Tag Archives: kolkata

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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Rainy Day Ikat Dress

One of the many things I’ve fallen deeply in love with from a textile perspective since I’ve started spending time in India has been ikat. Of course, I did love ikat before, and a search through my blog archives might reveal a post or two in praise of this weaving technique. But being so close to so many wonderful ikats has only nurtured my affection. It’s like, before, it was an interest, right? Like we were flirting, we’d say hi at the gym or whatever, I’d creep on ikat a little at the farmer’s market, try to think of cute weaving puns, google ikat and pretend I hadn’t, But you know, it was just a passing thing, one of the many fabrics I might potentially see a future with. Now, though, it’s a little more serious. I mean, it’s not marriage or anything, but we might be dating on the regular, you know? Obviously I’m not a one-fabric woman, gotta keep it fresh, but ikat might be moving into a regular part of the rotation.

So when I spent last Sunday with my friend Sarah who is visiting from the States going from Chor Bazaar, an antique/flea market in Mumbai which shares space with countless electronics second-hand stores and auto parts resellers, so that you end up pondering priceless antiques from all over India in the shade of twelve car body frames stacked high, to the CSMVS Museum, I decided that all that moving around deserved my crush-turned-casual dating fabric, ikat. Specifically this recent make:

Sarah graciously agreed to take photos of me after our whirlwind day scouring through antique stores to score her the perfect souvenirs to take home with her. While many like the handicrafts or the bangles, Sarah was looking for someone unique, so we evaluated brass door handles, wooden shutters and clay figures trying to find her the perfect gifts to others, and herself. Chor Bazaar is one of my favorite places in Mumbai to take visitors, but it’s not for the faint of heart or stomach, and it’s a ways away from my own neighborhood, so I don’t end up going all that often. South Bombay is like Manhattan when you live in Brooklyn, if you don’t HAVE to go it’s like, ugh, why bother. But it’s of course actually quite excellent and trekking down has many rewards.

Here I am, in front of the museum, which used to be the Prince of Wales Museum, but, like so many things in Bombay, has had its name changed to reflect an Indian future, rather than a colonial past. It’s now the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, say that five times fast, but if you ask a cab driver to take you to the Prince of Wales Museum, they know where to go. In many ways the museum itself, one of India’s finest, reflected the antique market we had just come from, jumbled items with few explanations, an assortment of bewildering goods that have no relationship to each other, in a fascinating place. Sigh.

But at least I looked cute! This fabric came from Kolkata, and when I got back from my last trip there I quickly whipped up this dress, which I’ve worn more than once before I conned Sarah into photographing it.The pattern is my bodice block, to which I added sleeves from the Grainline Studio Scout Tee, a genius move if I do say so myself, they fit perfectly and are great. I made this one a little bigger to give it a loose fit, although I usually belt it so you can’t really tell here. It’s deeply comfortable, and just the thing for rainy Bombay days, of which there are many right now, in the monsoon. My shoes here are legit made of rubber.

I gathered the skirt and of course I have pockets. This was deeply simple to put together, but I appreciate the celebration of ikat!

 

I cut the bodice on the cross-grain to have some fun with the ikat’s stripe pattern.

This dress was very motivational as we went from this:

To this:

And regardless of the rain, my dress was up to the task. Sarah declared Chor Bazaar to be one of her favorite things in Bombay too, so victory all around! More monsoon outfits to follow, I promise. They might be a bit damp, but I’m still making them!

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The Somewhere Columbus is Happy and Doesn’t Know Why Dress

I am sure you, like most people who went to kindergarten, know, that the whole Indians-Native Americans thing exists and is such a damn mess because of Spanish explorers like Christopher Columbus and Portuguese explorers whose names no one remembers after that 11th grade final history exam. Geographically challenged explorers trying to get their hands on some pepper just assumed that the people they met in the New World must be Indians, despite the fact that I’m sure those guys tried to explain that these were NOT THE SAME PEPPERS, IDIOTS. Ugh. Translation issues, am I right? Tower of Babel indeed.

Peter Bruegel the Elder's Tower of Babel. Where all the trouble began....

Peter Bruegel the Elder’s Tower of Babel. Where all the trouble began….

Sidenote, how boring must food have been before the spice trade kicked in? My friend Ben and I (hi, Ben!) were wandering the Brooklyn Museum the other day in the Egyptian wing (I recently visited the States, more on that in a moment, GOD I’ve missed museums, like, really good museums, come on, Indian museums, step it up!)  and we were talking about pre-sugar societies. I think I could do a pre-sugar society, but pre-salt, no way to the Jose. What is life without salt? I’ve read the Grimm tale but it turns out it’s a universal one, check out this Punjabi story on the same theme.  But pre-spice society also sounds fairly lame. No wonder hundreds of Portuguese guys killed themselves trying to navigate the Cape of Good Hope trying to get to that Indian pepper, that ginger, the cardamom, those cloves. In medieval Europe spice stores were locked up and specially opened for feasts. Princesses came to their new households with dowry boxes full of spices as well as gold and silks. Spices changed the world, and if you don’t believe me, you can read about it in this, one of my favorite books on the subject.

So it’s not so surprising that the early Europeans who came to a place like Puerto Rico would have wanted it to be India, because, duh, spices, but it is sort of surprising that when they discovered it WASN’T India they didn’t, I don’t know, find another name for the natives. Oh, well, I guess they didn’t care because they were too depressed about the lack of pepper or too amazed by the taste of peppers. One of those two. So the word in Spanish, indio, still means native person, for no reason anyone can tell, and the West Indies are still a thing, despite the fact that literally the entire New World could be characterized as West of India.

So, end of the day, the Spanish didn’t get to bring any Indian stuff back from Puerto Rico. But I did get to BRING some Indian stuff to Puerto Rico this past March, when I got a chance to stop by San Juan during my trip back to the United States. So, there you go. It’s the circle of life. I really should have gotten some peppercorns to sprinkle around, like you do with malt liquor when a fellow gang-member dies. Instead, I just brought a pretty (if I do say so myself) block printed dress. Ah, well. Close enough, right? If those guys couldn’t figure out that Latin America isn’t India, they probably would buy that this dress was an exotic kind of pepper…

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So, I used my handy bodice block for this one, and I have to say, I think the darts actually did something really cool with these lines of darts on this fabric, I love it! Totally unintentional, but I’m going to pretend it was my idea all along. Natch.

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See? It warps the lines of printing around my (not unsubstantial) bosom, giving it a cool look. I tried to do a split neck thing here but it instead keeps flapping open, grrrrrr. The lining I used, which the smiling men at the fabric stall not too far from my apartment in Mumbai ASSURED me was 100% cotton and is probably like, 10% cotton 80% polyester 10 % LIES, is really light and drapy, so I probably should have interfaced around that slit. Oh WELL. I can live with it. Sigh.

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I drafted the skirt, in that I cut large rectangles and pleated them in large box pleats. Does that count as drafting? I’m going to say no, it’s too fancy a word for what is essentially some fabric folding.

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Yeah, I put in pockets. #Stayingonbrand.

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A little back view for you.

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The fabric is a block print from Rajasthan which I bought in Kolkata. That might sound confusing to you, but go with it. India has large government emporiums where they sell goods from each state at prices subsidized by the government so they are cheap and amazing, and a lot of those goods are, shall we say, of the textile variety? So this fabric came from one of those markets in Kolkata, but it is a Rajasthani bock print, nonetheless. It’s fairly different from the more traditional prints, which is what attracted me to it. That and the color. I should just live my life in this color, I’m telling you.

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Ug, that neck split. WHATEVER. I’m moving on with my life! I’m not going to dwell like the Spanish Empire did! If there is one thing I promised my self I wouldn’t do with my life, it was become like the Spanish Empire.

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A little hand stitching on the hem. I also hand-picked the zipper. I’m back to doing that. After a brief foray with the machine stitching, I’ve returned to my one true love, the hand stitched zipper.

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Neck split aside, I love this dress. It’s colorful, cheerful, and it mentions India without screaming it out. Much as the Spanish probably did when they saw Puerto Rico. Idiotas!

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Here’s to you, Cristobal. Sorry about the pepper. Enjoy the peppers. I will be enjoying this:

 

 

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The Market to Market Dress

I’ve made a lot of things so far here, and then the old problem of documenting them begins again.  But my New Year’s resolution is to post at least once a week, so let’s see if I can keep that, shall we?

I almost named this dress the Mangladas Market dress, but I didn’t, for reasons which will soon become abundantly clear.

Guys, you’ve probably never hear this before but India is an amazing place for fabric. I KNOW. I KNOW. It’s madness. I’m blowing your mind here. The thing is, before I moved here I had a very limited idea of what Indian fabric really looked like. We get a certain idea of a certain kind of fabric in the States, but that’s actually just a small fraction of the options. My Indian fabric education has only just begun.

Before I moved to India, I had a very specific idea of what fabric from India looked like. Once I moved here, I realized that I wasn’t wrong, per se, but I was limited. India is a land of major fabric production, and there is no one way to make fabric here, there are a thousand, and that’s just in one city. From North to South, East to West, the range of how fabric looks is wildly divergent. There are, of course, similarities, the material base is limited, mostly cottons and silks with wools in the far North, but the history of weaving in India dates back thousands of years, older than most other world civilizations. The Indus River Valley excavations show evidence of woven cloth and even some proof there was trade between China, India and the Middle East over 5000 years ago, which is fairly nuts, if you think about the fact that even today, Indian cotton production creates the most sought after products in the world.

Since I’ve been here, I’ve had a chance to visit the block printing museum in Amber (post to follow) and learned more about the printing techniques of the Northwest, which make up a lot of what I once thought Indian fabric looked like. The prints from Rajasthan come in many colors and shapes, but they are what I once believed the majority of Indian fabrics were, and I still have a huge adoration for them, despite all the others I’ve discovered. Recently, on a trip to Kolkata, I visited Dakshinapan Market, which I would recommend for any visitors to the city. It’s a huge government emporium, which means the prices are subsidized, and you can see goods and fabrics from all over the country. It was in Dakshinapan where I realized what came from where, what fabrics came from which part of the country. Although I gloried over the Bengali muslins, their high (and well deserved) price points made me sorrowfully put them aside in favor of other, cheaper, cloth. And luckily for me, I found some gems.

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I wore this dress for the first time fabric shopping with my friend Natasha (hi, Natasha!) In Mangaldas Market, which is where I would recommend anyone go fabric shopping if the come to Mumbai. Hence the name. From one market to another, the fabric works.

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Mangaldas is a little bonkers, but it’s fun, and filled with magnificent finds and amazing prices.

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My favorite fabric store is Rinkoo Fabrics.

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They are the damn best, with amazing options and tons of cool Japanese prints, which I can’t find otherwise.MTM8

Stores are divided between mens shirtings and suitings and womens stuff, but you can find amazing things at both.

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I felt super cool wearing the fabric from one market at another. I made this out of my bodice block, with a gathered skirt and pockets. I cut the border off the side and added it to the bottom (side note, I do not understand the border printing on a lot of Rajasthani fabrics.)

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A little back view for you.

MTM4This is what happens when you try to take photos in Mumbai. It’s a fun place to live.

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I may fall in love with a lot of Indian fabrics. I sort of already have. But I don’t think I will ever stop loving these Rajasthani prints. How could I? How could anyone?

Happy New Year, everyone! All my best for the year ahead!

Thanks for the photos, Natasha!

 

 

 

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