Spain is famous for its forward-thinking fashion, but traditional Spanish shawls are one of the country's landmark fashion elements. Spanish shawls differ from their counterparts around the world in that they typically incorporate many hand-done features, such as lengthy pieces of fringe that border every side or appliques and beads that add a three-dimensional design. Spanish shawls represent a bridge between utility and ornament, making them standard pieces for everyday occasions as well as formal wear.
Spanish shawls actually originated in China where the fabric squares were made, and then shipped to Spain where fringe was added. Called "manton de manilla", these shawls have been popular in Spain for one and a half centuries. The traditional way of wearing them, often seen on Flamenco dancers, is to double them over on the diagonal and wrap them so that they fall from the bust to a point that grazes the bottom hem of the skirt. The ends of the shawl cross at the back and then wrap forward toward the shoulders, where they are pinned. However, many people who wear Spanish shawls break with tradition and wear them wrapped around various parts of the body.
Shawls come in a variety of fabrics, but they tend to be of a thinner material than the knitwear shawls common in the United States. Cotton pico, crepe, silk and satin are common fabrics. A classic Spanish shawl often has a dark or bright solid background that is decorated with multicolored flowers. The highest quality shawls include hand-applied fringe, embroidered patterns, intricately detailed trim work or handmade lace. Shawls can be a perfect square, a rectangle or a triangle.
One classic Spanish shawl, or mantilla, is the type worn by flamenco dancers. It is typically fringed and plaited, and may be triangular. If it is made with white lace, it is intended to be used as a wedding veil, often worn atop the head and cascading down the shoulders and back. The most elegant veils feature handmade Spanish lace with scalloped edges. Triangular shawls are often intended to wear over the shoulders as opposed to wrapped around the body. Other shawls may be used as prayer veils and sarongs.
Spanish shawls are often integrated into dance costumes, folk dress and gypsy styles. It was the gitanas, or gypsies, of the 1920s who helped to widen the popularity of Spanish shawls. Flamenco dance outfits and costumes for the opera "Carmen" incorporated shawls, reinforcing the mistaken notion that the shawls originated in Spain rather than China.
Spanish shawls are the ideal fashion accessory. They wear well with solids and prints, and can add color to a neutral outfit. They can dress up an outfit for a special event, such as a wedding or a concert. They add warmth and provide a little protection from the elements. They are a relatively affordable and long-lasting wardrobe enhancer. They can doll up jeans and a t-shirt, adding gypsy allure and mystery. Most shawls are light and easy to care for, and they also travel well.