India and the fashion industry – most people will associate the country with its current position in the global supply chain. When checking the labels of many of our garments, we often find a “Made in India”-label. However, the influence of India on global fashion goes far beyond just being one wheel in a global machinery. Over centuries, India’s fashion and art have been admired and celebrated, they served as a major source of inspiration and, unfortunately, at the same time they have been exploited and appropriated. Since the Roman Empire, the finest products were sourced from India and traded to Europe. The influence of India on global fashion is also reflected in our vocabulary: shawl, muslin, pyjamas are just three of the examples of Indian terms which are now being used on a daily basis. Until today, the influence of India’s aesthetics, its embroideries, techniques and the skills of its craftspeople should not be underestimated. From luxury brands like Dior, Dries van Noten or Alexander McQueen, to fast fashion retailers like Zara or H&M, all of them keep taking inspiration from the country. It is not only the fast fashion and ready-to-wear retailers who outsource their production to India to cut costs; similarly, the haute couture houses of France subcontract a big portion of their intricate embroideries to workshops in India – and rarely give them credit for their art.
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The Beginnings of Trade
The love affair of European artists and designers with foreign and “exotic” countries goes back centuries. The trade in textiles can already be traced back to the Romans who used the fine Indian cottons for their togas. Especially in the 17th and 18th century, the European elites had a special passion for Asia – or, whatever they associated with it at the time. They collected objects from India, Japan and China. It was fashionable to decorate entire rooms according to the fashion of “chinoiserie” and some – like Austrian Empress Maria Theresa – enjoyed wearing garments from faraway countries. Those who followed these trends not only displayed their influence and wealth but also tried to show that they were enlightened (at least to a certain extent) and lived according to the modern values at the time.
The walls of the Millions Room at Schoenbrunn Palace in Vienna, Austria, are decorated with drawings from a Mughal manuscript and reflect the “Asian fashion trend” of the time.
In the 17th century, many European countries founded East India Companies and started trading in spices, art and textiles. The British East India Company arrived in India in 1608 and quickly focussed on indigo dyes and textiles, especially cotton. Soon they dominated the global textile trade. Similar to China, India had a certain allure – travel reports described the country and its colours, traditions and craftsmanship. The precious items such as shawls from the region of Kashmir, fine muslins of the Mughal court and intricate embroideries hit a nerve with the fashionable European elites. The so-called “chintz”, a cotton-based printed fabric, was very popular in Europe and the British East India Company imported more than one million pieces until the 1680s. The British benefited from an ecosystem which had been established during the Mughal empire. At that time, trade flourished because there was relative stability in the region during the Mughal empire. Furthermore, since Emperor Akbar, the Mughal Emperors all had a strong appreciation for Indian fabrics, embroideries and other craftsmanship, as the textiles displayed motifs or scenes which could be of local, symbolic or political nature and heavily supported the textile industry. As a consequence, the production of and trade in textiles made the Mughal Emperor one of the richest people in the world at the time. Naturally, this industry was a lucrative target which the East India Company wanted to acquire.
Example of chintzfabric.
During this time, Bengal (which is the region spanning from today’s Bangladesh to India’s region of West Bengal) was the centre of textile production for the East India Company. In Dhaka alone, about 25,000 weavers produced chintz was produced to meet domestic and European demand – the latter appreciated the craftsmanship and especially enjoyed floral motifs. At the beginning of the 18th century, the East India Company benefitted from interdynastic conflicts and wars after the Mughal empire collapsed and gradually brought India under British rule. This also allowed them to establish a structure of systematic exploitation of the country.
Indian Fashion in Europe from the Late 18th to the Early 20th Century
Marie Antoinette in a chemise dress.
The height of the demand for Indian products was in the 18th century due to the industrial revolution and its impact on the daily lives of the upper middle class. It became fashionable to display a certain amount of wealth by drinking tea, wearing “exotic” textiles and decorating homes with foreign furniture. Chintzes, muslins and embroideries from India were sought after. Already at the court of King Louis XVI, the French tried to imitate the precious and expensive fabrics from India. The Indian textiles were so popular that some European countries implemented import bans on them. However, the Europeans loved the textiles so much and found ways to smuggle them in. The wife of King Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, was among the “early adopters” of fine cotton muslins – she turned them into her famous chemise dresses, amongst others. Many countries set up their own productions and tried to imitate the products at lower prices than their originals. Nevertheless, the latter still were immensely popular. However, these developments affected the Indian exporters who could only compete in the premium segment but not for the mass market. One story illustrates the effects of the European production on the Indian economy: The Kashmir shawls were loved items by the likes of Empress Joséphine of France in the 19th century and her fashionable circle. J. Forbes Watson published blueprints with the initial intention to celebrate the crafts of Kashmir. However, they ended up destroying the production in India because they facilitated the production of close imitations on mechanized looms in Paris, Lyons and Paisley. The “boteh”-pattern was appropriated in Scotland and today we know it as the “paisley pattern” (from the Scottish town of Paisley). Naturally, these shawls were much cheaper.
Empress Joséphine with a dress with Indian-inspired embroidery.
In 1858, the East India Company handed over the control of India and Queen Victoria became Empress of India. In 1851, the Great Exhibition took place in 1851 and exhibited industrial technologies and design from the British Empire. During her visit, Queen Victoria acquired Benaras gold-woven brocade from Benaras (a princely state in today’s Uttar Pradesh) which was later used for a fancy-dress costume. This fancy dress is not the only example of royal garments which were made from Indian fabrics or made in India: Indian craftspeople were the anonymous masters behind many coronation robes of the British Kings and Queens. The “boteh”-pattern was appropriated in Scotland and today we know it as the “paisley pattern” (from the Scottish town of Paisley).
Court presentation ensemble, Charles Frederick Worth, ca. 1888, Metropolitan Museum of Art New York.
During these political developments, also the fashion world underwent many changes. While the cashmere shawls had been folded on the bias ofver the big skirts of the crinolines until the mid-19th century, a new silhouette slowly became fashionable at the end of the 1860s: Charles Frederick Worth designed skirts which were narrower in the front while their volume was moved to the back. What had not changed was that the cashmere shawls were used to complete dresses, especially the tea gown which was worn for informal events or entertaining at home. Soon, also the haute couture designers would not only take inspiration from India but also source out their production of intricate fabrics to Indian artisans.
The Peacock Dress –Fashion as a Political Statement of Oppression
One of the most famous fashion protagonists of the time was Lady Mary Curzon, the vicereine of India. Her entire wardrobe reflected India’s different types of embroidery – especially “zardozi”, an embroidery technique using gold metal work. At the beginning of the 20th century, most of the Indian handmade and handloom products had already been destroyed due to the industrial revolution in Britain. Therefore, her entirely handmade garments were even more precious. Lady Curzon was also tasked to supervise several outfits for Queen Alexandra including the coronation dress which was designed by Ashraf Kahn and made at Kishan Chand, a workshop in Delhi. The Queen called the garment a “glorious success” – it rarely happened that a monarch acknowledged a designer.
No other than Jean-Philippe Worth, the son of the infamous Charles Worth, was the “creative director” behind the vicereines style. The most famous garment is the “Peacock Dress”: it was designed by Worth in Paris, the embroidery was done in India by the afore-mentioned workshop of Kishan Chand and then sent back to Paris for the finishing. The silk chiffon dress was fully embroidered with gold zardozi imitating peacock feathers. This pattern was inspired by the Peacock Throne of the Mughal Empire which was encrusted with precious stones, among them the famous “Koh-i-noor” diamond which ended up in Queen Alexandra’s crown for the coronation of 1902. A year later, Curzon wore the dress to a ball in Delhi to honour the coronation. It took place at the Diwan-I-Khas Building which originally housed the Mughal throne. The dress – while acclaimed by fashion enthusiasts – and the occasion and location where it was worn have a clear agenda: they can be interpreted as a clear statement of power of the colonizer Britain over India, a clearly calculated political move rather than a coincidence or mere beautiful garment.
India and the French Couturiers
“Lure”, sari-inspired evening dress, Paul Poiret, ca. 1924.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the fashion world was changing. Charles Worth had already laid the groundwork for the haute couture, but it was Paul Poiret, a former apprentice at the House of Worth, who elevated it. He started his own Maison in 1903 and was inspired by the East as well. In 1924, his wife wore “Lure”, a sari-inspired dress from the spring collection. In the same year, he reinterpreted the “angrakha”, a man’s coat from the Mughal era, and turned it into a dress by inserting embroidered “triangles” on either side of the lower part to achieve a skirt-silhouette. Even Gabrielle Chanel discovered her passion for the country. No other than her lover Boy Capel introduced her to Indian myths. Already in the 1920s, Chanel referenced Indian “pantaloons”. In the 1930s Chanel created costume jewellery which was inspired by the fine jewellery of Indian royals. In 1939, Chanel used sari drapes in her spring collection and in the 1950s, she used lame and brocade fabrics.
But it was not only the inspiration of this foreign country – which the designers got from books or objects, as almost none of them ever travelled to Asia. The visits of three Indian “fashion icons” had a tremendous and long-lasting effect on the couturiers. In the 1930s, the Rani of Pudukkottai (who was an Australian socialite formerly known Molly Fink who married Martanda Bhairava Tondaiman, the Raja of Pudukkottai) was famous for her a fashionable wardrobe. Her clothes were created by the likes of Paquin, Patou, Vionnet and Chanel. These garments were actually made of Indian fabrics and it can be assumed that she had supplied the Maisons with them. Later on, others would copy this “production model”: Princess Lilian of Belgium supplied Dior with Indian Fabrics in the 1950s and in the 1970s, London-based designer Zandra Rhodes sourced many her textiles from the lecturer and Indophile Rosamond Bernier.
Sita Devi photoraphed for Vogue in 1934.
In 1934, Sita Devi, the 19-year old Maharani of Kapurthala, travelled to Paris and had haute couture garments commissioned with Paquin and Mainbocher. After Vogue learned about her visit, they hired the photographers Cecil Beaton, Horst P. Horst and André Durst as well as the illustrator Carl Erickson to caption the beauty of the Maharani and her Indian clothes. A year later, she was quoted in Vogue that she was excited that some Parisian houses had obviously been inspired by this photo shoot and her saris for their own designs. Elsa Schiaparelli who incorporated sari elements as well as the dhoti, the traditional loincloth for men in her spring collection in 1935. Mainbocher was in so much awe of the Sita Devi’s saris that he kept using sari fabrics and turned them into Western silhouettes, even throughout the 1960s. Already a year after Sita Devi had visited Paris, Alix (later known as Madame Grès) designed sari-inspired garments. Trained as a sculptor and hence, she naturally was very interested in the draping of Indian clothes. She even travelled to India in 1958 to visit textile museums, art centres and handloom workshops. Her spring 1959 collection was clearly inspired by this trip and included not only vibrant colours but also silhouettes referencing kurtas (tunics), dhotis (loincloth) and cholis (the “crop top” usually worn underneath a sari). She also designed sari-dresses.
Sari-inspired evening dress, Mainbocher, 1950.
Indira Devi was another Indian fashion icon who frequently visited Paris, London and Los Angeles. The Maharani of the state Cooch Behar worked with Parisian textile producers to create silk chiffon for her infamous saris. Moreover, she had a big passion for jewellery and had her jewels set by the likes of Cartier in Paris and Asprey in London. She even had the Italian shoemaker Salvatore Ferragamo incorporate her gemstones in her shoes.
The Indian way of setting gemstones inspired the jewellers in Europe and Cartier released the “Tutti Frutti” collections, colourful pieces who were paired with Schiaparelli-designs by socialites such as Daisy Fellowes. Cartier was no “beginner” in India – Jacques Cartier had already visited Indian gems dealers in 1911 which underlines the importance of the country in the global jewellery trade. Indira Devi’s daughter Gayatri Devi was the third Maharani consort of Jaipur and became a politician after India’s partition. She inherited her mother’s interest in fashion and appreciation for silk chiffon saris. In Western media, she was also known due to her friendship with Jacqueline Kennedy.
Tutti Frutti bracelet, Cartier.
Also after the Second World War, India kept serving as a major source of inspiration for the couturiers. Even Christian Dior was inspired by India for his “New Look” line in 1947 and named some ensembles after Indian regions such as “Benaras” or “Bengale”. Later on, Yves Saint Laurent who had previously worked for Dior included raja jackets and hats referencing turbans in his first collection for his own label in 1962. His Spring/Summer 1982 haute couture collection received even more praise – and it was even more explicitly Indian-inspired. Throughout his career, India served as a big source of inspiration for the designer, even though he never travelled to the country. In 1989, the French embassy organized a big fashion retrospective for Saint Laurent at Purana Qila, Delhi.
Indian-inspired ensemble with turban, Spring/Summer 1962, Yves Saint Laurent.
Similarly, Hubert de Givenchy and Cristobal Balenciaga incorporated sari dresses in their collections during the 1960s. An iconic creation was Balenciaga’s gold sari dress which was worn by Elizabeth Taylor in 1969. As one of Balenciaga’s dressmakers, Madame Felisa, who was doing the drapings, changed over to Yves Saint Laurent and stayed until her retirement in 1968, the sari-dress had many come-backs in Yves Saint Laurent’s designs.
There are many more designers who took India as a source of inspiration – ranging from Karl Lagerfeld at Chanel, to Jean-Louis Scherrer, Alexander McQueen, Jean Paul Gaultier and Dries van Noten. I am currently working on detailed articles about the designers, stay tuned for the updates on the website.
India in Fashion Magazines, Pop Culture and on the High Street.
Photo shoot in India for British Vogue, 1956.
Two very important Vogue photoshoots allowed Europeans and Americans to travel to India in their minds: In 1956, Models Anne Gunning and Barbara Mullen showcased Western fashion (some of it Indian-inspired) in front of Indian landscapes and architectural sights for Vogue. The magazine had hired photographer Norman Parkinson and Diana Vreelend, then editor-in-chief of the Vogue, was so pleased with the pictures that she said: “How clever of him to know that pink is the navy blue of India,” referring to Parkinson’s use of pink. In 1967, the American issue of Vogue had Henry Clarke photograph models Samantha Jones and Simone D’Aillencourt in “hippie looks” (or rather Indian-inspired outfits such as pyjamas or dresses).
Photo shoot in India for American Vogue, 1967.
This second photo shoot leads us to another phenomenon: India was a major place of longing for the hippies and the peace movement in the Sixties and the party people of the Seventies. When the Beatles visited India in 1968, they not only met local music celebrities such as Ravi Shankar but also brought back an entire new wardrobe of cotton kurtas. Already before their trip, the Beatles were seen in “Nehru-jackets” (named after prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru). Similarly, Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones popularized Indian jackets.
Mick Jagger at a press conference in Germany in 1967 wearing an (Indian/Indian-inspired?) paisley jacket.
Needless to say, this also meant that the passion for India reached beyond haute couture. Ready-to-wear labels such as the one of Thea Porter started to incorporate Indian textiles and silhouettes (such as the caftan) into their collections. The British High Street label Monsoon was founded in the beginning of the 1970s after its founder Peter Simon came back from an India-trip and it became known for its clothes using Indian textile crafts such as block print.
Kaftan-ensemble, Thea Porter.
It can be concluded that India’s influence on European fashion history is as rich and intricate as its garments and it is “interwoven” with inspiration, craftsmanship, trade, cultural exchange and colonialization. For centuries, the European elites have been fascinated with India’s exquisite products and techniques. Its mystique has charmed royalty as well as socialites, celebrities and fashion aficionados – from the fine muslins and cashmere shawls at the European courts, to the haute couture garments which until today bear the intricate craftsmanship of Indian artisans. Until today, the country’s impact on global fashion – whether it is on the runway or on the high streets – is undeniable; even our vocabulary has been enriched with terms from the region.
Nevertheless, India’s influence and role in fashion have not been without complexities – it has been a journey of admiration and celebration, as well as one of exploitation and appropriation. European fascination with the “exotic” led to the incorporation of Indian elements into fashion, often with little acknowledgment of their origins, the makers behind the products and the cultural significance of the garments. Similar to the attitude towards makers behind many British coronation robes, the Indian talents are still mostly being kept in anonymity by the big brands today. This journey through European fashion history mirrors the dynamics of cultural exchange and reveals the power dynamics of colonialism and the ongoing discussion about tradition, inspiration and appropriation. The reflection upon India’s impact on European fashion also shows that creativity and commerce are closely connected, or even intertwined; so are cultural appreciation and sensitivity – aesthetics should not come at the expense of ethics. Moreover, this journey of Indian influence is also a reminder of the beauty which is created when diverse cultures inspire and collaborate with each other.
 Jay 2022, p. 10-11.
 In the 17th and 18th century, the terms “Asian”, “Indian”, “Far-Eastern” or “Chinese” were used as umbrella terms for objects from foreign countries. None of these are correct according to today’s standards, but in the 18th century, they were commonly used for either China, India, the whole Asian continent or even countries in the Middle East and Northern Africa.
 Bowles 2023, p. 11, Jay 2022, p. 10-14, Steiger 2023, p. 21 and Vogue India 2022.
 Bowles 2023, p. 11, Jay 2022, p. 10-14 and Vogue India 2022.
 Bowles 2023, p. 11.
 Bowles 2023, p. 11-12 and 15, Jay 2022, p. 10-14 and 46 and Vogue India 2022.
 Bowles 2023, p. 11 and 15, Jay 2022, p. 10-14 amd Vogue India 2022.
 Bowles 2023, p. 11-15, Jay 2022, p. 10-14 and 99 and Vogue India 2022.
 Bowles 2023, p. 16.
 Bowles 2023, p. 15-16 and Jay 2022, p.48-49.
 Bowles 2023, p. 16 and 19, Jay 2022, p. 50 and 67 and Metropolitan Museum New York 2023, [no pagination].
 Bowles 2023, p. 16 and Jay 2022, p. 50 and 67.
 Bowles 2023, p. 16.
 Bowles 2023, p. 16 and 19, Metropolitan Museum New York 2023, p. [no pagination] and Vogue India 2022.
 Bowles 2023, p. 19 and Jay 2022, p. 114-115 and 130-139.
 Jay 2022, p. 5.
 Bowles 2023 p. 20, Jay 2022, p. 52-53 and Vogue India 2022.
Hamish Bowles, India in Fashion, Exhibition Catalogue for the NMACC, New York, 2023.
Phyllida Jay, Inspired by India. How India Transformed Global Design, New Delhi, 2022.
Aurélie Samuel, The Imaginary India of Yves Saint Laurent, in: Hamish Bowles, India in Fashion, Exhibition Catalogue for the NMACC, New York, 2023.
Elisabeth Steiger, Die fernöstliche Sammelleidenschaft Maria Theresias. Die Lackpaneele in den Chinesischen Kabinetten von Schloss Schönbrunn, Vienna, 2023.
This article is based on the personal, views, experiences and research of Elisabeth Steiger, no fees were received by the organisations and people mentioned above.