around the neck, and even tied at the waist like a sarong. 

For some examples of how to style your shawl, take a look at the following:

  • A patterned or solid-colored shawl can be worn as a sweater and cinched at the waist with a belt. Pair it with chunky boots for an edgy look. 
  • A lightweight, flowy shawl can be thrown over the shoulders as a covering for a summery dress , a cute plus size dress, or a blouse and maxi skirt combo. 
  • A wool or cashmere shawl can be folded and wrapped around the neck to double as a thick scarf on a cold day. 

Karen Kane: Sustainable Style at Your Fingertips

If you’ve been searching for that new wardrobe staple, look no further than the collection of shawls available at Karen Kane. Whether it’s the lightweight, versatile Fringe Pashmina Shawl or the oversized Shawl Cardigan, our neutral-colored garments will have you ready for any number of occasions. 

Plus, all of our clothing is made from ethically-sourced materials, so you can look stunning and feel comfortable without sacrificing the health of our planet. Shop Karen Kane today. 


  1. Textile as Art. The Kashmir Shawl. 
  2. Mimi Matthews. Shawls and Wraps in 19th Century Art, Literature, and Fashion History. 
  3. From Spain Inc. History of the Spanish Mantón: The Manila Shawl. 
  4. Merriam Webster. Shawl. 
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