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!

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!