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When YSL meets the Maharajas

When YSL meets the Maharajas

The ongoing exhibition 'The Last Maharajas' at the Yves Saint Laurent- Pierre Bergé Foundation puts the focus on the costumes worn by the Maharajas during the last few decades of the British Raj and on Indian traditional clothing on a wider front.


YSL- Pierre Bergé- The Last Maharajas

India has a rich repertory of textile and traditions that dates back to thousands of years. Because of lack of much documentation on clothing from the Indus valley civilisation, the seeker has to rely on sculptures and scriptures from ancient times, travelogues of foreigners, some surviving models from various eras and works of some dedicated researchers etc.


The story of royal costumes


If one were to delve deeper into the history and tradition of Indian clothing, one must bear in mind that the choice of clothes depended largely on the climate of the place and the availability of raw materials. From ancient times, one gets a glimpse into the un-stitched clothing style of people of Indian sub-continent. A long un-stitched cloth, 'Antariya', was worn to cover the lower parts, a scarf like long head-dress 'Uttariya' and a long sash on the waist 'kayabandhan' are well documented clothing from around the time of Christ. Men wore a 'dhoti' and women wore a 'sari'- both these were suitable for hot, tropical climate.The upper torso was mostly bare, though there are some references to 'stanpatta' or breastband- a band of clothes to cover the breasts and tied behind the back in a knot.


Choice of material widened as trading with other countries increased- silk, cotton, muslin, wool, linen etc. Over a period of time, foreign settlers brought their own sense of clothing and influences to indigenous people. This resulted in a cross-pollination of style and material. Slowly,structured clothing began to make way. There were tunics, blouses, skirts, payjamas, quilted coats, kaftans and boots.


To bring the focus back to the times of the British Raj, it may be remembered that India was under imperial rule which dramatically changed the Indian kingships and their powers*. European influence could be seen in the hybrid of stitched and un-stitched clothing now preferred by royalties. While indigenous clothes of rich gold brocade, muslins, cottons and vegetable dyed silks were made on hand-looms, the textiles in Europe were produced on mechanized looms with synthetic material. Traditional clothes of handmade gota, zardozi and other ornamentation slowly started to give way to newer materials.


Indian fashion designer Ritu Kumar, who has done extensive research on the costumes of Indian Royalty explains the transition during the British Raj in her book 'The Costumes and Textiles of Royal India'- The formal court rooms were laid with heavily padded floorings and low seating. This would allow the sheer volume of the fabric and its embellishments to spread out when seated thereby giving a perfect opportunity to showcase the clothes in their grandeur. Whereas the impact was lost when seated on a chair or on sofa. This impact was further accentuated by the use of lighting. Electric bulbs made the traditional ornaments and embroidery on fabrics look gaudy and overdone. 


The influence of European style of clothing began to be felt. Men started to wear a combination of fitted coats and traditional clothes. Women's 'sari' seemed to have survived the assault of cultures, although the fitted blouses may have been a partly European contribution. Royal children dressed like adults. 


*During the British Raj, Indian princely states were divided into three hierarchical divisions. The importance of the states was signified by the entitlement of gun salutes on formal occasions. A state could be allowed between 21 to 9 gun salutes. 


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