INdia has been a land of mystique and exoticism, attracting many travellers and writers to its way of life, its religions, textiles, culture, history, arts and crafts. From the east to the west, it has been a major influence on the world of design, spanning many centuries. The new book by Phyllida Jay details this aspect.
The ease with which she shifts from history to textiles to art to fashion to jewellery is indicative of her in-depth knowledge of the subject. Nothing escapes her eye as she covers different aspects of Indian influences across fields. Priya Kapoor’s contribution is no less as she has successfully developed the concept, bringing out all-round influences in this publication, with appropriate imagery complementing the text. Illustrations gathered from museum paintings, archival photographs, collections of fashion houses and jewellery houses add depth and meaning to the publication.
The first chapter illustrates the popularity of Indian textiles and their impact on European printing industry, especially England and France. Jay gives the example of the classic Toile de Jouy fabric in France that was inspired by Indian chintzes (called Indiennes in France in the 17th and 18th centuries). She shows how the impact of Indian goods on European society and culture was felt in the 18th and 19th centuries and how India became important to English Romanticism. She writes, “Romantics believed that humanity evolved from warm Indian shores and that the first human consciousness of the divine and spiritual realm occurred in India.”
Images of India produced by Romantic artists such as Tilly Kettle and William Hodges introduced Britain to a “fantastical and enchanted India”. Authors like Jane Austen (1775-1817) and Charles Dickens (1812-1870) made copious references to its exoticism and luxuries. Throughout the Victorian era, the idea of India continued to be mediated by its arts and crafts.
Talking about fashion, Jay recounts that three articles of Indian dress had a lasting influence on western fashion: the ‘banyan’, the Kashmir shawl and the sari. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the ‘banyan’ became a men’s dress that was neither bedclothes nor accepted street apparel.
The credit for establishing direct links between Kashmiri weavers and Parisian shawl manufacturers goes to French General Jean Francois Allard (1785-1839), who joined Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s army in 1822. Later, the Kashmir shawl became a Paisley in Britain, influencing various design forms. The sari, whose free flowing fabric has fascinated the west, inspired many to create designs that made it to the ramp.
The book is replete with innumerable examples of Indian elements used in western dresses — like peacock feathers embroidered on Lady Curzon’s dress; dresses with beetle wing decoration became a symbol of high status in Europe in the late 18th century.
Taking examples of designers both from the past and present, like Charles F Worth, Paul Poiret, Dior, Yves Saint Laurent, etc, she explains how they have all turned out collections inspired by Indian designs. The turban worn by Elizabeth Taylor remained an eveningwear style of high society throughout 20th century.
In the chapter on jewellery, she narrates many interesting stories. In her travelogue ‘Wanderings of a Pilgrim in Search of the Picturesque’, Fanny Parkes, who lived in India from 1822 to 1846, illustrated a gold-set ‘tiger’s claw’ worn by her servant. During the Victorian era, this design was copied into earrings. Indian design continued to dominate the world of jewellery from time to time.
During the inter-war years, it was in high fashion and appeared in many magazines.
Reading this marvellous publication will certainly be a valuable addition as it covers all areas of influence that India has had on global design. While larger print would have been better, nevertheless, this book, with a cheerful design, is a treasure trove of information. It’s a fascinating tale of how India impacted the world of design and fashion through many centuries and continents.
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