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!