(10) Haute Couture & Fashion
Manish Arora’s autumn/winter 2008–2009 collection was shown against the backdrop of artist Subodh Gupta’s installation of neatly arrayed stainless-steel cookware. This metallic scenography provided an ironic comment on cliché’s of Indian culture. Gupta’s glittering display was also a foretaste of the hard silver and gold tones that dominated Arora’s show. His models were dressed as futuristic warrior women. He used a mix of historical references to create gleaming breastplates, stiff miniskirts, and articulated leg pieces.
Roman gladiators, medieval knights, and samurai were all evoked, with spiny silver facemasks to reinforce the image of power. These international inspirations were taken further in Arora’s trademark use of vividly colored three-dimensional embroideries, beadwork, and appliqué´. These added to the combination of old and new, in their display of traditional Indian craftsmanship that used glittering Swarovski crystals to enhance the effect. Arora’s collaborators were equally diverse. Japanese artist Keiichi Tanaami contributed his psychedelic imagery of huge-eyed children and fantastical beasts as templates for the decoration applied to dresses and coats. Walt Disney’s Goofy, Mickey and Minnie Mouse were re-imagined in armour and helmets on a series of garments.
The result was a collection that underlined Arora’s ability to produce a coherent look from seemingly unconnected influences and ideas, as well as to reinforce his status as a global designer, able to erase stark definitions of East and West in his elaborate designs. Since he set up his label in 1997, Arora has produced imaginative work that incorporates traditional embroideries and other decorative techniques with Pop Art style colorings and myriad reference points.
This embellishment spoke of luxury and excess, and catalogued in minute detail his progress within the fashion industry. During his time showing at London Fashion Week, city panoramas of the Houses of Parliament and the Trooping of the Color crowded onto full skirts – then, while showing in Paris, the Eiffel Tower appeared. From the start, he aimed to establish a global luxury brand which catered to the tastes of both Indian and international audiences. Indeed, his style rendered these distinctions ever more anachronistic. In most cases, there was no difference between them, and, as Lisa Armstrong noted, Arora ‘doesn’t seem to be pandering to foreign markets – or attempting to dampen his exuberance’.
The early 21st century saw a steadily growing schedule of fashion weeks across the globe, instant dissemination of trends via the Internet, and financial and industrial growth in countries such as India and China. Arora’s own success was a product of India’s developing confidence as a fashion centre. It had a long-established reputation for its textiles and craft skills, but it was not until the late 1980s that it began to construct the infrastructure necessary to build a fashion industry. Couture designers began to emerge, and colleges, including the National Institute of Fashion Technology in New Delhi, where Arora studied, educated a new breed of designer. In 1998, the Fashion Design Council of India was set up to promote Indian designers and seek sponsorship. This made it possible for ready-to-wear labels to evolve, and thus created the basis for a broader-based fashion industry with further reach beyond India. Arora’s entrepreneurial ability enabled him to gain worldwide publicity, and lucrative design connections.
For example, he has produced a range of shoes for Reebok, a limited-edition watches line for Swatch, and a cosmetics collection for MAC that displayed his signature neon-bright colours and love of shimmering surfaces. Business deals such as these provided the platform for Arora to expand his brand.
However, his success should not just be judged by his recognition within the West. Rather, as part of a developing breed of non- Western designers able to command international sales and attention, Arora represented a gradual shift away from the West as the fashion world’s core. This process is by no means complete; it is notable that Arora showed in London and Paris to raise his profile with international press and buyers, while still showing in India.
The rise of the middle and upper classes in India, though, meant that he and his peers had a considerable potential domestic market, as is the case in other countries that have invested in fashion, including China. Western fashion cities also benefited from the cachet of including international designers in their programme. London Fashion Week had struggled to maintain its profile and to encourage foreign media and the all-important store buyers to attend its shows. In February 2005, journalists Caroline Asome and Alan Hamilton described how names such as Arora, along with Japan based Danish-Yugoslavian-Chinese duo Aganovitch and Yung, added interest and diversity to its schedule.
These international designers showed alongside London-based Nigerian Duro Olowu, Serbian Roksanda Ilincic, and Andrew Gn from Singapore. Such global names within one city underlined fashion’s international scope, and suggested that while national and local styles may in the past have been useful to market designers as a group, these distinctions were less meaningful as a wider range of fashion cities emerged and designers were, subject to financial backing, able to show their collections in any number of sites. Fashion’s geography had begun to shift, but as Sumati Nagrath noted, ‘since the Indian fashion industry [for example] is a relatively new entrant on the global fashion scene, it has meant that in order to participate in it, the ‘‘local’’ industry has perforce had to operate within a pre-existing system’. However, as other regions evolve, and movement of goods and labor alter patterns of production, the fashion infrastructure that crystallized during the late 19th century may itself begin to alter its focus.
Paris consolidated its position at the centre of Western fashion at this time, but even by the early 20th century, the French fashion industry was concerned about superior business practice in the United States. Once American ready-to-wear developed its own signature during the Second World War, it became possible for ready-to-wear, rather than just couture, to generate fashions. As post-war reconstruction drew upon the American model, and more relaxed styles including jeans and sportswear were marketed internationally, a fundamental shift occurred in fashion even though Paris still wielded considerable influence. Perhaps in the early 21st century a similar process was in train, and this was not necessarily a completely new development. In fact, it represented, at least in the case of India and China, the resurrection of luxury and visual display in dress in countries that had a long history of skills in these areas that had been interrupted by colonialism, politics, and war.
Trade and dissemination
Trade routes had transported textiles across the world since the 1st century BC, linking the Far and Middle East to European cities that dealt in rich textiles. Italy was a gateway between East and West, and had established itself at the heart of the luxury trade in textiles. Northern Europe developed centers for wool production, and Italy was famous for its multi-colored designs in rich silks, velvets, and brocades. Cities including Venice and Florence produced the bulk of Europe’s fine textiles, and its fabrics sometimes bore the imprint of the Mediterranean trade that helped to create them, with Islamic, Hebrew, and Eastern texts and designs combined with Western motifs.
These cross-cultural reference points were a natural result of trade, which developed during the Renaissance, as nations sought to control particular zones or find new land. During the 15th and 16th centuries, trade grew between a wider range of European countries, and links were made between Portugal, Syria, Turkey, and India and South East Asia, and between Spain and the Americas In the early 17th century, first England and then Holland established East India Companies (EIC) that formalized and organized their trade with India and the Far East. Initially, as John Styles has noted, the English EIC was most interested in exporting wool to Asia, and only brought back tiny amounts of very luxurious Eastern textiles, as their designs had limited appeal in England.
However, in the second half of the 17th century, the EIC sent patterns, and later samples, to its Indian agents, which encouraged production of patterns based upon an English idea of the ‘exotic’. These became very popular, and meant that Western fashion, which drew upon such materials for its impact, incorporated larger amounts of Eastern products. Europe had developed sophisticated maritime knowledge and transport methods to enable this trade, and exploited the innovation, flexibility, and skill of Asian craftspeople. They produced a diverse range of materials, and responded quickly to customer tastes. This produced fertile ground for cross-cultural interchanges and produced designs that merged references from various countries and ethnicities.
However, Western taste dominated, and shaped the ways that Asian motifs were used. Consumers were encouraged to appreciate styles from far-flung countries, as reconfigured by EIC representatives who were aware of their tastes and aspirations. The global textiles trade was driven by luxury fabrics’ appeal to the senses and Western interest in an emerging idea of exoticism, and was underscored by its considerable money-making potential. This was based upon the elite’s desire for extravagant display, something that was common to all countries.
Dress styles tended to remain distinct, despite specific types of garments making the transition from East to West. This included kaftan-like dressing and wrapping gowns worn by European men and women for informal occasions at home, and a parallel fashion for turbans that was well established by the end of the 17th century.
Portraits of the period show Western men relaxing in shot-silk wrapping gowns, with turbans covering their shorn heads, as a welcome escape from the powdered wigs they wore in public.
Indeed, Peter Stallybrass and Ann Rosalind Jones have argued that 17th-century identities were less tied to ideas of nation or continent. They analyzed Van Dyck’s portrait of Robert Shirley, English ambassador to Persia from 1622, to show how membership of the elite was far more central to identity at this time. Shirley is shown in Persian dress appropriate to his social rank and professional status. The lush embroideries of his garments, with polychrome silks on golden ground, demonstrate how much more developed such skills were in the East, and the sumptuousness of Persian attire. Stall brass and Jones suggest that Shirley would not have perceived himself as European, since this region had no coherent identity at the time. Nor would he have assumed superiority due to his Westerness. He would, they argue, have easily adopted Persian dress as a marker of his new position and as a signal of his deferential relationship to the Shah.
Fashionable identities were equally connected to ideas of class and status, but they also connected to regional or court ideals of taste and individual ability to adopt and interpret current trends. However, as Shirley’s portrait shows, this identity could incorporate elements of other ethnic expectations for particular social or professional occasions, and, importantly, when living or travelling abroad. The vogue for Turkish-inspired loosely wrapped dresses amongst European women during the following century is further evidence of this, as are the adaptations of real Turkish garments by female travelers such as Lady Mary Wortley-Montague.
Indeed, it would seem that during the 17th century ideals of luxury and display were common to Eastern and Western noble and court circles. Carlo Marco Belfanti has shown that fashions developed in India, China, and Japan during the 17th and 18th centuries, with particular tastes and cycles of styles becoming popular. In Mughal India, for example, tailoring was experimented with, a love of excess permeated design, and fashions in styles of turbans and head wraps emerged. Fashions in cut and design of clothing were also present amongst clerical workers in bigger cities. However, Belfanti argues that while fashion itself evolved in both East and West simultaneously, it did not become a social institution in the East, and proscribed forms of dress became the norm by the 19th century.
Cross-cultural references spread beyond the elite, though, and represented global influences based upon trade, but reliant upon designs that engaged audiences in the East and West. The West developed its own interpretations of designs from the East. In the mid-18th century, chinoiserie decorative styles had swept Europe. Aileen Ribeiro describes these re-imaginings of the East, which prompted textiles covered in pagodas and stylized florals, amongst other reinvented Chinese motifs. This trend can be seen as part of an aristocratic love of dressing up, in this case in a fantastical version of other ethnic and cultural styles. China became a popular theme for masquerades, and the Swedish royal family even dressed the future King Gustav III in Chinese robes while at its summer palace in Drottningholm.
Chinoiserie was a fashion that resulted from fanciful Western interpretations of Eastern design. However, the huge popularity of Indian chintzes during the 18th century showed the impact that Indian fabric manufacture and print design could have upon a market that extended well beyond Europe to include colonies such as those in South America. The cheapness of many Indian cottons meant they were within the reach of a far wider population than ever before.
This also meant that international tastes in textile design and type, as well as access to fashion, and easy-to-wash clothes were within the reach of all but the poorest. In fact, in the 1780s the so-called ‘calico craze’ caused consternation amongst governments, who feared their indigenous textile trades would be made redundant. Sumptuary legislation was passed in various countries, including Switzerland and Spain, while in Mexico Marta A. Vicente writes that women reportedly sold their bodies to buy these foreign fashions. Ultimately, though, what Western countries discovered from this quickly spreading fashion was that rather than fighting its popularity, they should use it to build up their own textile industries, and apply what they could learn from Indian textile producers to profit from the craze, as was the case in Barcelona, for example.
This was part of what would become a significant global shift from the innovative and adaptable Indian textile trade towards the increasingly industrially led West, which would gain pace during the 19th century. As England in particular developed a succession of inventions designed to speed up textile manufacture, it overtook Indian textile production, and this led to the almost complete abandonment of trade in hand-woven Indian textiles by the 1820s. Fashion had shifted its balance of power in terms of textile production as Western countries began to rely far more upon their own manufacture and export of fabric, rather than imported cottons. The Western fashion system quickly emerged in the form that would dominate for the coming century and beyond.
Mechanization enabled European, and later American, textile mills to respond rapidly to tastes and fashions. In the 1850s, European inventions of synthetic dyes, notably William Perkin’s discovery of vivid mauve aniline colors, all but wiped out the natural dyes industry in other parts of the world. Sandra Niessen has noted that this led to these new, vibrant hues spreading across the globe, which altered the look of traditional as well as fashionable dress everywhere from France to Guatemala.
The build-up of Western-owned colonies over the course of the 19th century saw the exploitation of textile trades in the hands of European powers. Despite racist attitudes apparent within Victorian culture, both elite and middle-class consumers continued to admire non-European products. This included Indian textiles and Japanese dress. Arthur Lasenby Liberty’s department store on Regent Street in London was established in 1875. It sold furniture and decorative items from the East, as well as clothing and textiles inspired by the owner’s admiration for looser, more softly coloured Asian designs and the draped gowns of medieval Europe.
However, Tomoko Sato and Toshio Watanabe have shown that Liberty’s attitudes to the East were conflicted, and expressed the vexed relationship between Western exoticized ideas and the reality of Asia. In 1889, he went to Japan for three months, and, like other contemporary commentators, was pleased to see that silks had become thinner and easier to handle under Western influence, but did not approve of changes in color and design that had also occurred. Once Japan had reopened to the West in the 1850s, and began to modernize, both men and women began to wear Westernized dress, as well as traditional styles. For Victorians such as Liberty, this change disrupted their view of the East.
This ideal was complex, as it had evolved over time, shaped by Western perceptions of difference, and reinterpretations of Eastern design that responded to the Orient as the opposite of industrialized Western countries. While the late 19th-century cult of Japan tended to see the East as static, in contrast to Western fashion’s swiftly changing styles, Japan itself was quickly absorbing Western influence to reconfigure its own designs.