There isn’t a lot that’s overtly Indian about the designs of Cartier and Christian Dior. Yet, when British anthropologist Phyllida Jay began working on her new book, Inspired by India, those French fashion houses are where the road led.
She had suspected that might happen. It was part of the reason Jay chose her theme: the influence of India on the global aesthetic through the ages. It was inspired by discoveries she made while working on a PhD thesis on khadi in contemporary fashion and luxury. She was so intrigued then, she knew she had to tell the larger story.
Fashion plays a huge role in either reinforcing or destabilising stereotypes; and in how we subliminally absorb ideas of a country or culture, Jay says. Inspired by India is an attempt at setting the record straight about what the Indian aesthetic has really given the world, and where India fits in in the global fashion landscape today.
The lush book, with over 250 painstakingly sourced images, was published by Roli in India in August, and released in the UK in October and in the US in November. Excerpts from an interview.
What are some of the surprises people can expect to stumble upon in the book?
One core thing my book tries to do is to show that European dominance in luxury is a relatively recent historical development. And to show how Indian textiles, crafts, jewellery and other forms of design have had a very significant influence on the development of international fashion historically, and still play a role today.
Indian embroidery is an integral part of global luxury supply chains. I worked on an investigative report on this, which was published in The New York Times in 2020; before that, few labels in the US were transparent about it. But as early as the 13th century, the Venetian traveller Marco Polo wrote that “embroidery [in India] is performed with more delicacy that in any other part of the world”. Some of the traditions he was referring to continue to inform contemporary global luxury.
Meanwhile, in the 14th century, Indo-Persian poet Amir Khusrau wrote of Indian muslin as an ethereal cloth. Muslin has been integral to fashion and luxury in England and France, but its Indian heritage slowly lost recognition.
It is so important to de-colonise fashion history and perceptions of what luxury is and where it originates. One of my favourite discoveries for the book has to do with the sari. It’s common to find surface allusions to it in Western fashion design, filtered through Bollywood. So it was delightful to discover a very different story of ways in which it has inspired radical approaches to garment construction, draping and the body, in the work of designers such as the French Madame Gres and the Italian Gianfranco Ferre and Gianni Versace, and to see the continuity of those approaches in the cutting-edge work of contemporary Indian designers such as Gaurav Gupta, Amit Aggarwal and Arjun Saluja.
Meanwhile, in the work of the Belgian designer Dries van Noten, you see the fingerprint of Indian textiles, the colours, the textures and the techniques, but rendered in paths less travelled. If there is one takeaway I want people to have from my book, it is the continuity and pervasiveness of Indian aesthetics, artistry and craft excellence across time.
It can also be quite complicated, can’t it, drawing inspiration from another culture? Where do you think the line lies between inspiration and appropriation?
This is an incredibly difficult but vitally important question. Inspiration is a rarefied quality. It involves deep research, careful attention to detail, collaboration, credit and representation. There has to be enormous sensitivity to the way certain things “travel” when taken out of context.
I’m not sure that crediting one’s inspiration is enough. I think many brands have the potential to do more in-depth research and showcase particular crafts and communities of artisans in a more visible and equitable way. This is important because the inspiration comes from generations of knowledge, hundreds of kinds of skill, and the adaptability that highly skilled artisans have to cater to the various requirements of international luxury fashion brands.
Something doesn’t have to look “Indian” to be Indian in its inherent materiality. In fact, the book talks about how the Indian artisans’ work has been invisibilised by marketing and labelling processes that foreground the dreamscape of European savoir-faire. That must change.
I also believe there should be more transparency and commitment by luxury conglomerates when it comes to ensuring that their supply chains are truly clean and ethical.
What should we, the consumers, be doing to support the communities and artisans that are so unique to but so endangered in India?
There’s a problem where brands represent Indian supply chains as “craft”, with all of its romantic associations with individual skill, community, artisans’ agency and human connectedness, when in fact they are really using handmade products in a way that corresponds more with skilled labour in fast-fashion chains.
As the Indian fashion industry consolidates into large brands and retail networks, we’ve seen more of these issues and criticisms surface. This is a problem integral to Boho-chic fashion labels, which frequently represent an absolute paradox: fast-fashion production with ideas of the slowly crafted.
The way forward should involve greater supply-chain transparency and more honest labelling about where elements of a product are made. The people who really lose are the artisans, and any strategy should aim to address the system that invisibilises and exploits them.
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