Fabric of India at the V&A

Fabric of India

It was a busy week for visiting exhibitions last week but many of you will know by now that I’m always happy to have a wander around in a gallery or museum (although they do occasionally feature model railways or steam trains which is the hubster’s field of interest not mine. He’s been to the Fashion Museum in Bath and he’s very handy at carrying large, newly acquired bags of fabric so we’re a good match!)

After spending a few hours guiding my bestie Catherine around the V&A whilst she was on a whistlestop visit I showed her a few of the highlights I always stop to gaze at including….

My favourite dress in the collection by Charles James in fabric designed by Jean Cocteau, from 1938-you could easily wear it now.
My favourite dress in the collection by Charles James in fabric designed by Jean Cocteau, from 1938-you could easily wear it now. It doesn’t look much in my photo but it’s lovely in reality.

and then there’s….

 Michelangelo's David, made from a cast of the original in 1857, was presented to Queen Victoria by King Leopald of Italy. It has undergone a cleaning while the gallery it is displayed in has undergone a major renovation. It reopened in 2013.

Michelangelo’s David, made from a cast of the original in 1857, was presented to Queen Victoria by King Leopald of Italy. It has undergone a cleaning while the gallery it is displayed in has undergone a major renovation. It reopened in 2013.

and also….

the fig leaf that used to be put on him for modesty! it's about 40cms in height and was last used in the early 20th century
the fig leaf that used to be put on him for modesty! it’s about 40cms in height and was last used in the early 20th century
The Gates of Paradise doors from the Baptistry in Florence.
The Gates of Paradise doors from the Baptistry in Florence.

Another personal favourite which is in the same room are the casts of the doors of the Baptistry in Florence, also known as the Gates of Paradise-created by Lorenzo Ghiberti between 1424 and 1452….but that’s another story and nothing to do with our visit.

Caz had a coach to catch from Victoria so after I’d waved her off I went back in to see the Fabric of India exhibition. [It was the first time I’d been back into the main exhibition space since the McQueen ended so it felt slightly odd to see it looking so different]

Fab of India

For starters it wasn’t in the least bit crowded by comparison so it was possible to get a good view of all the exhibits. The first part is devoted to explanations of various techniques used to produce the fabrics, the colours, the decoration used in Indian fabrics including silk and cotton, indigo dyeing (it’s very name derives from the name India-I didn’t know that!)

a dress dyed indigo-the process and the colour are one of the oldest used by man.
a dress dyed indigo-the process and the colour are one of the oldest used by man.
Indigo dyeing is a tradition passed down through generations of families.
Indigo dyeing is a tradition passed down through generations of families.
a finely carved woodblock of the type often still used to print cloth.
a finely carved woodblock of the type frequently still used to print cloth.
an embroidery technique known as ari has been carried out by experts for centuries. The men would be well paid as professional experts whereas women were unpaid or very poorly paid for similar work. It is a process similar to tambour beading in that it is set up on frames and the needle passes through it catching fine metal threads and/or beads. The threads are then beaten to flatten them out.
an embroidery technique known as ari has been carried out by experts for centuries. The men would be well paid as professional whereas women were unpaid or very poorly paid for similar work. It is a process similar to tambour beading in that the fabric is stretched across low level frames, so that the worker can sit close to it on the floor, the long hooked needle passes through it catching fine metal threads and/or beads and sequins. The threads are often beaten to flatten them out. [There are lots of videos on You Tube showing how it’s done if you’re interested]
There was lots of fine quality embroidered textiles to see in the exhibition in beautiful colours and designs and much of it extremely old.
There was lots of fine quality embroidered textiles to see in the exhibition in beautiful colours and designs and much of it extremely old.

The short films that accompanied this early part of the exhibition put great emphasis on the quality and expertise that each particular artisan is capable of-it doesn’t examine or go into the ethics of wages or work conditions for example-the show, I think, is to demonstrate the beauty of what is produced and not to take a moral stance. There are very little politics in evidence until much later in the show when MK Gandhi’s stance on spinning and producing homespun cloth in the years before independence and partition is mentioned.

Gandhi at his spinning wheel.
Gandhi at his spinning wheel.

Before this however there are many examples of fabrics synonymous with India including chintz, embroidered fine muslin, wall-hangings and tent interiors, many in bright colours and frequently richly decorated.

There are some beautiful examples of fine outfits made from exquisite cloths, this was actually made for an Englishman who adopted Indian dress.
There are some beautiful examples of fine outfits made from exquisite cloths, this was actually made for an Englishman who adopted Indian dress.

Moving into a more modern era you can see a broad selection of garments of all types including saris and salwar kameez, as well as ‘Nehru’ jackets and wedding attire.

This outfit for a Bollywood film which is richly embroidered with mirrors, sequins and gold embroidery and was so heavy the actress was unable to actually dance in it!
This outfit for a Bollywood film which is richly embroidered with mirrors, sequins and gold embroidery and was so heavy the actress was unable to actually dance in it!

There are examples of modern Indian fashion designers including two outfits by Manish Arora.

This brightly coloured and embellished dress by Manish Arora features in the exhibition. It uses many  traditional techniques but puts a new and modern spin on them.
This brightly coloured and embellished dress by Manish Arora features in the exhibition. It uses many traditional techniques but puts a new and modern spin on them.
I particularly liked the 'Moon' design sari (2nd right) which has soft discs in white whilst the rest of the sari was dyed indigo
I particularly liked the ‘Moon’ design sari (2nd right) which has soft discs in white whilst the rest of the sari was dyed indigo.

Fabric of India 1

There is lots to see and admire in this exhibition and whilst it isn’t as dynamic as the McQueen there are lots of beautiful things to look at and I thought the ‘educational’ bits at the beginning were well-done. I’d learnt about much of it as a student but I still found out new things and by presenting short videos meant you can see and admire the artisans at their craft. It’s worth mentioning that the V&A has an extensive collection of other Indian artefacts elsewhere in the museum which are on permanent display.

I’ve always loved the V&A since I was a young student and would spend hours in the Costume Court (as it was known then) sketching the historic costume. No outing is complete without a quick visit in there too.

This show is on until January 10th. Let me know what you think if you go.

http://www.vam.ac.uk

http://www.youtube.com

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One thought on “Fabric of India at the V&A

  1. Oooo! Those modern designs and colours are gorgeous – wish I’d had the stamina to check them out. My bedlinen is fairtrade, block printed Indian, if that helps…
    PS My favourite was the green glass balustrade (?) in the glass gallery but you knew that before I even saw it 😉

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