Once Upon a December

Of all the animated princess which have graced the silver screen in my lifetime, I would like to say my favorite just may be one that is not even Disney in origin.  I’m talking about Anya, better known as Anastasia Romanov – the spunkiest, sassiest, most relatable animated royal heroine and one that has a historical basis (to some degree, as her adult life is the stuff of legends).  The last week of November was the annual anniversary since Fox Studio’s animated film “Anastasia” was first released for the entertainment of its audiences back in the end of November 1997.  Then, just last week, the palace of the last Russian Tsar Nicholas ll has been opened to the public, impeccably restored back to the time of 1917 so it looks just as it did when the princess Anastasia lived there with her family.  I guess I could have waited until the 25th anniversary next year, but after offering my “Pandemic Princess” blog series, and being a wholehearted fan of the animated movie, I decided now was the perfect time to finally bring one of her outfits to life!

I chose to sew a vintage version of the Russian tunic she is first seen as wearing in the movie when, as an adult (18 years old in circa 1927), she is finally leaving the orphanage.  She sings her first song “Journey to the Past” in this scene, the song that defines her hopes, dreams, and driving energy for the film’s storyline – the desire to find love, have a home, and connect with family.  She is the animated princess who literally had everything taken from her.  She lost more than just her memory by having amnesia (as the fictional story convincingly portrays) from a nasty fall taken while escaping the revolution.  Yet, no matter how afraid she was, she never lost sight of her belief in herself and her longing for belonging.  The jeweled “Together in Paris” necklace was her solitary key to a shard of a memory connected to the past she needed to reclaim.

That first song encapsulates why Anya is so appealing and inspiring, but the second song she sings later “Once Upon a December” while wearing that same tunic is a heartbreaking tune of her yearning under the shadows of vague memories.  Then, finally, when Anya agrees to go through with the scoundrel Dimitri’s plan to curate her into the princess ideal, she sings along to an upbeat song of family history and positivity in “Learn to Do It”.  As I did not have any snow or a fancy palace to channel the other two songs, I chose to interpret this last song…where balancing a stick on the head serves in lieu of a book to train Anya into walking elegantly.  Between these three songs, this is why I needed to make a fun (and a bit more fashionable) version of the oversized, torn, hand-me-down tunic that gets her through half of the movie.  How often does a princess get to sport casual wear that is this cute, after all?!  This is a whole new kind of a different vintage type of garment, and I love it – even if only for being Anastasia inspired.

My obsession over the Russian princess Anastasia is not confined to this sole outfit recreation, however.  On Instagram, I have styled my mother-in-law’s 1970s original dress to look like Anya’s blue strapless sparkle dress that worn in the animated film for her visit to the opera with Dimitri.  That scene is everything to me and just goes to show how the perfectly picked outfit for an occasion can literally make your man’s jaw drop…the most fantastic reaction ever.  Click on over here to see my second (non-me-made) Anastasia outfit for yourself!  Do I next re-make one of her late 1920s dresses from when she was spending a night of shopping and dining in Paris?  Or her blue collared “boat ride” dress?  Or one of her two golden yellow princess gowns?  Once I decide, I will be revisiting the fashion of the 90’s animated “Anastasia” at some point in the future.

THE FACTS:

FABRIC:  a 100% rayon twill

PATTERN:  a Lady Marlowe reprint of a year 1935 Simplicity #1908 sewing pattern

NOTIONS NEEDED:  Lots of thread, a dozen buttons (vintage ones were used here), and half a dozen hook-and-eyes.  The trim was a 1910 era antique notion, in a pre-stitched design on a 6 yard strip of loose weave muslin.

TIME TO COMPLETE:  The tunic was made in about 30 hours (a third of that time was spent on just the sleeve details), and was finished on April 22, 2021

THE INSIDES:  cleanly French seamed, with vintage rayon tape to cover up the bottom hem inside

TOTAL COST:  3 yards of this fabric was needed – it was bought at JoAnn fabric store for about $10 a yard.  The buttons were $12 and ordered through Etsy to top off an order so I could have free shipping.  The trim – all 5 yards of it – was the real cost at $67, and I only needed two yards, but I felt I had to get all or it or nothing.  If I divide out the cost of the antique trim, my total cost for this tunic was $70.

First of all, I want to clarify I’m calling this a Russian tunic because I’m merely using the same terminology as what is on the pattern I used.  If I wanted a true cultural garment I would have chosen either the #128 “Russian Settlers’ Dress” or the #116 “Shirts of Russia and Ukraine”, both patterns by Folkwear Company.  Even still, if you compare the line drawings for the traditional option through Folkwear with my 1935 fashion version they are really similar.  My version is slightly more fine-tuned and truer in styling to its release date versus true cultural clothing which is more timeless. 

An Eastern Bloc influence on the fashion of the Western world was popular in the 1920s through the mid-1940s, during which the embroidery of Hungary, Poland, and Slavic countries can be spotted on vintage blouses and dresses.  These loose and comfy but gloriously embroidered garments have been (and still are) callously coined as “peasant” styles by many.  Post WWI, the peasants suffered greatly under the many internal wars of the Eastern Bloc region, and millions starved to death in the 1920’s under state confiscation of grain and collectivization of agriculture. 

A Russian, Bulgarian, and Ukrainian folk influence was not as popular as the aforementioned “peasant” styles, and its decorated asymmetrically closing collared plackets were primarily seen on winter coats, tunic length blouses, and pyjama sets (for loungewear) in the 1930s.  The Soviet Union had been admitted to the League of Nations the year before my pattern was released, and the United States had recognized Stalin’s regime the year before that (in 1933).  No doubt the political and social-economic events of the time as well as the influx of refugees fleeing dangerous situations influenced an interest abroad in traditional Russian and Slavic garb.  Just the same as what happened to the qipao, originally from China (as I discussed in this post of mine here), once another culture’s fashion is imported in and adopted it becomes no longer purely authentic but a merging of expressions…for better or for worse.   

My tunic’s color scheme was chosen according to both what trim I could find and what Anya was wearing in the animated film, so this is not in the most traditional colors, but neither am I incorrect.  My trim is a true antique teen’s or 20s era addition to my tunic, so it is the real deal and not a product of my modern design preference.  It is in a counted cross-stitched design, so often seen on ‘Russian’ garments starting in the 20th century even if it wasn’t really proper to the culture (I’ll discuss this subject in further detail later on in my post).  So, whether or not it is truly Russian-Ukrainian, though, as it was labeled in its listing, is something I have not been able to clarify.  Either way, I think my tunic is a great homage to one of the great legends of history – the “what if the princess Anastasia had lived past 1917” story.  Influenced by the 1997 film, I would like to imagine she had a life of happy freedom, seeing the world and starting her own family with Dimitri (also frequently visiting Grandmother in Paris, of course).  Along those lines, I would like to think this is what Anya would have been wearing in the 1930s.

The tunic body basics were straightforward, but all the finishing and detailing work took up all the time and effort (don’t worry, it is always enjoyable, really).  Even with all the hours and hours of hand-stitching I logged for my tunic, working with rayon twill was a joy because it is the ideal blend of suppleness and stability.  The overall fit is a bit loose and forgiving (being hooked closed only to the waistline) and only needed to be tailored in across the shoulders and around the sleeve cuffs.  I love the little darted tucks which ever so slightly blouse out the bodice at the back.  Little points like this save the tunic from being a sack.  I also love the freedom of movement which is married to an air of elegance with the dramatically generous sleeves and fancy cuffs.  

The pattern was a reprint sized to just the measurement I needed, for a lucky break, and I have few complaints.  It was printed professionally, turned out pretty true to size, and all the pieces matched up very well.  This was my first experience with Lady Marlowe vintage pattern reprint company and I am pleased.  At the prices Lady Marlowe reprints are sold for, and the way they are so cleaned up to the point of looking more modern than not, I feel like I would be better served investing in a true vintage pattern – but I am a purist.  As I had a specific idea in mind this time, I was thankful to find a reprint which made something available to me which normally would not have been an option.

I felt like my antique trim as fated to be part of this project because it was exactly the same size width (3 1/2 inches) as the pattern piece for the asymmetric decorated front placket.  With the seam allowance, the finished edges just came to the outside of the stitched border to the antique trim, and I was ecstatic over the results.  So as not be overwhelming or confining to my neck, I used only the middle section of the trim for the collar to make it half the width as the front vertical trim.  For both collar and front closing facing, I had to iron on stiff interfacing to the backside of the old trim, and I felt badly adding something so modern and permanent to it.  However, the base material for the trim was a very fine and fragile mesh linen, and there was no way it was going to hold up through either the construction process or the a washing, even if I do so by hand. 

The underside of the stitching tells its story – I love seeing this!!!

I could tell from the backside of the trim that this was sewn by hand because the underneath was not by any means consistent, with lots of hanging floss ends.  This was real treasure I hated to cover up with the interfacing, but I realize this step was necessary to present a finished garment.  To think that this trim was done by hand blows my mind, humbling me and garnering my absolute respect for the maker.  Was this something which was worked in spells over months, with admirable patience?  Was the maker quick and efficient enough to do six yards in the first place?  What was this trim originally intended for, I wonder?  I have so many questions which will never be answered…I only know I am glad I have more to use on another project or just hoard for admiration purposes in the future.

Counted cross stitch as a cultural ‘folk’ decoration on a garment is often tied to Russia, even if the stitch itself has different origins.  The earliest fragment of embroidered cloth to include cross stitch can first be traced back Upper Egypt sixth century BC. It then flourished during the Tang dynasty in China (618-906 AD), when it may well have spread westward along the trade routes (info from here). In the centuries which followed, crossed stitching spread to England (old Normandy), medieval Spain and Italy, and then Germany and more.  In Russia and the Ukraine, cross stitch techniques began appearing in villages after the 1850s, being adopted by farmers from nobility’s and city people’s needlepoint

An example of Brokar’s stitch patterns. At the top it says “gift with purchase of glycerin soap.”

After 1870s, the French philanthropist businessman Genrich Brokar, with his Moscow firm of perfume and soap production, made a fatal hit to the knowledge and popularity of traditional crafts such as Igolochky (Russian punch-needle embroidery).  In order to attract customers, especially for his soaps, he included a free chart of a cross-stitch design with each sale of his products.  He hired his own artists to re-render traditional Russian symbolical motifs and simplify them to both please a greater variety of people and be easy enough for all skill levels.  Soon enough, Russian cross stitched garments became known as Brokar embroidered.  Before the Revolution of 1917, Brokar was one of the largest cosmetics manufacturers in Russia.  He had an ingenious marketing strategy that ruined how the world and even Russia itself sees its own fiber art traditions. 

Whether or not cross-stitch can be considered a true Russian traditional craft seems to a hot topic of debate on many of the sites for the promotion of cultural heritage which I visited online.  That being said, this is primarily how Russian and Ukrainian folk clothing has been decorated and understood for the last 150 years.  In honor of the 100 year anniversary of the Brokar cross-stitch marketing, the technique had a revival in the 1970s.

Even as I type that the cross stitched trim takes center stage for this tunic, my fun pistachio green vintage buttons are the close runner ups.  They subtly bring out the color of the trim, and low-key highlight the closure details I put so much handiwork into.  Doing a dozen chain-stitched thread loops (10 for the cuffs with 2 for the shoulder), sewing on a dozen buttons, matching up half a dozen hook-and-eyes under the front closure, and adding one large snap set at my neck all together took me almost as much time as it did to make the tunic.  It is a time consuming deal to close all those buttons, so – just as Anya did in the animated film – most of the time I flip back the cuffs for a casual look.  I love how the flipped back cuffs change the whole aura of the tunic.  I think it seems more Russian with the cuffs buttoned up because it is practical for cold weather.

These sleeves are so fantastic, aren’t they?!  They are like a cross-breed between gigot sleeves (also called leg-of-mutton) and bishop sleeves.  The giant puff sleeves literally are gathered in as tightly as they could go into cuff edges which stretch up to below my elbows.  It was as much of a drama to sew as it might look.  The skinny sleeve cuffs did not fit around my sewing machine’s free arm.  Even when I did manage to sew the sleeve-cuff seam by machine, the gathering was too tight for a good stitch.  I had to do the cuffs my hand sewing…wah!  The finished clean seams really add to the spectacle that is this sleeve style, though. 

Here – to be similar to Anya from the animated film – I am merely wearing leggings and ankle boots with my tunic.  Outside of these pictures, I will probably be wearing the tunic with a 1930s style skirt, either with it tucked in or sometimes not.  The pattern cover shows the tunic worn with a skirt, and it looks rather like something from the 70’s Disco era when I tried wide legged pants under it.  I appreciate that the pattern’s cover also shows frog closures as an optional closing method because it calls to mind the “merging of European and Central Asian traditions”, as Folkwear calls it, which this asymmetric-closing Russian style blouse (or tunic, in my case) has as part of its history.  The countries of the world are more intertwined than many of us consider, especially when you look at this fact from the perspective of a fashion memoir. 

Tunics themselves seem to an old cultural garment adapted by many nations.  They are flattering, versatile, and often unisex, besides being something modern, RTW doesn’t know how to create as tastefully as cultural clothing can do it.  All too often the tunics of today that I see in the store are terribly oversized, or in an overly clinging knit, or designed as if the body is something to hide.  There is a high probability that some part of whatever familial ancestry you most closely associate with has some form of a tunic as part of their heritage clothing.  This kind of tunic would be the very best place to start to find a renewed appreciation.  I am already used to wearing tunics in the Indian form of a kurta or kurti , so this Russian inspired one feels like a mere variant.  I am happy my excitement over the animated film “Anastasia” was a starting point for me to explore more tunics outside of India.  

It is not quite a dress, but it is a bit extra to be called a blouse…do you like tunics?  Let me know if you found the short history of cross stitching just as interesting as I did.  Also, I want to hear from any 1997 “Anastasia” movie fans out there – what were your favorite scenes, lines, or outfits?

In the Spirit of the Rani

Even today, women of India grow up with the name of the Rani, a warrior for Independence and queen of Jhansi (circa mid-1800s), as a household celebrity and role model, so I have heard.  Now that her inspiration has transcended the continent of India, thanks to some authentic representation through Hollywood (the likes of which has not been seen before), women of American can now also love the exciting historical story of Laxmi Bai.  “The Warrior Queen of Jhansi” movie, released November of 2019, is purported to be the very first United States movie starring an Indian woman as the main character, besides being produced, written, and directed by the mother-daughter team Swati Bhise and Devika Bhise.

As the manifestation of finding a new personal hero, this vintage mid-60’s style dress is the visible result of me channeling my own inner “Spirit of the Rani” since I first found out about Queen Laxmi Bai a few months back.  This outfit mirrors both the traditional clothes of Maratha province of India, besides imitating the outfits worn by the leading lady in “The Warrior Queen of Jhansi” movie.  Now more than before, I am fully invested in continuing to add to my wardrobe of Indian inspired fashion (see my 1947 Independence Remembrance dress here and my 70’s inspired Sherwani jacket here).

I love the beautifully rich complexity that every Indian inspired outfit offers – a whole new aspect of their culture and history is opened up every time I dig deeper into the traditions of every different region.  I am in awe of the detailing and thought that goes into the practices and the fashions of India every time I sew something related to it.  This dress is not as culturally compelling as my last two Indian inspired garments and the ones I have plans for next, but the feelings behind it are just as strong as for the others…especially with the Rani as my muse!

THE FACTS:

FABRIC:  a 100% rich-toned cotton print with gold foil accents; the bodice is fully lined in an all-cotton broadcloth

PATTERN:  Simplicity #5702, year 1964 (Is it just me or does the middle woman in black remind you of Sophia Loren?)

NOTIONS:  All of what I needed was on hand already – zipper, thread, seam tape, bias tape – but the authentic Indian trim which is on my sleeves was ordered from “Fibers to Fabric” on Etsy.

TIME TO COMPLETE:  The dress was made in about13 hours and finished just in time – November 13, 2019 – for us to see the movie on its premiere weekend for United States showings.

THE INSIDES:  all either cleanly bias bound or covered by the bodice lining

TOTAL COST:  The foil-printed cotton fabric is something I have been holding onto since the late 90s or early 2000’s.  It came from the now defunct Hancock Fabrics.  I always received the best deals from Hancock but after about 20 years in my stash, this fabric is as good as free to me and more than deserves to be seen and worn – finally!  My only cost was the lining cotton and the trim…$15 or less altogether.

The actual design lines to this dress are deceptively simple.  It is basically a standard sheath dress with a few lovely tweaks for a very nice fit.  The neckline is a rounded boatneck, the skirt has a mock-wrap look with its deep-set asymmetric knife pleat, and the full back zipper makes this easy to get on.  It fit great right out of the envelope, after only slightly shortening the rather long bodice.  I left the length long for more elegant air.

I do believe it is the rich-looking, detailed print of the thick cotton I chose (look at all the colors in it!) as well as the proper ethnic accessories which add so much to my dress.  There is no sense making an Indian inspired dress without the proper attributes!  Except for my shoes, which are vintage-style Chelsea Crew brand, my vintage golden belt, and my hair comb, which I made myself, all else was bought from local stores who carry ethnic sourced items.  Although this is a modern merge of Indian traditions, I would be remiss to leave out a dupatta shawl.  This one is woven rayon from India.  My necklace is composed of beads made from recycled sari remnants and my earrings are blue agate beads – both handmade in India.  However, my prized and proper, true ethnic addition is the mirror-work trim sewn down to the sleeve hems of my dress.  This was ordered direct from India out of a shop that specializes in supplying traditional buttons, trims, as well as woven and natural dyed fabrics (Fibers to Fabric on Etsy).

Looking back, Indian inspired fashions had seemed to explode in the global fashion scene in the 1950 era, especially so in the 1960s.  Sewing patterns (particularly ones idealized for border prints) which call for saris as suggested material and saris made into fashions according the mode of the day can be easily found popping up in vintage selling spheres today.  Sadly many such designs lack any sort of traditional approbation.  (See this Pinterest board of mine for some visual examples.)  These are great examples of the many ethnic influences which were prevailing in the Mid-Century Modern times.  I am wondering if the Indian influence of these decades past is due to something else besides a general outward-focused interest or desire for foreign inspiration, perhaps.  Maybe there was a steady influx of immigrants from India sharing their culture in America and elsewhere?  If so, was this maybe because of good visas abroad or because of some homeland political upheavals popping up in the decades following the 1947 Independence?  I have so many unanswered questions.

Either way, my dress follows the norm of such loosely influenced Mid-Century designs, with greater attribution coming from my accessories and idealism of the Rani.  Even the foiled cotton print is something which would have been very popular for the times as well, with fabric pioneers such as Alfred Shaheen bringing such a basic material up to a whole new level of classy with metallic accents and rich, vibrant colors and patterns.  Not everybody knows that old cotton prints in their pristine gloriousness can put contemporary versions to shame.  A cotton dress was by no means plain in the Mid-Century – I mean look at this vibrant Valentine’s Day dress I made of true vintage 50’s cotton!  This dress is only made of a newer version of an old style.  Yet, as I stated above in “The Facts”, the cotton I used for this Indian dress was edging dangerously close to becoming modern vintage in its own right, though – it has been in my stash for the last 20 years!  All the more reason I am so happy with my new dress!

For someone trying to make something from practically most of the last century, finding a pattern that appeals to me from the year 1965 is still a will-o-wisp I cannot capture.  Nevertheless, this year 1964 project is a satisfying close-call.  After all, 1965 designs seem to be either quite plain or a mere repeat of the same styles I see in the years both before and after, such as this Pierre Cardin design, Vogue Paris Original no.1443 from 1965 (also with a pleated, mock-wrap style skirt to the dress).  I’m hoping the right year 1965 pattern will eventually fall into my lap, but in the meantime I’ll secretly be counting this dress as close enough to the middle of the 60’s.  There are other projects with a louder siren call to listen to!

I really did not see or plan for this project in my sewing plans queue, but was an easy make, an opportunity to learn more about my favorite foreign culture, a very good use of some lovely materials (if I do say so myself), and fulfilled my personal ‘need’ to honor the Rani at our viewing of such a wonderful film.  Many critical reviews are scathingly hard on it, but ignore them…the movie was beautiful. I cannot stress how important such historical and ethnic representation like this is to have today.  Besides the inclusiveness this film affords, the historical fact that the Rani – a woman – was the first popular freedom fighter and one of the top icons for Indian nationalists is not something only one country should acclaim. She believed women were just as powerful, smart, and worthwhile as men in a time (1850s) and place when she was fighting every side of societal and cultural norms for those ideals, not to mention standing up for her homeland first in diplomatic relations then in valiant battles to free it from the grip of the East India Company. Please make an effort to see this film for yourself or at least learn about the wonderful life of Rani of Jhansi.

Happily, my Rani inspired dress has prompted some discussions and sharing of my limited knowledge about her to those who happened to compliment me on my outfit the night I wore it out.  Any woman with an independent mind, courageous will, compassionate heart, loving temper, and patriotic fire inside manifested outwardly is the “Spirit of the Rani” today.  Not to be reckoned with lightly, such a woman is a powerful force in the world of today.  When women believe in their worth and capabilities they can do whatever it takes to fulfill their destinies and bring any dream to life. The Rani became more than a heroine, she became an idea.  When someone acts on an idea, anything can happen.  When the men around the Rani did not believe they had a chance of successful rebellion, she set up a formidable women’s corps to fight…which idea was also repeated during WWII with the ‘Rani of Jhansi regiment’ under Lakshmi Sahgal.  Let’s follow the Rani and act on those inspired ideas for the good of ourselves and others!  I started with only a dress, in this case

A Tale of Gujarat

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!

THE FACTS:

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!