Professor Deborah Swallow is Märit Rausing Director of the Courtauld Institute of Art. Before coming to the Courtauld in 2004, she worked in various museums, including the Cambridge University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and the Victoria and Albert Museum, where she was head of the Indian department. Teaching in India for a year gave her a deep interest in the culture of the country, which she explored through the discipline of social anthropology and as a curator in the context of an art museum. While at the V&A she also oversaw the creation of the Nehru Gallery of Indian Art.
What are you wearing today?
Today I am wearing an older Indian jacket. It is made from a fabric that is normally used for shawls. It is a called a Nehru jacket, and the cut is based on India’s first independence Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. It’s a man’s garment, and is very similar to the Achkan, which is North Indian court dress.
Where does the inspiration for your dress come from?
I started going to India in 1969 and wore what you would describe as ‘missionary dress.’ This was in the ‘60s so skirts were very short, but that wasn’t appropriate for India, so my mother made me a longer skirt. But I felt pressure to wear a sari. So I bought one for 45 rupees, but then I was told off because the quality wasn’t good enough for someone who would be lecturing at a university. So I stopped wearing saris because I couldn’t afford to buy good enough quality ones on my budget.
So I started to wear a shalwar kameez, which is long shirt over loose trousers. Now there is a very heavy Western influence on Indian dress, and Indian styles are subject to changing fashions, such as the length of the sleeves or trousers. There are also subtle regional and local variations.
Where do you get your clothes from?
I buy all my jackets readymade- I’m back and forth like a yo-yo so I’m never in India long enough to have them made for me! I get them in Jodhpur in the old town bazaar. Jodhpur trousers that are worn for horse riding actually originate in Jodhpur, because they’re horse riding people. The bazaar is seven stories tall, with really narrow staircases. It is absolutely full of textiles, both antique and new.
Do you feel that being the head of the Courtauld dictates the way you dress?
Yes, I feel I have to dress reasonably formally. I tend to wear a lot of structured clothing because it suits me. I have to wear things that are suitable for both day and evening. I wear a lot of trousers, as you might have noticed, because they are comfortable. These jackets are very practical because they can be worn over anything to be dressed up or dressed down. I can wear them over trousers like this, or over silk trousers to be more formal.
Libby [Debby’s PA] said that you keep a cupboard full of jackets at the Courtauld?
Yes I do, to put on if I need to, but it’s not very full at the moment. This jacket is really nice- it’s quilted. There is one quilted style from Jodhpur that I really want. It’s very long and made of velvet and normally dark green. Jodhpur is in Northern India so it’s desert and can get very cold at night. So this style is perfect, it’s like being wrapped in a divan.
Any other comments or clothing secrets?
A group of us from the Courtauld had our colours done once, so I know what goes with my complexion. I avoid yellows and browns and stick to reds and blues.