In Royal Fashion: Princess Karam

 

Figure 1

“BEAUTIFUL PRINCESS KARAM OF KAPURTHALA IN REBOUX’S TANGERINE VELVET HEAD-DRESS AND MAINBOCHER’S SILVER FOX CAPE” by André Durst (©Condé Nast)

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).

Figure 2

“PRINCESS KARAM OF KAPURTHALA, WHOSE EXTRAORDINARY BEAUTY HAS MADE HER A CONTINENTAL LEGEND” by Cecil Beaton (©Condé Nast)

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.

Resources

(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.

 

 

More Than Chintz: The Opposing Styles of Sister Parish

It’s not unusual to see an artist dressed in a uniform. Johnny Cash became the ‘Man in Black’ because he wore the color so much, and Steve Jobs put his genius on display by forgoing conservative suits for a comfortable turtleneck and jeans combo.

This act of hiding oneself to reveal their craft is also seen in the wardrobe of American interior designer Sister Parish. Sister’s work was built around a bright aesthetic, but when examining her own sense of style, there are extremes. Her professional attire was consistently colored in somber hues and designed in structured silhouettes. This countered the way she transformed her rooms, which were festooned with rich fabrics and quirky embellishments for customers with social status’ as bright as the patterns she used.

How Dorothy Became Sister

Sister was born Dorothy Kinnicutt to a wealthy American family. She earned the moniker Sister as a familial nickname, which followed her into adulthood. Her childhood occurred during the early twentieth century, which was a time where the occupation of an interior designer was not realized. Instead, it was a set of duties based on societal rules to be taken on by a wife or female relative. Sister came into her own appreciation of the craft through both genuine interest and designing her first marital home with her husband, Albert. In 1933, Sister began her interior design business in a small one-room office in Far Hills, New Jersey. The fact that she was a married woman owning a business was considered scandalous and resulted in her husband losing his inheritance.

Sister established herself as an interior designer by designing for her friends, which led to one project after another. By 1962, the business was so successful that Sister needed a partner. She found a then-young interior designer named William Hadley who specialized in combining classic and contemporary styles. Together the duo designed rooms for some of the top names in American society, which included the Astors, Paleys, and even the Kennedys.

Sister is credited for creating and popularizing the American Country look, an interior design aesthetic that was described by a 1999 profile in Architectural Digest as, “…a certain kind of cozy old-money look, part opulent, part hand-me-down.” This upscale ‘lived-in’ feel was created by using antiques and assorted furniture that was complemented with wicker accents, graphic rugs, and handmade textiles. She also liked to include artistic details like scenic panoramas, which elevated the rooms to suit the needs and societal lives of her clients.

Dressing as Sister Parish
There is not much text on Sister’s wardrobe, but she was frequently photographed during the height of her career. By analyzing her wardrobe in these photographs and comparing them with her work, a greater understanding of her own aesthetic is revealed.

Sister’s first identity in American society was of a wife. However, her passion for interior design created a new path that let her use her own name and voice. She reveled in this new identity with an outgoing personality and a matching design aesthetic. This passion did not translate into her own professional wardrobe, which was based on darkly-colored outfits with small touches of white neck collars, pussy bows, or jewelry. Constructed, conservative silhouettes channeled her aristocratic upbringing through variations of pencil skirts with jackets or knee-length dresses in crew or V-necklines. Sister’s mainstays were a blonde coif, a flash of red lipstick, and pearls in either a necklace, earring, or brooch form. This personal appearance was that of a diligent professional whose clothing choices were direct and chic, which left the interior design as the focus.

To learn more about Sister Parish, visit SisterParishDesign.com or read one of the many books about her life and work.

The Love, Politics, and Fashions of Edith Windsor

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Edith Windsor was a fashionable woman who understood color, proportion, and the power of a flipped bob. When describing her style, Edith sounds like a Hollywood actress or a Manhattan socialite, but she was more than just another pretty face. Edith used her fashionable appearance to fight against discrimination towards LGBTQIA Americans and normalize the face of same-sex marriage.

A Fashionable Lady, A Fashionable Couple

Edith came from a working-class background, attended Temple University, and worked a career in computer programing. She found success in the field despite it being in a heavily male industry and worked her way to the role of Senior Programmer. Early in her adult life, Edith followed tradition by marrying a man, but the relationship didn’t last due to her accepting her sexuality. She later found a partner in Thea Spyer, a Dutch immigrant who worked as a psychologist.

Edith’s famous relationship with Thea began after an encounter at a party. Their connection was so intense that when dancing, Edith tore a hole in her stockings. Together they continued their careers and had the opportunity to travel the world, which the couple documented through photography. Through this, people viewing the photographs have been able to see the love and joy between the couple. What’s also apparent is the couple’s sense of dress. In a famous picture of them sitting in The Cloisters both of the women appear fashionable, but differ in styles. Thea’s look is masculine by way of a pair of slate-colored slacks and jacket that is worn with loafers. Edith’s style is feminine and young. In the photograph, she wears a white turtleneck, a green wool coat, and a pair of high water jeans that are accented with white chunky socks and tennis shoes. Her hair is full and curled at the ends, which frames a bright red lip.

Throughout their relationship, Thea favored clean lines and classically male silhouettes. She often wore suits or button-ups shirts with slacks. Edith opted for colorful and ladylike looks, like wrap dresses, strings of pearls, and oversized sunglasses. Their opposing yet defined styles continued throughout their relationship until Thea’s death in 2009.

First Comes Love and Then Comes Marriage

The expectations of women’s clothing during the mid-19th century were to appear feminine. This related to the social standing of American females at the time, who were expected to be cisgender and straight with a mission in life to marry a man and produce children. Having a career was discouraged and virtually impossible for those who also wanted a family. For lesbians, marriage was not recognized in United States law and was considered suspicious behavior. Because of this, Edith and Thea were forced to hide their engagement in 1967. Instead of a ring, Edith wore a diamond circular engagement brooch that wouldn’t cause attention from her co-workers. The couple eventually married in Canada in 2007.

After years of activism, Edith became an American icon in 2013 when she won a Supreme Court case that demanded same-sex marriages in the United States to be federally recognized in relation to benefits and rights. This was inspired by a hefty tax bill that Edith was required to pay shortly after Thea’s death, which was caused due to their marriage not being federally recognized.

As a result of her bravery, Edith made numerous appearances in both gay and mainstream media. She no longer had to hide her identity, instead, she was expected to embrace it. She often appeared in public in a t-shirt that read “Nobody knows I’m a lesbian.” And of course, she accented this shirt with her signature blonde bob and a string of pearls.

An American (Style) Icon

Edith lived a fascinating eighty-eight years. It was filled with challenging stereotypes by being her most authentic self, whether it was through her clothing or her relationships. She was a brave, daring, and smart woman who happened to be fabulous. For more on Edith’s mission and her life, visit EdithWindsor.com.

 

Screening Style: Luva from Blacula (1972)

 

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Screenshot from Blacula (1972)

 

When thinking about fashionable costumes in 1970s films, there are always a few that come to mind. Jane Fonda as Bree Daniels, Faye Dunaway as Laura Mars, and Diane Keaton as Annie Hall all been mainstays for Halloween costumes, fashion lines, and even streetwear. However, someone is missing. There is little to no mention of people of color. Despite this, there are a plethora of films that have non-White characters that are incredibly fashionable. An American favorite is “Blacula” (1972), an early 1970s Blaxploitation film. One particularly stylish character in this iconic movie is Luva.

“Blacula” revamps the classic tale of Dracula with an African prince named Prince Mamuwalde, who in 1789 is turned into a vampire and is awaken in 1970s Los Angeles. Princess Luva (played by Vonetta McGee) is Prince Mamuwalde’s wife. She ends up dying early in the film, but not before she debuts a fabulous royal costume.

The Look of Luva

 

There isn’t much information on the thought or make on the costumes for this film, but the outfit’s creators are Ermon Sessions and Sandra Stewart. Sessions has worked as a costume designer for films like “Scream Blacula Scream” (1973) and “The Learning Tree” (1969), while Stewart has worked on “Paper Moon” (1973) and “Coffy” (1973).

In the film, Luva is adorned in a visual melody of African-inspired clothing and jewelry. Her neck is covered in red and white necklaces, earrings, and bracelets that mimic the cultural costume of the Maasai. She is clothed in a long black dress that is lined in a combination of gold trim and strips of kente cloth and a thick braided belt that cinches the waist. Luva’s look is topped off with a septum nose ring, Cleopatra-esque eyeliner, and an Afro, which was the hairstyle of the 1960s and 1970s Black Power Movement.

More Is Better Looking

As the fashion industry embraces diversity and different trains of thought, the concept of who and what is stylish via pop culture may expand. Although Diane Keaton as Annie Hall will always be iconic, there are other characters like Luva who can set some fabulous trends too.

 

Spiked and Plated: The Trendy Material Culture of the Lobi

 

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The African Lobi Pot Collection at Restoration Hardware

 

It’s not unusual for designers to borrow from non-Western cultures for a seasonal trend. Past design fads have ranged from Malian bogolan (mud cloth) to mandalas, a Hindu and Buddhist spiritual symbol. A burgeoning trend on the market are replicas of Lobi pottery, specifically altar vessels covered with three-dimensional spikes. Another aspect of Lobi decorative culture, lip plates, have also gone mainstream. These forms of body modification are worn on the upper, lower, or both lips.

Although these two items are different in aesthetic and use, they both provide examples of how the West can reshape the purpose and significance of distinctly West African objects without proper acknowledgement. By doing so, the origin of the decorative item’s is lost and replaced with Western capitalist ideals.

Pottery

 

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Altar Vessel (20th Century) via The Art Institute of Chicago

 

The Lobi are a cultural group that lives in Burkina Faso and parts of Ivory Coast. They are traditionally associated with rural life and live in an informal clan system. During French colonization in Burkina Faso (1896-1960), the Lobi were able to maintain their independence longer than nearby groups, which was due to their open resistance against foreign influence.

The inspiration behind a Lobi pottery piece can range from regular life events to the spiritual. Spirituality is particularly shown with spiked altar vessels, which is a style that is present in pottery across Western Africa.

Appearing like a browned jackfruit, Lobi altar vessels can be spiked all over with a ladle and a carved lid. The spikes represent a variety of hopes in life, including protection from witchcraft and misfortune. The Art Institute of Chicago notes in a description of an early to mid 20th-century vessel that the lid, “protects the contents from natural and supernatural contamination.” This suggests that the item was meant for pouring and only used for special events. With such cultural significance, it’s odd that replicas are being sold as living room décor.

Clothing

This concept of protection is also present in the traditional body adornment of the Lobi. Christopher D. Roy states in the Burkina Faso chapter of the text, “Berg Encyclopedia of World Dress and Fashion that the group wore leather and brass arm and neck coverings to protect themselves from spirits in the wild. Aside from arm and neckwear, Roy notes that men wore thin cords around the waist, and at times, front coverings. Men also wore their hair in long, face-framing clay locks. Women looked similar but wore coverings around the front and back of their lower body. Today, Lobi dress has now changed and ranges from Western-inspired outfits or wraps that are commonly seen in Western Africa.

Although not exclusive to the culture, the Lobi wears coin-sized lip plates. This form of decorative body modification can represent wealth or social importance. Since the late 20th-century, lip plates have become popular in ‘alternative cultures in the West. Despite this surge, there’s barely any acknowledgment of where and who originated this ‘trend.’

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Lobi Woman, Burkina Faso via Dietmar Temps (Flickr)

 

As Lobi altar vessels become an accent in homes and mouth plates fill lips, an appreciation and acknowledgment of where these items originate are necessary. For more on the material culture of this group, check out the Art Institute of Chicago’s Lobi collection.