The Days of the Raj Dress

Whenever I come to Kolkata, which is not infrequently, as my in laws live here, there are a few things to which I look forward. The first of which, or I suppose the second, because the first is my in laws, (gotta win those daughter in law points, hope they are reading this!) is the food. Kolkata is famous for it’s cuisine, a mix of delicious things, from Bengali steamed fish with mustard sauce and banana flower cutlets, to rich Adwah biryanis and grilled meats, to some of the best Chinese food, albeit Indian tinged, I’ve have on this subcontinent, to delightful European style baked goods. Kolkata is a city of laid back pleasure seekers, and people wake up from their dreams about breakfast, spend breakfast discussing lunch, and spend lunch planning dinner. So it’s my kind of town, obviously.

But beyond the food, which is stunning, I will say, that Kolkata is an interesting place, and for me it’s one I like visiting because of its colonial charm. Of course, when I first came to Kolkata, TWO YEARS ago (I have been in India for two years I need someone to kill me now, thanks, bye), I had read a series of books about India’s history, including Amitav Ghosh’s spectacular Ibis trilogy, and I was prepared for a well-preserved colonial city when I landed in West Bengal. Of course, now I know that preservation is a foreign concept in India, in many sectors, but especially as far as history is concerned, but at the time, woefully naive child that I was, I believed that such things were possible. If your expectation of Kolkata is anywhere close to my own, well, you will be sorely disappointed in the city. If, however, you are willing to look behind the crumbling ruins, the horrible renovations and construction, the layering of signs and informal businesses and grime and poverty and decay, well, there you can find some shadows of the British Raj, some echoes of the princely Bengali millionaires or babus who built mansions and lit cigars with one rupee notes back when one rupee meant something. Here and there you can see the gorgeous buildings funded by Bagdhadi Jews in the 1800s, streets named by Anglo Indians in the 1920’s, glimpses of Calcutta in Kolkata of today.

As a history enthusiast, it is that city I am always on the lookout for in Kolkata, in between meals, of course. And this time, I made an outfit to match my search, McCalls 7153, from their Archive Collection.  I don’t know if any of you have seen or heard of the BBC show Indian Summers, which I believe was intended as the inheritor of all those Downton Abby fans (richly detailed historical drama featuring strong class issues? Check!). I have no idea how successful that was as a plan, but it’s set in 1930’s Shimla, against the dying breaths of the British empire, and the costumes are sumptuous as hell. 

This was actually the first McCalls Archive collection pattern that I have ever bought or made, so that was an adventure! I mean, it was fairly straightforward, I suppose, but still, trying new (old) things! The pattern is a 1930’s style dress, a new decade for me but one I am deeply into. I don’t know if anyone else got to check out the 1930’s Glamor exhibit at FIT, but it was stunning, and really showed me how the 1930’s was the first truly modern fashion era.

So here we go, my 1930’s dress! As a non-Indian in India, I felt like I should really be oppressing people in India while wearing this. My husband took these pictures, so maybe that counts?

There I go, looking off into the distant past, wishing I still controlled the tea and opium trade. AND THE WORLD!

This dress is pretty easy to put together, and I used this iteration as a sort of “wearable muslin”, throwing it together quickly (so quickly I made a mistake on one of the skirt panels, a sharp eyed reader can totally spot it, I DON’T CARE), and pinking all the seams. I got this fabric at my beloved Thakur, and it’s an indigo (or synthetic indigo) print, which I thought was lovely and fun for this dress. The pattern image is in stripes, and I liked that for a first try. It’s jaunty! Just like 300 years of British rule! A total lark!

In this dress, I feel like I could build a bunch of railroads, introduce several non-native foods that would become essential to the Indian diet (potatoes, tomatoes and tea, I’m looking at you guys) and systematically strip a nation of its natural resources while telling them it’s for their own good. I’m sure that’s JUST what McCalls intended.

I am pretty happy with the way this turned out, although next time I would change a few things:

  1. I was a bit worried about the bodice fit, because there were no darts or anything to do a full bust adjustment, and the bust measurements seemed slim on the pattern envelope. BUT THAT WAS A LIE! Damn, you, McCalls! I cut a 20 in the bust, and graded down to somewhere between a 16 and a 14 in the waist, but I feel that this bust has AMPLE room, and frankly, the bias panels mean the whole dress has a lot of wiggle room and ease, so next time I might just do a straight 16 and call it a day. As you can see in these photos, I have a lot of ease around the arms and bust.
  2. I might shorten the hem. I KNOW, I know, that’s what makes it so 1930’s, but I think even an inch or two might make it a little more wearable.
  3. I would french seam it all. THAT IS HOW I ROLL.

Still, I like this dress a lot, and I really do feel that 1930’s fashions DO work even today, without feeling too costumey. But maybe that’s just in Kolkata?

What’s-his-face wanted to try “fashion photography”. I gotta say, I kind of love it! Well done, what’s-his-face, I will now be demanding this every time.

 

I wanted to take these photos at Victoria Memorial, but it’s such a tourist trap, darling, you don’t want to be where all the commoners are, do you?

A little bodice close up for you. I love the details, the winged bodice, so chic.

Thinking about which of my suitors to allow to take me tiger hunting over the weekend. Probably. Wait, what’s a weekend?

A glimpse of our “shoot location”, probably from the 1920’s, judging from those balconies. Practically modern, relative to the dress!

So there you go, chasing the days of the Raj in this dress. Well, not chasing, of course, a lady wouldn’t do that. Mincing behind the days of the Raj, maybe? Swooning around the days of the Raj? Something like that. You get it.

 

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