“India is a place where colour is doubly bright. Pinks that scald your eyes, blues you could drown in.” - Kiran Millwood Hargrave
Our cultural past, steeped in influences that flowed in during centuries of invasions and rule by people from far-flung places, showcases itself as enduring expressions within the country’s present-day aesthetics. Ingenious and experimental, the rich design and artisanal luxury curated in India have been proclaimed irreplaceable in the international market. In order to trace this history, it is important to look back and identify the icons who placed India on the map of global influence.
Historically, the influencers of the past were Maharanis, Princesses and Queens. These women, who in their elegant displays of Indian craftsmanship, left an enduring mark on the landscape of Indian fashion.
Princess Karam of Kapurthala, known as the ‘Pearl of India’ within western high society and prestigious fashion circles became one of the first Indian faces to grace the cover of Vogue Magazine at the tender age of 19 yrs. A royal maiden who influenced the esteemed house of Schiaparelli to fashion a collection of evening gowns inspired by her sarees for their 1935 collection.
According to thestylestorian:
“I was thrilled to see that some of the dressmakers were actually inspired for their new models this year by some of the saris I wore in the summer of 1934.”— Princess Karam Of Kapurthala
The trailblazing princess has been commemorated as an icon of the Jazz Age. Decked in opulent jewels and haute couture, she was a vision to behold.
In a seamless amalgamation of Kundan (pure gold) and Meenakari (Persian art of colouring the surface of metals by fusing brilliant colours), rubies, emeralds and diamonds were introduced to Indian jewellery by the Mughals. These gems were a symbol of the affluence and riches of the empire. Further fusions of Indian and Mughal styles and patterns with western jewellery manufacturers resulted in a surge of ornamentation, exquisite design, and extravagance as never seen before.
Maharani Yashoda Devi of Patiala donned the magnificent ruby choker made in platinum, created by Cartier Paris in the year 1931. A relic of royal splendour, and one of the most widely recognised pieces, the choker was a gift to the Maharani from the Maharaja Bhupinder Singh of Patiala. The multi-layered necklace consisted of six layers of rubies in the upper part of the necklace with diamonds as well as pearls on the sides passed down from previous generations. It now travels through museum exhibitions across the world after being rediscovered by Cartier in 2000.
Maharani Sangyogita Devi of Indore, led a cosmopolitan life with her husband Yashwant Rao Holkar II, who turned Indore into an art-deco paradise. An admirer of European style, most of her jewels were custom made by the French jewellery house Mauboussin. The widely publicised emerald necklace made with two Indore pear diamonds created by Mauboussin was sold to Harry Winston in 1946, a decade after her death.
Most royal families invested in European Jewellery as a way to cement financial superiority with their western counterparts. The spending power was such that the owners of the most renowned jewellery houses would fly all the way to India to cater to their demands.
The flamboyant Maharani Sita Devi of Baroda led a vivacious life mixed with a heavy dose of scandals. She mimicked the same unabashed boldness in her fashion choices that were a display of wealth and status as the wife of the eighth richest man in the world. A Monsieur Erigua, impressed with her impeccable style opened a factory called Saree & Co. to create French chiffon sarees for her.
The saree, a staple in the Indian woman’s wardrobe has seen its own share of changes through the sartorial choices of Indian Royalty. As opposed to the customary/decolonised way of adorning a saree, on one’s bare body, the royal ladies took inspiration from the layers of petticoats worn by English women and introduced the petticoat to the traditional garment. Similarly, form-fitting blouses incorporated fasteners (buttons/hooks) and darts, a trend set by the nobility with the ability to influence the masses.
By the 1920s, tailored blouses and petticoats became so popular that they became a uniform style for women around the country.
Maharani Indira Raje Devi, of Cooch Behar, a picture of elegance and grandiose charm flirted with fine silks and elaborate necklaces. It is believed that she was the one to catch sight of a smooth textile (now chiffon) in Paris and asked if the width of the fabric could be extended from 34 to 42 inches.
Her daughter Maharani Gayatri Devi of Jaipur was a trendsetter of her own time, a woman who still dominates our public imagination. The iconic bob, chiffon saree and pearl necklace formed her signature style and became a trend in the years to come, as she remains a muse to designers such as Sabyasachi Mukherjee.
Shalimar by the iconic French house Guerlain, as an ode to the Shalimar Gardens, had India’s reigning queen as its biggest fan. The perfume’s name was a nod to the Mughals and the romance they bought. Emperor Jahangir created the pleasure garden for his wife Noor Jahan in 1619. Centuries later, in 1925, after he was enchanted by the Mughals, Jacques Guerlain created Shalimar, the world’s first oriental fragrance. The perfume still remains in high demand, its glory unadulterated with time as Maharani Gayatri Devi’s signature scent.
Fashion is a representation of cultural identity. It is evident how over the course of several invasions, the changing socio-political scenario of the country left an omnipresent mark not only on our customs but costumes too. The western designs and alloy plating that permeated into Indo-western style jewellery and the modern period dresses brought by British women and accepted by the more affluent in the past are now being adorned by the powerful women of present-day India.
The treasure of Indian heritage embellished with foreign influences and adorned in the form of dresses and jewels worn by Indian maharanis is archived within glass boxes in museums, however, their influence in the world of the bridal trousseau and modern jewellery design is alive and well, while continuing to be an inspiration to modern designers.
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