Over the past year, the Italian luxury house Gucci has been called out for appropriating the kurta and the French haute jeweller Cartier has been accused of building its design vocabulary by “copying” Indian and Islamic designs. A few weeks ago, the Jean Paul Gaultier haute couture show in Paris included a sari-inspired drape (Gaultier is known for his love of this silhouette).
Dior’s Maria Grazia Chiuri, on the other hand, has been giving a shout-out to Indian crafts and their contribution to the European couture process through her presentations in fashion weeks.
Whether it is acknowledged or not, the influence of Indian crafts and design in the way the West sees and produces fashion has been remarkable. In fact, pre-independence, England and France were so worried about India’s textile prowess that they banned imports from the country. Decades later, design history continues to neglect the role of India.
Anthropologist-author Phyllida Jay tries to address this issue in her new, visually rich book, Inspired By India: How India Transformed Global Design (Roli Books). Using over 300 images, sourced from the archives of design houses such as Van Cleef & Arpels and Dior, Jay explains how the West borrowed and even “stole” designs from India. Starting with the Romans (the book reveals they were obsessed with Indian white cotton for their togas) and going up to Isabel Marant’s Spring/Summer 2022 collection, where fashion show pieces were proudly tagged “Made in India”, the book covers centuries of design inspiration, and the role of India.
In an interview with Lounge, Jay talks about her book and why India has been overlooked. Edited excerpts:
Can you define cultural appropriation and explain how it differs from cultural appreciation?
One of the things the book sets out to explore is, how do we navigate within this complex moment in post-colonial image production, material manufacture and the crafting of identity? What are the parameters for deciding whether something is homage, pastiche, or ignorant and even racist cultural appropriation?
On the other hand, what does it mean to truly “appreciate” another culture, especially where a brand is taking inspiration from it in the form of prints, patterns, materials, cultural beliefs and expertise in making? Is it about recognition, transparency in crediting and financial compensation? Yes, definitely, in the case of working with artisans and with crafts that have a direct aesthetic, cultural and even spiritual connection to a community’s culture. Be respectful and pay artisans properly, treat them well and acknowledge their intellectual property, integrity and hard work.
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Take, for example, paisley; who owns paisley? The word isn’t even Indian—it’s Scottish! Yet somehow, ineluctably, it stands in for India, an instant, easy visual signifier resulting from incredibly complex entanglements of global trade. So, I would ask anyone using it, how can you acknowledge this complex history, delve into the motif’s history and appreciate the cultural symbolism, communities and histories around it?
You write that the book is “intended to redress some of this lost history of India’s role in global material and design”. Why did it take so long for such a book to come about?
It’s an interesting question, isn’t it? Perhaps it’s partly to do with how disciplines tend to be silo-ed. There have been some amazing exhibitions and books on distinct aspects of Indian craft and textiles but where contemporary fashion is tacked on at the end, too much like an afterthought. This serves to uphold a false set of separations between Indian and Western design, in terms of dress and fashion, craft and design, and tradition and modernity.
Why do you think we still don’t have a global Indian brand?
That’s the million-dollar question. Especially at this point, when we have just witnessed Rahul Mishra’s incredibly exquisite and refined collection as part of the Paris couture week. And now, of course, we are seeing the consolidation of the Indian fashion industry with the significant investments by ABFRL and Reliance. So, it comes down to time and history. How things will look in 25, 50 or 100 years, it’s quite a fascinating thought.
The book shows how central Indian textiles were to the growth and spread of luxury not only among the rich but also the middle classes in Europe from the 17th century onwards. This reached a critical mass in the 18th century and helped spur import replication and the industrial revolution. Yet in more recent 19th and 20th century history, European luxury conglomerates have the cultural and economic might to sustain global dominance. However, so much emphasis is still placed on European provenance or at least the illusion of that. Only very, very recently has the role of Indian embroidery in European luxury been spoken about openly, yet, as the final chapter shows, it has been a systemic part of the contemporary European luxury industry at least since the growth of ready-to-wear in the late 1970s to 1980s.
In the book you say three items have had an impact on global fashion: the sari, the shawl and the ‘banyan’ (vest). The inclusion of the ‘banyan’ was important but is often forgotten. Why do you think this happened?
One of the things the book sets out to do is show how Indian textiles and dress have formed an integral part of Western fashion, often to such a degree of ubiquity that we don’t even realise it. I think the banyan is one of those examples. In the 18th century, it became a grand dress item for men across Europe and America. It has since become incorporated as the humble and indispensable dressing gown, its associations with cosmopolitan, liberal-thinking intellectuals of the 18th century all but forgotten. I think all the romance around the erstwhile maharajas tends to dominate as a form of inspiration which can get quite repetitive and reproduce certain stereotypes of Indian aesthetics.
You talk about the role of the Indian diaspora. Within India of late there has been a lot of talk about NRIs having a dated or tacky approach to fashion. What are your views?
Oh, NRI-fashion-gate, phew, I am still recovering from following it all! I would emphasise first that I think it’s deeply problematic to lump all NRIs together and make definitive statements about them. What the furore that characterised this debate does demonstrate beyond anything is how central fashion is to identity and how difficult it is to try and understand its role in identity-making in as diverse a population in India and amongst the diaspora. I understand the point of view of many weighing in on the debate that very glitzy Bollywood-driven Indian fashion often wholly dominates. In turn, that’s also often what non-NRIs take their cue from when seeking to draw on Indian inspiration. So, in a way, this debate was about Orientalism, seen through the prism of judgements around taste, class and style.
So many designers have been inspired by the sari and you look into this in detail. If you had to single out one sari inspiration which stands out, what would it be?
I love the Balenciaga sari gown from 1965. I was fortunate to study this particular one close up at The Clothworkers’ Centre in London. It is an exquisite piece that reflects Balenciaga’s architectural approach to design and wrapping pieces around the body in a sculptural way, with as little visible evidence of the construction as possible. I love it because it evidences a different kind of sari inspiration from what we so often see on catwalks, which are maybe a bit obvious and 1990s Bollywood-influenced. Balenciaga closely studied the sari drape, appreciated the technical propensities and possibilities the sari drape embodies and interpreted it in an innovative, respectful and beautiful way that paid homage to the sari. This approach anticipates the work of designers like Tarun Tahiliani, Amit Aggarwal and Gaurav Gupta.
A lot has been written about how the West has stolen from the East’s jewellery heritage. Yet Indian royalty were the biggest clients of European houses. Is there a gap here?
Yes, there does seem to be a gap in how we understand this history. Since cultural appropriation has—quite rightly— become such a lightning rod issue, there’s sometimes a tendency to commodify anger around it via click-bait internet content that paints the picture in very simplistic terms. It’s a bit cynical, really, to drive traffic to content behind a paywall in that way. It can result in more nuanced and accurate histories and more productive dialogue becoming wholly sidelined.
Indian maharajas were huge patrons of houses like Cartier. It was very much a two-way process of design and the cross-fertilisation of cultural styles in jewellery. The maharajas were in Paris at a time of great social and cultural foment. Some jewellery houses even depended on the maharaja’s patronage to financially survive during the difficult war years. The Indian princes had the time, and money, to experiment with art deco and modernist design and became some of its greatest patrons. Think Yashwant Rao Holkar II and Manik Bagh, for example.
In turn, the commissions made by maharajas inspired houses like Cartier and Van Cleef to create Indian-influenced pieces in their collections. So the book tried to look at the opposite flow of influence to the narrative usually told.
In actuality, the flow of influence had started some time earlier and has some interesting broader cultural threads of philosophical thought behind it, notably amongst Victorian thinkers like John Ruskin, which the chapter explores. After the Kohinoor was displayed for the Great Exhibition of 1851, the diamond was recut, but not everyone approved, with many in the art world viewing its re-cutting in the European oval-brilliant style as akin to vandalism.
Where would global contemporary fashion be today if it wasn’t ‘Inspired by India’?
I can’t even begin to imagine what it might look like if there wasn’t this history. It’s so interwoven due to over 400-500 years of trade and exchange with India.
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Sujata Assomull is a journalist, an author and a mindful fashion advocate.