Indian FabricOctober 29, 2015
What part of the world comes to mind when you think “Cutting edge fashion technologies?” Japan perhaps, with its invention and refinement of light, thin thermal fabrics (think Uniqlo’s HeatTech). Or the US, with all the implications that 3D printing is bringing us? Indian Fabric from South Asia doesn’t immediately spring to mind, but in the 17th Century, they had techniques that drove the British fashionistas of the day wild. They had COLOUR.
Crazy about Indian Fabric
And it wasn’t just the fashionistas who wanted a touch of glamour through Indian fabric textiles. You know all those bucolic oil paintings with pink cheeked dairymaids standing by cows and peasants toiling in golden hayfields? This one is a bit different. True to life in the details, this countrywoman proudly sports a red spotted handkerchief worn as a shawl. It has been imported from India and would have been made from cotton using a tie dye technique for the dots.
British dyes at that time were neither as bright as these, nor colourfast. European techniques for adding pattern relied on expensive and slow hand weaving, so the Indian Fabric batiks, tie dying and block printing brought into the UK initially by spice merchants featuring exotic patterns of flowers and animals in many bright hues took the buyers by storm, and changed the nature of fabric decoration in the West permanently – we still have floral chintzes and Paisley designs.
Luxurious Indian Fabrics
Not only were the colours and patterns new, but so was the Indian fabric. In Britain at the time, wool and linen were common, and silk existed for the rich, but cotton – durable, washable, light and absorbent – was not known. Neither was goat hair. Pashminas are still a sought after, luxury item, but they first became fashionable in France in around 1800, when the Empress Josephine and her circle went crazy for them. The Empress Josephine had a large collection, some worth 12,000 francs at a time when an expensive and desirable shawl cost 600 francs.
Both the Empress Josephine in France and Lord Nelson’s mistress Emma Hamilton in England who was also a great trend setter also loved softly draping Indian fabric muslins which were made into Neoclassical style dresses in imitation of Ancient Greek statuary. Described as “woven wind” by the long ago Romans, Indian muslin was decorated by white on white embroidery, gold and silver metal threads, and even sometimes iridescent beetle’s wings. The outfit was topped by a beautiful pashmina, which in the European climate must have been a great comfort.
Out of Fashion
But fashions come and fashions go, and by the end of the 19th Century Indian fabric shawls were worn only by old ladies and pianos.
This is partly because British producers of fabric firstly tried to copy the popular new Indian fabric, but did it rather badly, bringing the standard down, and then demanded that laws be put into place to curb the import of the original goods – the Calico Acts of 1701 and 1722 banned Indian handkerchiefs in Britain, and by the second half of the nineteenth century raw cotton that had been brought from India was spun, woven and printed in England and the resultant fabric exported back to India in a sort of coals to Newcastle effect.
Detail of Reapers 1785 George Stubbs 1724-1806
The Empress Josephine c 1805 Pierre-Paul Prud’hon
Emma Hamilton as Baccante 1805 Richard Westall
Salem 1908 by Sidney Curnow Vosper
Wedding toe-knob paduka copyright V and A Museum
Pair of shoes with elevated soles, 1875-1900
Venetian Chopines, about 1600, V and A Museum
Naomi’s famous fall
Inside the exhibition© Victoria and Albert Museum, London