A large flamenco shawl is an essential and versatile part of the flamenco dancer's wardrobe, as well as being a dramatic prop (see Working Shawls). They can be wrapped around your upper body in a number of ways to make an attractive top. If the fringe is short enough, they can be tied around your waist to give a "gitana" look.
Real Spanish flamenco shawls, hand made in Seville, are the ultimate - but they are also incredibly expensive, and too precious to wear as a top because they'll be damaged by sweat. Used as a working shawl, their size and weight may also be too much for a beginner. So let's look at some alternatives.
Chinese shawls are usually made of good quality silk, but the thread used is much lighter and finer, giving you a lighter-weight shawl that's easier to manipulate and more comfortable to wear.
You can go one step farther and buy a triangular shawl (basically, a half shawl). Whether worn as a costume or used as a prop, you'll usually use the shawl folded into a triangle anyway, so why pay the extra money for the full square? As you'll have only one layer of material, it will be cooler to wear - and used as a prop, you won't have the worry about the shawl separating as you throw it around.
Personally, I wouldn't recommend using the triangle shawl as a prop. Eventually, you're going to want to move up to the real thing. If you don't learn how to use the shawl so it stays together from the beginning, you'll find it even more difficult to trade up to the full size, full square, heavy professional shawl.
One of my favourite suppliers of flamenco shawls is the Shanghai Tailor. The quality is good, the freight is reasonable and they are very fast - I've ordered a shawl and had in delivered in 3 days!
If you feel you're ready to invest in a genuine Spanish shawl, be careful. Just because it's being sold by someone in Spain doesn't mean it's Spanish-made! Many of the shawls on sale in Spain today are imported from Asia. Because shawls are hand made, they can't be cheap - be suspicious of "bargains"!
Photo credit: iliturgitana