The Fabric of India

Entrance to the exhibition

Entrance to the exhibition

I think the thing I loved most about the V&A’s Fabric of India exhibition – and there is a lot to love – is the way that you learn so much through the objects themselves.  The show is subtly curated, there are distinct sections – dyestuffs, and types of embellishments and weaves, for example – which educate your eye in the early sections, but also a confident placement of fabrics across the displays, that slowly build deeper, longer histories. This means that by the later rooms, you are able to identify and understand the ways textiles fit into rituals, connect to life stage and to regional traditions, and the ways techniques somehow stay the same and yet can seem radically different in varied contexts.

18th century English and Japanese garments made from Indian fabrics

18th century English and Japanese garments made from Indian fabrics

Fabric as a global commodity is one of the threads (no pun intended) that runs throughout the exhibition, and which is then made explicit in a room that shows centuries of interconnections.  This shows how specific fibre, embellishment or print might be, and yet how it will also be adapted and translated across cultures. Thus, we see a beautiful Indian chintz ensemble of delicately coloured petticoat, jacket and fichu from mid-18th century England, next to an under-kimono that uses fabrics traded to the Japanese via the Dutch East India Company, and a banjan (similar to a dressing gown) from the Netherlands, made of fabric from the Coromandel Coast. The object labels state where each textile originated, and map the rich craft skills and resources of different areas, which then travel internationally setting fashions, sparking imitations, and at times triggering trade restrictions to protect home industries.

Royal Shawl presented to George V when he attended the Dehli Durbar in 1911

Royal Shawl presented to George V when he attended the Dehli Durbar in 1911

Political cartoons supporting local weavers, 1930s

Political cartoons supporting local weavers, 1930s

You get a strong sense of India’s centrality to the textiles trade, and just as important, as a source of innovation and creativity.  The sheer diversity of designs on show is dazzling, and benefits from low-key display techniques that allow the objects themselves to shine – in many instances, literally.  The room dedicated to the notion of splendour is remarkable, and includes the exhibition’s centrepiece – the printed chintz tent that belonged to Tipu Sultan, ruler of the Kingdom of Mysore in the second half of the 18th century.  Although it stands in a room filled with beautiful wall hangings and garments woven with gold and silver thread, it more than dominates the scene. And the fact you can walk inside gives you a sense of life in a moveable palace.

Indigo-dyed dress c1850-70, Kohat Pakistan

Indigo-dyed dress c1850-70, Kohat Pakistan

Not all the exhibits are so dramatic, though they still have impact – I loved the late 19th century indigo-dyed dress on display in the first gallery, so severe and yet so rich with its full skirt. And the end section that shows contemporary Indian fashions, including a row of saris that glow in the gallery’s dim light is amazing.  What comes across is an almost overwhelming richness – of design and craft skills and creativity, of geographical scope and diversity, and of textiles’ impact on history and vice versa.  With this in mind, the role of Imperialism and colonialism, and its concomitant brutality haunts many gallery’s – brought to the fore in the discussion of Ghandi and the political significance of Khadi cotton. This controversial aspect of India’s history could perhaps have been explored further, but the exhibition as a whole is a breathtaking exploration of the Fabric of India.

Sari designed by Rashmi Varma, 2015

Sari designed by Rashmi Varma, 2015

Denis Diderot, ‘Tailleur d’habits et tailleur de corps, contenant vingt-quatre planches,’ extract of Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers (c.1771)

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Summary

“Tailleur d’habits et tailleur de corps” (tailor and corset maker) is part of the Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, assembled by Denis Diderot (1713-1784) and Jean le Rond d’Alembert (1717-1783). This ambitious and scandalous project, that comprised twenty-eight volumes by specialists in the sciences, arts and crafts, was published between 1751 and 1772. “Tailleur d’habits et tailleur de corps” was it fact largely extracted from François-Antoine de Garsault’s article “L’art du tailleur” in the Description des Arts et Métiers (1769). The presentation of free knowledge to a large public, with its emphasis on observation, reason and analysis, was a feature of the wider Enlightenment project. Yet such freedom and scientific empiricism disputed the authority of Church and State leaders in Ancien Régime France. The Encyclopédie was thus published clandestinely after its royal privilege was revoked in 1759. Eighteenth-century France, torn between different modes of government and systems of knowledge, was undergoing a period of uncertainty. The notion that order and meaning could arise from somewhere other than the will of God triggered a chaos of sorts, which the Encyclopédie’s systematic ordering and classification of knowledge could remedy. The “Tailleur d’habits et tailleur de corps,” which resembles a manual, attests to this. It attempted to shed light on the tailor corporation, a remnant of the Medieval guild system, during a period that witnessed changes in business practices and advances in textile production. It is also revealing of fashion, politics and thinking in the immediate years leading to the revolution.

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Response

“Tailleur d’habits” discussed the trade pictorially through twenty-four plates of engravings by the architect Jacques-Raymond Lucotte, which Berard copied onto copperplate. The first plate showed the interior of a tailor’s workshop, “where several workers are employed”: it portrayed an animated group of men who “stitch and assemble the fabrics […] take measurements, and […] cut.” The eye is led to the view outside a window, and the reader thus connects the scene to the wider city. The following plates deconstructed the scene and presented its elements: tools for all levels of production, current fashions, such as the waistcoat and abbot’s mantle, patterns, stitches, and ways of cutting drapery. Only the last four plates, which described the corset maker, concerned women consumers.

At the time of the Encyclopédie’s publication, literacy was increasing and the printed word, in the form of books, pamphlets and newspapers, flourished. The Encyclopédie resembled journals such as Courrier de la Mode (1768-1770) and La Gallerie des modes (1778-87), in that both types of publications acted as repositories of information. It also anticipated the encyclopaedic study of dress by early historians in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Recently rebound, the book’s new exterior belies its age. Touching the old, soft paper within, however, transports readers to another time. They connect to the many individuals that might have handled it in the past, immortalised in pencil and ink markings in the margins. As they absorb the text, they take part in a project that involved many – from engravers and writers, to publishers and booksellers.

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