20th Century

Terminology: What is bagheera? (and a bonus definition)

Bagheera is fine, uncut pile velvet.  It was originally made of silk, but after the introduction of cellulose fabrics it could be made of rayon.  It was popular in the 1930s & 40s.

A 1933 fashion column describes it as ‘a crepe velvet with a matte surface’.  The ‘matte surface’ refers to the rough, uncut pile which absorbs rather than reflecting light.

The crepe makes it crush-resistant, and gives it a lovely drape, making it very popular for evening wear.  Heavier bagheeras are also used in furnishing, because the crush-resistant quality makes it suitable for chairs and other items that get heavy wear.

Bagheera is first used as a term for the particular type of velvet in the early 30s, and mentions in the early ’30s sometimes use quotation marks, indicating it was a novel term.   It was used for evening dresses and skirts, glamourous house-robes (the replacement for the tea gown), as an alternative to fur for wraps and jackets, and in millinery.

Bagheera remained popular into the early ’40s, but was another textile that disappeared with the social changes of WWII.

“Clever new tricorn of black felt faced with mustard yellow bagheera” Alto Herald, April 1942 Via Texas History

It’s not evident if bagheera the velvet has any link to Kipling’s Bagheera, the panther in the Jungle Book.  The books almost certainly predate the use of the term for a velvet, and it may be that the fabric was named after the books, either to evoke a sense of exoticism (hmmm…never seen that before!) or because the rough pile of the velvet reminded someone of a panthers coat.

Unfortunately, while I can find mentions of bagheera, and definitions of the fabric, I’ve been unable to find a reasonable image of the fabric itself!  If you have one, or another period image featuring bagheera, or (the holy grail) an image of a period garment made of bagheera, please share!

And a bit of bonus terminology:

What is uncut velvet?  An uncut velvet is a velvet where the pile threads are left as loops (like toweling and terrycloth) rather than being trimmed into discreet strands).  It is sometimes called terry velvet.

Source:

O’Hara, Georgina, The Encyclopedia of Fashion: From 1840 to the 1980s.  London: Thames and Hudson Ltd.  1986

Datta, R.K., The Global Silk Industry: A Complete Source Book.  Delhi: APH Publishing.  2007

17 Comments

  1. Excellent. I think relating the fabric feel to the sleek and silky panther makes for rather a good fabric name.

  2. Oh golly, I love the sound of it. I can just imagine it purring against my skin, the name reminding me of my mother reading the Jungle Books to me at bedtime: the character of Bagheera, strong and wise, yet indulgent; sleek and black and velvety.
    As Rudyard Kipling died in 1936, I wonder whether naming the fabric Bagheera, was part of a cultural wave of nostalgia for Kiplingesque terms?
    I imagine that I must have seen examples of
    bagheera, but look forward to any images that you receive.

    • It does sound delicious, doesn’t it?

      As there are mentions of the fabric before 1936, I don’t think it had to do with his death – just with the enduring popularity of his books.

      If you see any more do take pictures!

      • Yeah, I thought that 1936 might be a bit late to have spawned the term. I really need someone like you to point the stuff out to me in the Real. Do you know if there are any examples in Te Papa? My daughter is heading up for three days work experience in their textile dept soon. I should ask her to keep an eye open 🙂

        • I didn’t notice any examples of bagheera when I was at Te Papa. They have a few nice 1930s pieces, but it’s not the textile collections strongest point. I hope your daughter has fun!

  3. The Mad Purple Chicken says

    I had never heard of such a fabric. I love these terminology posts because they are usually terms I have never heard before.

    It makes perfect sense to name a fuzzy fabric after a fuzzy cat, much more sense than “flea colour”.

    I don’t think I’ve ever seen uncut velvet, how fast does it wear out?
    Do the little loops get snagged easily?

    • I don’t know if I’ve ever seen uncut velvet either. I imagine that if the pile is thick enough, the loops wouldn’t snag. Something to watch out for! I’ll add it to my big list of obscure fabrics that I annoy the Wellington fabric stores by searching for 😉

  4. Very interesting! Now I wish I could find out just what it looked like. We should all form a fabric-making company just so we can make these fabrics that aren’t made anymore.

    • Yes! Like the people doing period prints, only we would be doing full-on period fabric! I wonder if we could even find machines (in the general sense of a loom being a machine) to make them, or even instructions?

        • Oh goodness, now we’re getting complicated! And we’d have to have the right kind of thread, and they probably don’t even make some of them anymore, and then there are things like the possibility of extinct strains of silkworms, and of course rayon has improved so much since the 1930s, so we might get a ‘better’ fabric in terms of strength, lack of creases & washability, but it might not be accurate. Gah!

    • I found both of those as well, and alas, I am 100% certain with the first, and reasonably certain with the second, that the name ‘bagheera’ is a title (just like you could name a print Kashmir and it wouldn’t be cashmere) and not an indication that the fabrics are actually bagheera.

  5. Huh, that is fascinating! I always just thought Bagheera was a cool name for a panther, but now I know better…

    It’s too bad you couldn’t locate a good picture of the fabric; I’m having a really hard time even imagining what this looks like.

    • I know 🙁 I was really hoping someone would comment and say “oh, I have a dress with fabric that must be bagheera!” and then post a picture. So I’m just going to have to keep haunting museums and vintage clothing stores and hoping

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