What does Scarlett O’Hara, of the 1939 movie Gone With The Wind, and ladies of Punjab have in common? They were both associated with voluminous crinoline dresses — Scarlett O’Hara for wearing them and the ladies of Punjab for embroidering them.
Set in the backdrop of the American Civil War, the movie shows how its chief protagonist, Scarlett O’Hara, wore voluminous dresses that billowed out from her waist over many layers of petticoats, assisted by her nanny, Mammy.
A crinoline underskirt is what made the dresses stay fanned out like an umbrella. A crinoline is a stiff or structured petticoat designed to hold out a woman's skirt, popular roughly between 1850 and 1869, when voluminous dresses were in fashion among women in Europe and subsequently in America, particularly in the American South. As the width of the dresses increased, so did the number of layers of petticoats. Many layers of stiff fabric made of horsehair ('crin' means horsehair) and cotton or linen were used to make the petticoats that gave the desired volume. This is how the period came to be known as the ‘Crinoline period’.
Perhaps the use of a petticoat with saris, initially by upper-class Indian women, took inspiration from the layers of petticoats worn by European women for their dresses. Saris were earlier worn as a single unstitched garment. As the blouse and petticoat were derived from European dresses, they also adopted the same name. Everyone from dhobis to maids know them as petticoat and blouse.
Use of household linen
When European-style elevated furniture found a place in many Indian homes, the use of household linen also became common, as was the norm in European homes. During the 19th century, Western-style articles like table napkins, doilies, table covers, mantel covers, tea cosies etc were made only for Europeans as has been mentioned by many writers like Forbes J. Watson (1866), T. N. Mukherji (1888), Traveskis (1930s}. With time, people in Punjab also started using these articles. As the availability of these in the market was limited, most women in Punjab made their own linen and embroidered them with European motifs. New embroidery styles evolved in the region, which were influenced by European styles in colour and design.
European style embroideries
The three most popular handiworks of the early 20th century Punjab were the dasooti, bharnvi and crochet. Women made articles like tablecloth, mantel covers, fire screens, etc. in these embroidery styles. Both these styles were taught in schools from the sixth standard onwards, which was instrumental in popularizing European-style embroideries in Punjab. The motifs for these embroideries included roses, a basket of flowers, tulips, hollyhock, phrases like ‘good night’ and ‘sweet dreams’ embroidered on articles of daily use. Among these, the most interesting design was that of ladies in crinoline dresses, which women derived from magazines and iron-on-transfers.
The dasooti embroidery derives its name from a cloth of the same name. B.H. Baden Powell (1872) explains that if cloth woven with one thread for warp and weft was called eksuti, with two threads together it became dosooti, and similarly, tinsuti (three threads) and chausuti (four threads). Bharnvi, as the name suggests, was an embroidery in which the prominent stitch was the filling stitch. The most widely used material for it was white lattha, a kind of coarse, generally white, cotton fabric, commonly used in Punjab. Crinoline motifs were embroidered with both bharnvi and dasooti techniques.
Magazines and iron-on transfers
By the early 20th century, magazines, pattern books and iron-on transfers had started coming from abroad and were available in the local city shops in Punjab, and were a big factor in increasing the popularity of European designs and motifs.
The pull out iron-on transfers in these publications came along with instructions that, often, even gave the numbers and colours of the threads to be used, which were, in turn, imported. Many iron-on transfers found in homes have crinoline ladies in various settings. Fascination with this motif is illustrated also by the fact that some even purchased goods with this pattern. An example of this is found in a straw bag from 1943 or 1944, which was the preferred choice of an educationist who was working at Lawrence School, Ghora Gali, Murree (now in Pakistan). Here, an embroidered crinoline girl is surrounded by hollyhock. This bag from England also has the English newspaper visible in parts where the cover is worn out.
Embroidery transfers in Europe were sold in large numbers for over a 100 years, from the time of their invention in 1875. These designs consisted of line drawings made with ink on thin paper. The ink had a low melting point, and the application of a hot iron transferred the design onto the fabric. Some attribute the manufacture of these to the workers of William Briggs. The other company popular for iron–on transfers was Dighton.
Although crinoline dresses were worn only till 1869 in Europe, the women of Punjab continued to embroider them as late as the 1940s and 1950s. Most of the women may not even have seen crinoline dresses in real life, and yet it intrigued them and formed a popular motif for embroidering articles of household use for more than half a century.
The Textile Trail is a limited series that attempts to document the evolution of textiles and prints. Jasvinder Kaur is a textile historian, researcher and author of the book ‘Influences Of The British Raj On The Attire And Textiles Of Punjab’.