Imagine you’re a princess from a far-off land who hobnobs with fashion icons, wears haute couture and is always decked out in opulent jewels. This was a reality for Princess Karam of Kapurthala.
Also known as Maharani Karam, the Princess built a reputation in the mid-to-late 1930s for blending Western couture with South Asian saris and opulent jewels. She may have also been one of the first faces of Indian descent to grace the pages of Vogue and partake in Western high society.
Princess Karam was born in 1915 to the Kumaon royal family. At the age of 13, she was married to Maharajkumar Karimjit Singh, the son of Maharaja Jagatjit Singh of the House of Kapurthala, a Punjabi royal house. The affluence of Princess Karam’s in-laws provided a life that allowed for travel and the enjoyments of upper-class society life, no matter the location. This wealth also allowed the Princess to purchase saris and Parisian-made haute couture, which at 19 years old, she wore well.
The couple arrived in Paris in 1934 and instantly made a scene for her eye-catching saris. “I prefer them to be georgette or mousseline de soie, because when made of these materials, they hang well and give one a better line,” Karam explained to Vogue in 1935. “..I generally wear them in bright colours at all important functions” (“Beauty In India Ncess Karam Of Kapurthala,” 1935, pg. 72) (1). Princess Karam also attracted attention for wearing Mainbocher, Suzy, Madame Gres, and Schiaparelli with jewels that were sourced from India and reset by Cartier (“As Seen by Him: Forever England,” 1934, pg. 94) (2).
Princess Karam’s style was often featured in the pages of prominent American publications, including American and British Vogue, Town & Country, and Harper’s Bazaar. A clothing piece that garnered so much attention that it was incorporated into a Vogue photo shoot was an evening wrap made with dark brown gauze with pale pink gardenias placed under ruffles. According to the Vogue article “Features: Two London Successes,” Princess Karam wore the piece over a silver or pale pink sari and accessorized it with strings of pearls (1934, pg. 56)(3). In 1939, she was described by The New York Times (1939) as “evoking memories of Racine’s Phedre ” in a draped Madame Gres white jersey gown with a knee-length cape attached to the shoulders (p. 49) (4). Wraps were a way she could add a “semi-European touch” to her South Asian wardrobe (“As Seen by Him: Forever England,” 1934, pg. 94) (5).
Aside from Vogue, Princess Karam’s personal style inspired Elsa Schiaparelli. The designer incorporated sari-like evening gowns, dresses with harem pants, and long lame scarves for her 1935 collection. On being the source for one of the leading designers of the decade, Princess Karam exclaimed, “I was thrilled to see that some of the dressmakers were actually inspired for their new models this year by some of the saris I wore in the summer of 1934” (“Beauty In India Ncess Karam Of Kapurthala Karam, Princess,” 1935, p. 72) (6).
Princess Karam was often placed on ‘best-dressed’ lists and was even used as a promotional tool. She found herself as one of twelve stylish women to attend a presentation on healthy eating by Hollywood dietician Dr. D. H. B. Hauser and is said to be the inspiration for Ira Gershwin’s Maharanee (At the Night Races in Paris) in The Ziegfeld Follies of 1936.
According to a 1934 Vogue article, Princess Karam’s appearance was shaped by the influence of her husband. “Prince Karam, who has a great deal of taste in women’s clothes, has taken his beautiful wife in hand and made her into one of the best-turned-out women in Europe to-day. He sits with her at Antoine’s while she has her hair done, and at Paquin’s while she is being fitted” (“As Seen by Him: Forever England,” 1934, p. 94) (7). It’s not determined whether the Maharaja was the sole influence of Princess Karam’s appearance or was one of the many hands that helped shape her appearance.
The couple returned to India before the beginning of World War II, raised their children, and she passed away in 2002. As like in Paris, Princess Karam became a style icon in India for her saris, opulent jewelry, and social standing. Although she lived her life as a wife and mother, she was also a style icon who introduced Indian fashion to Parisian society.
(1) Beauty In India Ncess Karam Of Kapurthala Karam, Princess. Vogue; New York Vol. 86, Iss. 1, (Jul 1, 1935): 72.
(2) As Seen by Him: Forever England Vogue; New York Vol. 84, Iss. 5, (Sep 1, 1934): 94.
(3) Features: Two London Successes Vogue; New York Vol. 84, Iss. 5, (Sep 1, 1934): 56.
(4) Costume Ball Forecasts Fall Elegance (1939, July 23). The New York Times, p. 49.
(5) As Seen by Him: Forever England Vogue; New York Vol. 84, Iss. 5, (Sep 1, 1934): 94.
(6) Beauty In India Ncess Karam Of Kapurthala Karam, Princess. Vogue; New York Vol. 86, Iss. 1, (Jul 1, 1935): 72.
(7) As Seen by Him: Forever England Vogue; New York Vol. 84, Iss. 5, (Sep 1, 1934): 94.