Every August I observe in spirit with India celebrating its Independence on the 15th. I use the clothing that I make for the day reflect my understanding, respect, and wish to be united with them in pondering on their past, commemorating 1947, and hopeful for their future. My first Indian influenced garment for August 15th was this dress I made back in 2017. I unfortunately had to skip repeating that last year, so I am making up for it by sewing a handful more vintage-influenced Indian fashion this year!
The first one I’d like to present this August is a different kind of garment – a Rajput inspired Sherwani-style summer coat – to honor the traditions of India that I know through some close friends.
One of the reasons why India is my favorite culture not expressly my own is on account of some “adopted family”, long-time friends of my husband that are as close as blood relatives. Their primary tradition hails from the Gujarat territory of India, with family from and still in Kutch.
The Gujarat region history is intertwined with that of the Rajput dynasty. The last Hindu ruler of Gujarat was in 1297! “For the best part of two centuries (at the end of the 14th century until the 16th century) the independent Rajupt, Sultanate of Gujarat, was the center of attention to its neighbors on account of its wealth and prosperity, which had long made the Gujarati merchant a familiar figure in the ports of the Indian ocean.” Why was it important that the Gujarat trader was proficient at spreading their wares, and what did they have to offer? Among other things, it was mostly textiles…and this is what peaks my interest. As our adopted family has showed me, Kutch has mind-blowingly beautiful, region-specific ways of dying silk sarees, but Gujarat had an empire in cotton and are still India’s largest producer of the fiber.
According to Dr. Ruth Barnes (“Indian Cotton for Cairo”, 2017), fragments of printed cotton made in Gujarat, India were discovered in Egypt, which provides evidence for medieval trade in the western Indian Ocean. These fragments represent the Indian cotton traded to Egypt during the Fatimid, Ayyubid, and Mamluk periods from the tenth to the sixteenth centuries. Similar types of Gujarati cotton was traded as far East as Indonesia. Their local art has been in high demand over the centuries, and all you have to do is see the real thing (watch out for modern imposters or look-alikes from other regions!) to understand why.
I must confess though – the block printed border print cotton I used is hand-stamped from a company in Mumbai (old Bombay). Gujarat was under the authority of the Bombay Presidency since the 1800s and later, after India’s Independence in ’47, the Bombay State was enlarged to include Kutch. The mother of our adopted family knows how to speak the official language of Mumbai. It wasn’t until May of 1960 that there was a split in the Bombay State along the Gujarat-speaking north. So my fabric is a sort of a hybrid, a close relative by association. It was the closest thing I could find in both colors and print pattern to my original inspiration as well as something that would set the occasion for this coat. More on this further down!
FABRIC: all-cotton, with the print from “Fibers to Fabric” on Etsy and the lining a bleached muslin
PATTERN: a Mail Order pattern A526, designed by Dalani, with its envelope stamped with the date of January 1976.
NOTIONS: I had everything I needed on hand – lots of thread, heavy canvas sew-in interfacing, and true vintage wooden toggles from the stash of Hubby’s Grandmother’s notions box.
TIME TO COMPLETE: This jacket was whipped up in the matter of two afternoons just before a trip to visit our Indian friends out of town. It was finished on June 17, 2019, in about 10 to 15 hours.
THE INSIDES: What inside edges? This coat is fully lined.
TOTAL COST: I ordered 4 yards of the Indian cotton (you need to always be on the generous side with a border print) at a sale price of $5 a yard – so $20. The plain cotton lining was from JoAnn on sale at about $1.50 a yard. As everything else was on hand my total cost is just under $30.
A Sherwani is a knee-length coat buttoning at the neck worn by primarily men of the Indian subcontinent, for the shortest and most basic definition. “Originally associated with Muslim aristocracy during the period of British rule, it is worn over a kurta (tunic)” and several other combinations of clothing (from Wikipedia). There are other coats and jackets in the Indian tradition, such as the Achkan or Nehru, and both are related to the Sherwani in style details and history. However, the qualities of a Sherwani are a flared shape from the waist down (where it opens up to reveal the layers underneath), a straight cut (not as fitted), a longer length, stiffer (heavier weight), more formal in special fabrics, and fully lined. Yup – I’ve got all those boxes checked off!
Thus, even though I am using a vintage pattern as my starting point, I hope that my coat has a timeless, cultural aura about it. Nevertheless, let’s not ignore I am wearing here a customary men’s garment! Together with the fact this Sherwani is asymmetric, this is a much updated type of twist on a custom yet still reflecting the modern India of today without losing its past traditions. In modern India, women are wearing Sherwanis and there is more variety of expression in materials and decorations used. (For more info and visual candy on this subject, see this page here.) My husband has tried my coat on, and with a man’s propensity to stronger shoulders and lack of hip curves, this coat actually looks better on a guy than on myself, in my opinion. It is a truly unisex garment here the way either of us can wear this in a culturally sensitive manner and also fit in its forgiving cut. What a rare bird my Sherwani is in so many ways among all the sewing I have done. A summer coat in the strongest Indian tradition I have channeled yet that can be worn by men or women alike? Yes, please. I’m more than happy to welcome it into my wardrobe.
My preliminary inspiration was this 1970 woman’s wedding coat from the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. It was designed by Richard Cawley under Bellville Sassoon, hand-painted by Andrew Whittle and named “Rajputana” for the marriage of an Englishwoman (see her full outfit here). The “Rajputana” coat even had its own feature in the November 1970 issue of Vogue magazine! Wedding garments in India are normally inclusive of gold and red, but as the Rajput princes followed the religion of Mohammed, they did not necessarily follow the region’s traditions. White and lighter colored garments to the rest of India (especially saris) are reserved for formal wear, ritual occasion, and upper castes, and even for mourning in the Hindu religion. The Jain sect of Gujarat wear more white than elsewhere in India, as far as I can tell. Thus, my coat further reflects Gujarat, Rajput and the thriving textile trade the region was excelled at. My interpretation also stays true to the 70’s, coming only six years later than my inspiration. The top I wore under my jacket was a past 70s make of mine as well (see it here) and rather than trousers to match (which I don’t have) I went for a basic A-line rust linen skirt.
The original pattern shows this as a wrap dress, and sadly I have not been able to find anything about its designer, “Dalani”. Besides finding a few more mail order patterns (from the 70’s and 80’s) and a few dresses credited to a “Dalani II”, I feel like digging into the source for this design is a sad dead end. Dalani’s trend seems to be for loose and simple cut dresses and wrap-on robes. Yet to me, there was no way such an overwhelming amount of fabric was going to look good as anything other than a coat, in my opinion. It was so easy to adapt this to becoming a Sherwani.
Wooden buttons are traditional to India, and the fabric company generously sent a baker’s dozen along with my fabric, but a Sherwani only closes at the neck. So, to avoid disrupting the lovely border with buttonholes, I used two wooden toggles on the asymmetric flap and orange loops on the left shoulder. This method closes the jacket yet leaves it loose to flare open below the waist like a proper Sherwani. Following grainlines, I laid the jacket out so that the border just ran along the bottom hem. A separately cut border strip had to be mitered, redirected around the bottom corner and up the front, for it to be as you see it. I blended my adaptation so seamlessly you’d think it was printed like that, right!? Happily I found the exact color thread to match the orange along the border and I hid my tiny top-stitching in the stripes. My sleeve hems also had a pared down version of the border applied in the same manner. This border print was only on one selvedge edge and luckily I only had literally 5 inches to spare by time I was done…my ‘overbuying’ of 4 yards was apparently just enough to squeeze by
As I mentioned in “The Facts” above, actual construction was easy and the main body of the jacket came together in only two afternoons. The sleeves are cut on with the main body so there were only 3 pattern pieces here. One gi-normous back piece is laid on the fold and ends up looking like the capitol T, and two front pieces like an upside down L – a properly squared off body for a Sherwani except for the flared sleeve cuffs which give it a subtle nod to its 1970s origin. It was all the attention to detail that took at least half of the total time spent to finish.
The highlight of the details to me is the most understated one – the quilted border to the lining. This is what makes this all-cotton coat closer to a real Sherwani. Such soft cottons could make this feel like a housecoat without some body. Neither did I want to entirely stiffen the silhouette – it is boxy enough! Thus, one layer of lightweight cotton canvas sew-in interfacing is “quilted”, in rows ½ inch parallel, to the muslin lining’s underside. The quilted interfacing was stitched before sewing the lining inside. It is as wide as the border is on both sides of the asymmetric front edges and also was cut to form a stable “collar” that extends out from the neck to the shoulder. This way the main body of the jacket is loose enough but it still keeps its shape and feels so much more substantial, besides having an understated detail that I have come to expect of Indian clothing.
I have seen similar interfaced line stitching on Anarkali dresses but, goodness, it is a lot harder to do than it looks. My machine heated up enough from the rows of long stitching that I needed to turn it off and give it a break halfway though. It was one of the most exhausting things I have done in a while. But can I remotely find a way to have my effort show up well in a picture? No – it’s white stitching on white cloth. Oh well, art is sometimes made for the sake of art…and this Gujarati tribute was worth it when I saw our adopted family appreciate the details I included in this Sherwani.
India has such a beautiful richness of culture and tradition. There is so much, in so many varying facets, to learn about. The way what people wear in that country speaks for their state and caste in life, their region of the land, the occasion of the moment, their religion…is something so admirable, besides being any fashion historian’s dream. Quality that we expect out of couture garments is a normal part of Indian fashion and their strong ethnic pride is what I admire the more I get to know of the country and its citizens, both ones who live in my country now and those who still live there. The trip to see our ‘adopted family’ included a stay at their home and my first visit to see her parents, so my coat was appropriate for an important few days of meeting people for the first time and catching up with others. It was also quite comfy in the southern heat outside and absolutely perfect for cold indoor air conditioned inside! My sewing feels so worthwhile when I can use it as a means of respect to our friends and their culture. Look for more India inspired fashion to come here on my blog!