Kelly’s “Pandemic Princess” Collection

Last year of 2020 we were all challenged, tested, and pushed to find our personal courage, kindness, bravery, compassion, perseverance, and joy of life.  It was a crazy year which would have been wild enough even if it was in the pages of a fairytale book.  Some of my home isolation’s survival practices included sewing myself some wearable fantasy dresses inspired by all the classic Disney princesses.  They were something which helped to transport me to a happy place both in the wearing and making of them.  They also gave my sewing a purpose to my limited free time when everything seemed worthless to make except face masks and pajamas.  I’m pleased to announce my “Pandemic Princess” blog series collection!

That bit of fantasy which we love in our childhood movies, those films which provide contented dreams of castles in the sky and happy endings, can become buried in our consciousness as we get older to the point of becoming a mere nostalgia.  Yet, this year forced me to think outside of the box and rediscover simple, basic, everyday means of fun, play, and creating pleasant memories to counteract all of the disappointing, gloomy happenings around us.  It is funny how the necessity of becoming wrapped up in the drudgery of “adulting” too often can sap the sense of innocent exuberance from one’s life.  So, I thought, why leave the giddy appeal of the classic Disney animated princess movies to just the younger set?  My sewing capabilities give me the ability to interpret all that I loved about those fantastical ladies of royalty into my life today, so why not act on such a revitalizing idea when I am stuck at home, sewing too much necessary and overly basic items?!

I can now swish around in elegance, content in my happy place.  Each princess outfit is so wonderful, like wearing a dose of dopamine, especially with all the crowns I have to match, too (definitely worth it).  I started this whole idea off with a “Beauty and the Beast” inspired dress in the late summer of 2019 as a gift to myself for my birthday, matching by happenstance with a dozen red roses I received as a present.  Continuing on the series took me the course of March 2020 up until now (beginning of 2021) accomplish.  There are a “baker’s dozen” (13) to this series, so you see why one or two princess projects are month would take me so long!  The planning and details to each has been so energizing and satisfying to see finalized!  

These are not costumes but outfits I intend to wear just the same as the rest of my wardrobe…only with an extra bit of energizing inspiration behind them.  I primarily worked off of my existing fabric and notions stash on hand for some pandemic practicality.  Some outfits, more than others, are very floofy and for “special occasions” that we no longer have in the current times – so these are for swishing around in a park, picking up food at a drive-through service, or other such events I choose to turn into something fancy.  Other outfits are more casual but super sneaky, and have their princess inspiration low-key. 

To interpret them for today according to my vintage tastes, I looked at making these princess dresses through a specific understandings.  First of all, let’s face it…many of the leading ladies’ stories are problematic, and have issues.  I’ll be the first to admit it, now that I am giving them an overview as an adult.  No wonder children are the whole-hearted, unquestioning, adoring crowd of such films!  Yet, growing up associating myself with and relating to Belle and Jasmine and Ariel, this fresh awareness of mine does not detract from my long-standing fascination for these fairytale ladies.  To reconcile the fashion, the characterizations, and means of interpretations that each Disney princess film has all together, I almost exclusively looked at them in relation to the year that their movies were released.  Each Disney animated film was very much a product of its times. 

Thus, for some examples, my version of a Tiana inspired dress will be a 1930s call-back style from the 2000’s era.  My Aurora outfit will be a 1959 classic with princess-inspired details, and my Snow White interpretation will come from a 1937 pattern.  All of these and more are tied to their movies’ release date.  I have made just a few exceptions to this ‘rule’.  Generally, though, each outfits’ origins are as unique as the princesses themselves.  Sometimes I looked at the cultural origins of the story to understand the story and the fashions, as I did for the movie “Tangled”.  Sometimes I connected the personality of a heroine to another similar character of the time, such as I did for the “sort-of princess” Megara.  I better see why Jasmine was portrayed as a spunky, rebellious teen when I think of the cultural trends and the pop icons of circa 1992, and so I wove in this outlook.  

For each interpretation, I went with my gut, remembered what I connect to for each character, and chose an outfit what would seem natural, so as to have the maximum chance of being worn.  Again, these are not costumes!  The last thing I wanted to do was take all my time on many Halloween-only outfits that I want to wear any other day of the year but can’t, realistically.  Also, I know that if I do not listen to my particular tastes, my personal style, and cater to my individual body type, I run a high chance of ending up with a project I hate.  My wardrobe items can only stay if they hit my happy place.  These princess inspired pieces find that bright spot at a higher level than most. I have also found a new and special appreciation for 90’s fashion along the way to realizing how (deep down) the fashion preferences of my childhood haven’t really changed over the years. 

I am so in love with each and every one of the items this self-appointed mission of mine happened to produce to the point that I am honestly freaking out over sharing them because each project is so special to me.  Thus, please realize this series is a very important part of me rediscovering my childhood dreams.  It also showcases an important part of some of what pulled me through this past tough year.  So, I am asking anyone who views my outfits, and loves them just as much as I do, please respect my creativity to come up with this in the first place, and my time and passion to even make, photograph, and write about them at all.  Please do not copy me by mimicking the design and fabric combinations to these outfits I have done.

If I have inspired you and you want in on the fun of it all, I ask for proper credit, which is only the right thing to do in the first place.  In today’s world where our social world is full of other people’s ideas and creativity, imitation might be said to be flattery – but consider that it also can be stealing.  It also harms one’s own uniqueness.  Someone else’s true inspiration or perfect style is undoubtly going to be different than mine, as it should be, so don’t take the risk of hurting someone else by ignoring yourself.  As Herman Melville said, “It is better to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation.”

Yet, I know I am not the only one who naturally has reached out to the princess ideal for an uplifting of spirits in 2020.  The viral “it” dress of the year was Lirika Matoshi’s $490 “Strawberry dress”, as reported by the New York Post, Vogue, the New York Times, Glamour, NBC, and L’Officiel (and seen on the backs of celebrities such as Tess Holiday, who donned it at the ‘20 Grammy’s, or Harry Styles).  It is a frothy confection that combines a dreamy sequined tulle fit for a princess with the popular cottage core trend.  Then, Lirika Matoshi followed up on that success late in 2020 with their own princess collection in collaboration with Disney inspired by Cinderella.  Disney bounding doesn’t have to revolve around whether or not one is capable of actually showing up at a theme park.  It relies on the ability to dream, and the appreciation of a bit of fantasy as well as the sense of a happy escape which provides a safe place.  This dreadful year brought on a need for such an ability that children have down to an art in the best of times!

At 5 years old, already winning awards for the princess outfits my mom made for me!

Just like us, each one of the princesses in Disney’s classic animated movies were challenged, tested, and pushed to find their personal courage, kindness, bravery, compassion, perseverance, and joy of life.  I can commiserate with the elation of freedom from isolation when watching Anna from “Frozen” or Rapuzel from “Tangled”.  I can marvel at the kindness and long-suffering of Cinderella, the positivity of Tiana, the hopefulness of Aurora.  I can understand the cynicism of Megara, the struggles of Elsa, the determination of Ariel.  Are you ready for some crown wearing?  Are you prepared for a grown-up girl who is seriously not done with her make-believe dress up time?

Light in the Dark

We just recently had the first day of winter in what has already seemed like a very bleak year. Bleh. Yet, with the arrival of this 2020 solstice I am reminded there will only be more daylight from here on out up to the coming of summer.  It’s so close to the end of this miserable year that this fact in itself bestows a great hope, as well.  Holding onto the light in the dark is the only thing that can help us make it through the tough times.  The way the Indian festival of Diwali (of a few weeks ago) is always a close prequel to the date of Christmas became more symbolical than normal this year with the pandemic.  Thus, I went all out and sewed a special kurta tunic dress for both occasions, something which plays on the whole idea of radiance in a season of gloom to bring out the happiness to such holidays.  The gold touches, the pretty bright colors, and especially the shiny ethnic “mirror work” added to my project all combine to make this the most fun and unusually festive outfit I have made yet!  

THE FACTS:

FABRIC:  the kurta tunic dress is a block printed viscose, rayon, and cotton blend challis in the palest yellow background with a red trefoil bead print

PATTERN:  McCall’s #7254, year 1994, from my pattern stash

NOTIONS:  Lots of thread and one 22” back zipper…that’s it!

TIME TO COMPLETE:  Hand stitching down the trim took me so much longer than the making of the dress itself!  The garment was sewn together in November 20, 2020, and sewn together in 4 hours.  Hand applying the neckline and wrist trimming took me another 5 hours.

TOTAL COST:  Three yards were $30, ordering it direct from India from the Etsy shop “Fibers To Fabric”.  The trim was $4 for 1 yard, from the same shop. Altogether, my kurta cost me under $40.

This Christmas I will be as decked out as our tree with all the symbolism I annually associate for this lovely holiday!  I mostly just want to end the year looking and feeling my best without trying too hard.  This outfit does that for me.  It is in the Indian ethnic style that brings me so much joy and fascination.  Here I am both dressed up yet quite comfy, fancy but covered up to stay warm in the cold, and uniquely dressed in a style that honors India’s traditions as well as my own.  I do always love a slinky 30’s era gown or a strapless 50’s cocktail dress, but this year I was only in the mood for something much more wearable.  I am not yet acclimated to the cold and have no desire to freeze for the sake of fashion.  It is possible to be covered up and warm in winter yet still be jazzed up, too.  I can ‘have it all’ sometimes.

Take some tips from the culture of India when it comes to alternative colors to wear for colder seasons.  Cheerful and bright or even light toned colors are worn for all seasons in (especially Northern) India especially for formal wear, ritual occasions, and by the upper castes.  The beautiful diversity of religions which have existed in India for centuries – Islam, Jain, Sikh, Buddhism, Bahai, Christianity, and more – have provided a collective influence on the general fashion traditions of the greater Hindu impact to the country.  Thus, where Northern India has a greater Muslim influence through Punjab and the Rajput princes, as well as Jains in Gujarat, you’ll often find the colors of orange, red, yellow, and green in their garments.  I welcome this tradition. 

My country often only associates pretty pale tints, pastels, and other bright colors with warm weather.  Climate does not dictate clothing colors in India as in America.  In the darkness of winter, I do find soothing and festive tones can be more uplifting than black for some holiday glad rags. I personally need to be cheered up by what I am wearing in winter more than summer, anyways.  Otherwise it is way too easy to become uninterested, bored, and apathetic at bundling up to stay warm and dressing to deal with inclement weather.  Covering up my clothes with a coat is never exciting, but neither do I like my summer wardrobe to have all the fun.  Channeling, yet all the while understanding, the traditions of India is my happy answer for lovely winter attire.

I am all around festive when you just focus on the general outfit details.  There is bright scarlet hue on the print – and red is just about THE quintessential Christmas color.  It is also the color reserved for those extra special occasions in life for the tradition of India – this years’ Christmas is rather in that place for me.  I need to celebrate the fact I made it through the year this far!  The pale yellow reminds me of the warm glow of my favorite clear lights to decorate a tree.  Added touches of gold fancywork honors the story of the Magi who were guided by the glistening star of Bethlehem to present gifts to a king.  The mirrors around my neck reflect every little ray of light around me just the way I hope to do as a person.  See – it really is a special outfit for me!

In this most recent post, I address the terminology of what a kurta tunic is, and how such is worn and can be styled, so I will not refresh all of that information here.  This time, I merely want to show how such an item is not hard to make for yourself and how it can easily be worn as a modern midi dress, too!  So many patterns you probably have in your own pattern stash would likely work to become an Indian-style kurta tunic dress.  Something with form complimentary lines (such as the princess seamed panels on this project, or merely a tailored fit) and a non-confining skirt are preferred.  This kurta’s full, flared skirt hem makes it especially festive compared to my last kurta with its slim-line silhouette.  This one’s cotton and rayon blended material is certainly not as formal as my last kurta either, with its gold “zardozi” embroidery and silk sari material.  Kurtas come in such a variety for every person’s taste and life occasion.  They are sensible yet beautiful, not over-the-top yet finely decorated, feminine yet simple.  They are so wearable I must share my love for them with you!

The decade of the 1990s especially had a burgeoning plethora of appropriate dress and tunic designs which could be easily given a direct Indian ethnicity.  Why?  Since the 70’s “hippie” era, fashion has been using as the grossly loose slang term “Bohemian style”, and it took off again in the 90’s as “Boho”.  Think of Lisa Bonet and Winona Ryder or Gwen Stefani (wearing an Indian “bindi” forehead dot in the 1995 song “Don’t Speak”).  Often that era’s “Bohemian” style has its roots or inspiration coming from the “Fabulous East”, after all, and not truly Czech as it might sound.  “Bohemian” often is used as a blanket term for not understanding proper ethnicity for clothing under the guise of being “artistic”.  Using the term in that way absolutely repels me.  Interpreting ethnic styles for yourself is not wicked but it is important to still honor and understand cultural interpretation properly.  Do not throw on tassels or whatever comes to mind just because you want to follow a fad and then still call it ethnic, though – that is the not-very-respectful common ideal of “Boho” fashion.  There is a balancing act that needs to be done.  It is always the best idea to error on the side of understanding and consideration than to not do so.

Admittedly, without the trousers or even a longer skirt layered underneath, this kind of kurta could look like your basic western world dress on steroids.  However, I do want the proper ethnic way to wear it which also coincidentally keeps me warmer in the cold, anyway.  The red skinny pants I wore in my day pictures match my jacquard dupatta shawl as well as bring out the color of the block print (which sadly somewhat faded in the first trip through the wash cycle).  The pants are now an older project of mine – these 1950s era jeans I made back in 2018 (posted here).   They do keep my ensemble a very subdued kind of finery.  I did attempt to make a pair of much more posh skinny trousers to bring my look up to the next level (you can barely see them in my night time pictures).  I chose a gold foiled pleather material using a newer Burda Style pattern…and the project turned out to not be the rousing success I had hoped.  They do complement the gold trimming on my dress!  Those gold pants will be posted in a separate post coming soon enough.

My ‘necklace’ and my ‘bracelet’ are both parts of a separate trim applique bought direct from India and sewn directly onto my garment as embellishment.  This makes for ease of dressing.  Yet, adding such mirror work around the neckline or chest is one or the popular ways in India to place such a decoration on a kurta.   I definitely bring a whole disco ball kind of party with me by just the neckline trimming alone!  Little holograms float onto the walls around me while I wear this inside anywhere, bringing a smile to my face which starts from the inside of me.  How many garments can do that?!  No wonder the Jain religion firmly believes wearing such mirror work wards off the “evil eye” and mischievous spirits. 

Mirror work, properly termed as “Sheesha” or “Shisha”, originated in 17th century Iran and means “glass” in Persian.  It is said to have been brought to India through various travelers during the Mughal era.  It is a type of embroidery which attaches small pieces of reflective metal to fabric.  In recent times, mirrors are used but traditionally flakes of mica, beetle wings, polished tin, cut silver slivers or coins of money have been chosen for this purpose.  Different shapes and sizes are chosen to be affixed on to the fabric by special cross stitch embroidery that encloses the mirror, and provides it a casing.  My post’s project makes use of an imported trim that had the mirror work embroidery done on a stiff mesh jute backing, with beading and decorative gold yarns in between.  I merely had to hand stitch around the trim to attach it to my garment’s neck and cuffs for an instant look of the real “Shisha” embroidery.  I realize the 5 hours it took to sew the trim down is nothing compared to what it would have taken me (or another more experienced embroiderer) to work the real thing directly onto what I made.

Mirror work is used to embellish and decorate a variety of items such as saris, dresses, skirts, bags, cushion covers, bedspreads, wall hangings, religious offerings, and more. Mirror work is most common in the states of Rajasthan, Gujarat and Haryana, hence these three states form the major hubs for mirror work.  In fact, it is a significant enough local craft to Gujarat that it has its own term – “Abhala Bharat’.  Nevertheless, this type of embroidery is widespread in India, but the usage and placement designates the origin.  The Jats of Banni make use of mirrors of varying sizes and shapes to embellish their entire fabric. The Garari Jat community on the other hand, make use of tiny mirrors embroidered on to the yoke of the dress with multicolored threads. The Kathi embroidery of Gujarat makes use of mirrors for by stitching mirrors on to the portion of the eyes in print of animal faces or the center of a flower.  “Shisha” is probably one of the most flashy and distinctive of Indian decorations and a tradition loved worldwide.

It’s amazing how the trim adds so much ‘wow’ factor to such a simple design!  From the beginning, this was a really an easy-to-make project that became elegant by its lovely fabric and excellent fit.  I didn’t need to do any extra tailoring – it fit me perfectly as-is straight out of the envelope!  So then I go and add the trim and suddenly…bam!  I have a wonderful kurta.  I am tickled at how this looks so much more ‘extra’ than it really felt creating it.  Using both fabric and trim sourced from India to come up with something to properly honor the ethnicity made this a very satisfying project, too, just the same as every one of my Indian inspired makes.

Out of all the traditional holiday attire in red, green, or black that I have sewn before, this one unexpectedly embodies all that I associate and love with the precious end-of-the-year holidays.  For 2020, I needed as strong a reminder as possible to bring me up to remembering everything special to me about such festivities.  The process of creating this was almost like relaxing therapy at the same time because this year had been so different – and the holidays for us a bit altered and low-key – so I might as well go along with everything.  I have been secretly sewing many frothy, princess-inspired, and over-the-top dresses behind the scenes as my ‘quarantine escape’ for most this year, so it was time to slow down, make a change, and make an unconventional low-key holiday outfit which is 100% exactly what I needed at the moment.  I am just plain wiped out at this point in the year – but what a way to end my year of sewing!  Not that one project remotely makes up for what 2020 put me through, but if I end the year with the perfect sewing project for the moment maybe I can feel like something ended on the right note…no?

Here’s to 2021!  Wishing you and those you love a year of happiness and health, with a strong beacon of light in every dark time which may come your way.  See you here next week – next year!

Checkmate!

There is safety in numbers…mathematical equations, that is.  The consistency and assurance of having a logical way to figure out a problem is helpful in other spheres of life because, as we are taught in school, math is not just pointless numbers on paper.  Mathematics can be found in science, space, biologics, industry, fashion, and more.  Games especially call for math skills.  Out of all the games to be played, there is perhaps nothing else that calls upon the exacting perfectionist in me, awakens my inner competitiveness, and leaves no room for my sense of graciousness to my opponent quite like a game of chess.  (Those are also all the reasons for me avoiding playing it.) 

However, that doesn’t mean I and others like me don’t have a great respect and fascination for those you enjoy and excel at the game.  Thus, it comes as no big surprise that such a powerful, mind provoking game loved worldwide could make related statement in fashion, yet the influence of “The Queen’s Gambit” came just over a month ago like an unexpected global storm.  It has become Netflix’s most watched scripted series to date.  Granted, “The Queen’s Gambit” is fiction loosely based on history, and sadly doesn’t really teach novices a whole lot about the game.  Nevertheless, the fashion for the time period it was supposed be set in (50’s to late 60’s) is spot on, visually stunning, and (most importantly) still very wearable for today.  So those of us who will not be playing the game more because of the show (raise your hand with me) can certainly copy the mid-century fashion. 

Say ‘hello’ to crisp angles and opposing colors, chic short dresses and straight lined silhouettes.  My mom says I look like Emma Peel (as fashionable as she was a smart espionage agent) from the 1960s British television show “The Avengers” in this dress!  I do so love the bold, mod fashion 60’s and forget that fact after so many other projects for other decades in between.  I am all here for a reason to jump back into the era headfirst through “The Queen’s Gambit” outfits!!  There will be more in the works very soon…this bow neck, babydoll dress will be next up for my early 2021 sewing.

THE FACTS:

FABRIC:  heavyweight 100% linens for both the exterior black and white fabric, yet the black is a smoother finish while the white is a textured (slubbed) hopsack; lined in a lightweight 100% cotton muslin

PATTERN:  Simplicity #8588, year 1969

NOTIONS NEEDED:  All I needed was one 22” long zipper for the back, lots or thread, and bias tape to finish off the inner edges and hem.

TIME TO COMPLETE:  This dress was whipped up in 4 hours and was finished in the afternoon of November 26, 2020.

TOTAL COST:  in the remnant clearance bin at JoAnn Fabrics, I only spent about $6 on this dress!!!

Both linens on this dress were something I had bought about 3 years back now.  Yes, as on point as sewing this dress may seem in the light of “The Queen’s Gambit”, I had the idea for making this much earlier.  Pierre Cardin is a long-standing fashion icon for me and his creations are the epitome of the power of the avant-garde (next to Elsa Schiaparelli).  Only now, it took an entertainment fad of today to give me a very good reason to pull my needed supplies from my storage tubs and finally make room in my sewing queue to transform them into something wearable.  Amazingly, I only needed one sole yard of each color linen for this project…60’s era mini dresses aren’t much to wear so they don’t need much material, ha!  This is yet another one of my many “remnant” projects.  They never cease to amaze me – how good you can look on scraps!

In the final episode of the series, Beth proves her dominance in a chess tournament in Russia.  The nail-biting competition sees Beth don an array of elegant and high-fashion outfits to communicate she is a woman in control.  Among them is the black and white “I’m Chess Dress”, made in viscose material inspired by mid-1960’s London design.  Like many of Beth’s other outfits, the two-tone coloring, and strong lines subtly reflects the pattern on a chess board (from here).  I immediately recognized the series’ dress mimicked the idea that I had a few years back!  Beth’s dress in viscose has more drape than many such 60’s era dresses, which tend to have a soft structure like stable knit.  Linen is similar in quality but a bit more of a call back to timeless quality I adore.  So I suppose this is all me working at redeeming a slight ‘fault’ I saw I the series’ fashion.  I like my version better – it’s more wearable!

I felt a pattern from the year 1969 was a perfect place to start.  On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong became the first human to step on the moon.  It was the dawn of true “Space Age” and the imaginations of designers were wandering very futuristic.  Pierre Cardin took his space travel seriously: In 1969, he went to Houston and quizzed officials at NASA headquarters about how to stay stylish on the moon.  Like his colleagues André Courrèges and Mary Quant, Mr. Cardin proposed a sleek, forward-dawning fashion.  This was the height of the “mod” fad.  As I thought about it afterwards, my mom’s reaction to refer to Dame Diana Rigg from “The Avengers” (which series ended in 1969) for my dress ticks all the right boxes. Rigg (as Emma Peel) wore the most avant-guade and Op-art fashions of any Steed sidekick, frequently toned in black and white.  Costume designer John Bates outfitted her in clothes influenced by the 60’s trio – Cardin, Courrèges, and Quant.  Ironically, series 4 of “The Avengers” had a chessboard opening intro, too (for American broadcasts)!  This “Avengers” dress for Dame Rigg is strikingly similar to this “On the Cross” on Beth wears in “The Queen’s Gambit”.

Besides the serendipitous dating, the clean, angular lines and chic thoughtfulness in the design lines drew me into this particular pattern.  Don’t judge a pattern by its cover.  Just because a pattern seems simple at first glance doesn’t mean there isn’t a happy little complex variation waiting for you once you pull out those tissue pieces or study the line drawings.  The detail of note here is the lack of true side seams.  The side front panel technically ends a few inches over into the back half of the dress.  It is so subtle!  Also, there are no bust darts.  The dress is strongly A-line yet some slight bust shaping is cut directly into the shaping of the side panels.  Most 60’s era patterns have sleeves which fit my larger upper arms terribly but these are so comfortable and generous in ‘reach room’ right out of the envelope.  I am very impressed with this pattern, unlike any other 60’s pattern I’ve used so far.  I appreciate a design which seems suited to my body type but more importantly I enjoy finding a pattern seems to have a touch of higher quality.  Everyday wear in the era of the 60’s is not particularly known for it’s complex, meticulous tailoring in the anxiousness of the younger set to depart from the classiness of the decade before.     

The common pairing for the popular black-and-white color combo of 60’s dresses seems to be having the dark color on the sides and the light color in the middle.  Check out my Pinterest page here on this topic for more inspiration and to see what I’m saying.  I realize the color layout I used on my particular dress is the opposite.  However, I just have to prefer what will suit me accordingly.  Black down the center is more slimming for my body type (believe me, I experimented with draping it differently on myself before cutting out).  The black emphasizes the angular qualities to this design.  It also makes this more of an all season dress in my opinion.  I am wearing thick ribbed tights with this – just as any 1960s gal would do – but bare legs and metallic sandals or even tall go-go boots would be just as perfect of a pairing in other seasons.  White on a dress may not be a popular color for winter but when color blocked intentionally yet minimally, it works. 

However aesthetic my choice of color layout was, my heavy use of black over white visually voices my lack of dominance in the game of chess.  If Beth Harmon in “The Queen’s Gambit” wears all white as the reigning victor, well I am more of the ‘dark horse’ kind of player.  It is said that the person who plays the white pieces (and therefore starts the game) has the advantage.  I am certainly not the champion type because if I was, I wouldn’t be enjoying the game anymore…no one wants to see me that serious and obsessive, not even me.

I couldn’t ask for a better backdrop for our pictures than the local World Chess Hall of Fame.  In front (and behind me in many pictures) is the world’s largest chess piece.  Just a year ago (October 2019) we attended the opening night for two very relevant chess inspired fashion exhibits, which were apparently ahead of their time. 

Firstly, Michael Drummond, a multi-talented artist and veteran of “Project Runway” Season 8, put on the exhibit “Being Played”, described as “thematically marrying the issues of climate change and the stress the fashion industry places on the environment”.  See the online version of the exhibit here!  Drummond was inspired by the noted chess fan Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 sci-fi film “2001: Space Odyssey”.  There was an amazing dress completely made of chess pieces as well as reclaimed remnants of sewing and art supplies reinvented into wearable art with a deeper message.  No wonder Drummond was interviewed by the New York Times regarding where to find clothes inspired by “The Queen’ Gambit” (see article here).

The second exhibit from back then was “A Beautiful Game”, showcasing the World Chess Hall of Fame’s artifacts of “chess-inspired beauty products, photographs, posters, and advertisements while illustrating how the sophistication and brilliance of the game have been celebrated and revered in chess and popular culture. Also highlighted was new, interactive artwork by chess champion and author Jennifer Shahade as well as Pinned! fashion designer Audra Noyes.” The online exhibit can be seen here.  It had the most appealing posters and glamorous chess sets from the last 100 years that made me want a perfume bottle or lipstick tube player set for myself (yes, for no real reason)!  The exhibit also taught me that the power of the queen piece was elevated to the status of “chief executioner” circa 1500 after a string of powerful female monarchs.

My husband and our son both enjoy the game of chess at least, with the occasional addition of my dad as another opponent.  One our son’s Christmas gifts from last year was the coolest ever variety of chess that has mirrors and lasers!  Nevertheless, I’ll just stick to chess inspired fashion for myself, thank you.  Sewing has the math and the strategy that I enjoy.

Punjab Finery

Punjab, famously referred to as “The Land of Five Rivers”, is located in the northwestern part of the subcontinent of India.  The word “Punjab” is made up of two Persian words – “Panj” meaning the number five and “Aab” means water.  This name was probably given to this land possibly in an era when this region came into close contact with Persia.  It is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cultures in the world – a multi-hued heritage of ancient civilizations and religious diversity dating back to 3,000 B.C.  The Indian State of Punjab was created in 1947, when the partition of India split the former Raj province of Punjab between India and Pakistan. The mostly Muslim western part of the province became Pakistan’s Punjab Province; the mostly Sikh eastern part became India’s Punjab state (info from here).  As I am in the mood for earthy tones and since we are coming off of the Festival of Diwali, I am presenting my Punjabi inspired finery in the form of a refashioned vintage sari sewn into a 1936 kurta tunic which (I hope) unites both sides of the territory.

THE FACTS:

FABRIC:  a vintage silk sari with a ‘zari’ goldwork brocade border

PATTERN:  Simplicity #2089, year 1936, reprinted by the EvaDress Company

NOTIONS NEEDED:  Nothing but thread!

TIME TO COMPLETE:  This came together in about 10 hours (as there was a lot of hand stitching I did to finish the neckline).  It was finished in May 2019

THE INSIDES:  all French seams!

TOTAL COST:  The sari was a special find at only $25

Re-making a sari into a kurta or a long anarkali dress are two of the most common uses for a traditional re-interpretation.  Transforming this vintage sari by using a 1930s pattern was only natural to me as the next step.  The sari is printed and dyed with a very Cubist-Surrealist design, something which was very prevalent in the 30’s, even in fashion.  If I look at the design on the sari hard enough I think I see the face of a man sitting down weaving, but then doubt whether or not I am imagining what I want to see.  Isn’t that the beauty of surrealist art?  Cubism makes one’s imaginary pictures artistic.  Admittedly, I am not certain what era of vintage this sari is exactly – it could be anything from the 1990s to the 30’s.  Indian saris are meant to last generations and so they hold up very well if cared for, stored, and worn properly.  Their traditions are timeless.  Thus, dating them can be quite tricky.  I felt the 30’s was the best interpretation for what I had.

Furthermore, the media’s inquiring eye was on many of the ‘princesses’ of India in the 1930’s while other women of India were making headlines by breaking societal boundaries. Bollywood was coming to its own, and many of the greatest fashion designers were incorporating the country’s influence into their designs.  India of the 1930s was clearly edging towards its long-awaited partition already and many ruling women who could still claim royalty among the many dynasties dying out under colonial reign became a popular curiosity.  Named photographers were capturing the posed glamour shots of the fading royals, rich socialites such as Sita Devi, as well as popular actresses dressed in both the traditional or western-influenced clothing – they were no doubt a global influence.  In 1935, the French couturier Elsa Schiaparelli came out with an Indian inspired collection and a year afterwards the American couturier Mainbocher designed some very Indian influenced tunics (one such released as McCall #9082, see below far right image). 

The first Indian woman to fly an aircraft, Sarla Thakral, made history in 1936 at the age of 21 in her “Gipsy Moth” biplane.  After a hard-fought suffrage movement, about 6 million Indian women (only covering 2.5%) received voting rights in 1935 under the British Government of India Act, with Parliament even reserving seats for women in the lower house.  Women of India were achieving strides of modern progress in the mid-30s, making notable 21st century history.  These are only a handful of examples – I could go on!  It’s no wonder Western fashion took note, even though they sadly did not concern themselves with proper provenance.

This kurta tunic combines proper approbation together with a past time in the history of India.  In this past Indian-inspired outfit’s post, I addressed what is a kurta versus a kurti, but this site also defines the difference nicely.  The way this tunic is dressy and festive, as well as longer (knee length) it is decidedly a kurta.  The darker earthen tones with the orange and golden colors, as well as the distinctive “zari” goldwork along the border makes this a northern Indian heritage piece.  The word “kurta” has Persian origins much like Punjab region.  It means “a tunic, waistcoat” and the word dates to the 16th century (when the Mughal period began) even though its popular English usage is traced to the writings of the famous Lawrence of Arabia.  Nevertheless, garments very similar have been worn for centuries – it is basic and versatile in usage, and composed of simple shapes. The traditional Punjabi kurta is wide and falls to the kneesand is cut straight but today’s version is the ‘Mukatsari’ kurta which originates from Muktsar in Punjab. This modern Punjabi kurta is famous for its slim-fitting cuts and smart fit designs.  With the popularity of peplums and tunics in the 30s, this straight fit but very chic vintage design was a perfect choice.

Despite its deluxe appearance, it was pretty simple to make – quite rectangular with subtle curves and detailing like shirring.  It has a high sweetheart neckline and angular empire waist seaming.  There are loose and comfy cut-on flutter sleeves.  Simple shaping is achieved by a few rows of loose stitching pulled up to a slight gather over the tummy and at the sides of the neckline.  I chose to leave the back seam open for dramatic effect.  (I did wear a cropped cotton top underneath for comfort, though.)  The sari silk was really quite stiff and medium weight so this pattern would look different with a loose weave like a rayon or chiffon.  No matter – either way, this is a fantastic pattern which I will definitely come back to again, even if to only sew up something using the other high-necked, puff-sleeved view!

Contrary to many styles like this in the 30’s, this one is surprisingly cut on the straight grain rather than the bias, so it was perfect for taking advantage of the decorative border.  However, because of where else I wanted the border to be running, I also had to take the gold “zari” border and cut it out from the sari along what parts I did not use, then stitch it on other edges much like an applique.  The front skirt just below the waistline is the true border as well as the back skirt hem.  However, the front hem and the back bodice had their “zari” trim applied on.  Understand that the zari embroidery border runs the whole 6 yard length of either side to my rectangular sari, and is separate from the decoration on the “pallau” (the ornamental end piece of the sari).  In this post of mine there is a perfect example of a Gujarati sari with zardozi work along the border (see the red and blue one).

Zari embroidery is basically understood as thread traditionally made of fine gold or silver used in traditional Indian, Bangladeshi, and Pakistani garments, especially as brocade in saris, woven into fabrics (primarily of silk) to make intricate patterns and elaborate designs of embroidery called zardozi.  The Muslim (Mughal) invasions into Gujarat ca. 1300 brought in new textile influences and forced the dissemination of many weavers and their traditions into surrounding Punjab, but even as far as Delhi and Madras.  Even still, the town of Surat in the state of Gujarat (on the west coast of India) is still the world’s largest producer of all types of zari threads (thanks to government tariff protections put in place in the 1920s).  Zardozi weavers are special enough to be known as “kaigar”, which means ‘artist’, rather than by the common word for weaver, “jullaha”.  The very term for their work is a yet another Persian word recalling how gold specifically is used in stitched decorations, calling to mind the royalty and deities of their culture and religion.  Thus, the practice of zardozi is linked with northern India today, particularly the town of Varanasi.  It was this town’s famous golden brocades that the East India Company ‘took over’ the administration of so that Varanasi became a center for brocaded (zardozi) textiles.

It is hard for me to tell if the border of my sari is imitation, electroplated wrapping, or true gold when it comes to quality grade of the thread, yet is was most certainly machine work by the exact repetition of the intricate patterning of the embroidery.  Nevertheless, my sari border is quite stiff and substantial and was almost impossible to sew through (definitely stopped the machine needle a few times), so I have hopes that this might be the real deal.  Real precious metals are the traditional choice, besides the most practical one, for embroidery in a sari because nothing goes to waste and there is always something left to be passed down the generations.  Even when such a sari deteriorates or wears out, it can then be burned down to just the gold embroidery to be turned into jewelry or woven again into a new sari.  How smartly ingenious and touchingly poignant is this?!  If only the rest of the world’s fashion industry would learn from this we would not have many of the current problems of lack of sustainability as well as surplus unused excess.

The very fact that there is the gold embroidery on a silk sari transformed into a longer length tunic automatically makes this a fancy and special occasion item which is not formal either.  This makes it perfect for the holiday of Diwali in this years’ Covid-downgraded festivities.  This kurta also lends itself to the more elegant option of a skirt and not just trousers underneath.  After all, modern India’s younger set are all about a good spin on traditional wear!  I chose an older RTW bias cut brown poly crepe skirt, which has a wonderful 1930s air to it.  I had my burnout paisley satin dupatta shawl with me too, something I picked up from a Pakistani vendor on one of the trips to Europe when I was teen.

The real star of my accessories is the authentic Indian gold ruby bracelet, necklace, and earrings set.  It was something that came through my husband’s friends from collage of Indian heritage (and who are as close as family to us, and the catalyst behind my adoption and interest of India’s history and traditions). Long before my hubby and I met, he paid for her to bring back a precious jewelry set from their family jewelers on one of her yearly visits back to India.  It is very heavy jewelry and very impressive and beautiful!  This set was his investment in his family, though – it wasn’t just for me, although I am wearing the full set on loan for this occasion.  His mother was given the necklace, his sister the bracelet, and I received the earrings when I was married to him.  It was a poignant Indian gesture of affection to the women in his life, besides (for me) a lovely connectivity with the female in-law members of my family!

So you see now that mindful and symbolical use of what we embellish our bodies with has gone hand in hand with smart re-use and re-fashioning for years under one of the oldest cultures of the world.  The clothes of India may be complex in understanding, meaning, and manner of wearing, but the use of each individual piece is ingeniously versatile and simplistic.  The straightforwardness of their construction makes the details such as embroidery, weaving, and textile shine.  The simple elegance of the 1930s had an all new interpretation for me this time!  Anyway, look for a lot more varieties of Indian tunics to show up here on my blog.  Just to ‘wet your whistle’, all of them have amazing imported fabric, simple but elegant shapes of vintage inspiration, and intricate decorations that took me almost longer to add than making the garments themselves – and I can’t wait to show you more!!  

Out of all the regions and states of India, Punjab culture is so rich to a lover of history like me, as well as so beautiful to an American like me.  However, while I acknowledge the positive highlights to the province of Punjab, it also has one of the saddest facets of modern history as part of the transitions to the Partition of 1947.  It was caught in the surrounding genocidal massacres that sprung up around the newly created boundary lines and the religious divisions (also known as the “Radcliffe Line”).  Please read the links I provided in the sentence before this – even though it is disturbing or if it makes you cry as it did for me.  Here are some first-hand accounts from lucky survivors. This is important to read and take in regarding Punjab, and specifically in Jammu.  

Most estimates on the death toll of Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs alike state numbers over 250,000, even up to 800,000…it is not fully known as many victims were displaced migrants.  10 million Punjabis had been driven away from their ancestral abodes making this the greatest forced migration in modern history – all in the course of a month or two!  It is a bitter history that the region has to live with and a major fact that is often ignored over the greater information celebrating the Independence of both India and Pakistan.

I truly hope this beauty of this kurda tunic brings an opportunity for others to hear about Punjab, discover its amazing history, see the beauty surviving amidst a painful history, and find a new respect for another one of the seemingly limitless magnificent cultures in our world.