From Maharani to Schiaparelli Muse: Princess Karam of Kapurthala

 

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“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 the Maharani of Kapurthala, 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).

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“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.

 

 

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From Queen Alexandra to Jillian Mercado: The Changing Views of Physical Disabilities In Fashion

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Before there was Lady Diana, Duchess Kate, and even Elizabeth II, Alexandra of Denmark was considered the top fashion icon of the Commonwealth of England. The Queen of England from 1901 to 1910, Alexandra is remembered in fashion history for her dust-colored, high neck and tightly corseted gowns bejeweled in sparkling baubles. She was a visual break from her mother-in-law Victoria, who favored darkly colored clothing in the English tradition of mourning. However, with all of her beauty and power, Queen Alexandra used her appearance as a way to hide a secret: her physical disabilities.

Beginnings

Born into a Danish royal family, Queen Alexandra became an English princess after her marriage to Edward VII in 1863. She then became Queen in 1901 after the death of her mother-in-law, Queen Victoria. King Edward and Queen Alexandra’s entry into the English throne brought in the Edwardian era, an opulent time in English cultural, technological, and social history.

Queen Alexandra was seen as an influencer within English fashion for her tightly corseted, S-bend gowns that came to be known as ‘Queen Alexandra dresses’ (“Fashion: The queenly figure,” 1939). Much of Queen Alexandra’s evening wear was designed by the House of Redfern, a British fashion house that found success in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In her 2013 academic article, Fashioning Alexandra: A Royal Approach to Style 1863–1910” Dr. Kate Strasdin states that Queen Alexandra was aware of the public attention toward her clothing and as a result, she used fashion to emote an image of femininity and well being. The Queen fit the mold of an English societal woman: she was wealthy, titled, and was dressed by an haute courtier.

According to Strasdin (2013), Queen Alexandra was rumored to have had a tuberculous infection, which was due to a small scar on her neck. This rumor occurred shortly before her marriage to then-Prince Edward, and if proven right, it would have stopped the courtship due to worries of inherited diseases. This fear developed into a habit of her wearing high neck gowns, ribbons, and dog collars to hide her scar (Strasdin, 2013). Although this was an attempt to hide an imperfection, these neck coverings became an evening wear trend in British fashion.

In 1867, the Queen contracted rheumatic fever. This sickness caused impaired hearing and gave her a knee injury that resulted in a walking limp. According to Strasdin (2013), Queen Alexandra used her ornamental evening gowns to steer attention away from her bad hearing. She also altered her evening gowns to reduce a visible curve in her spine. An example is housed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which has a curved center back at the bodice that hid her body’s arching shape. Although Queen Alexandra found methods to hide her disabilities, she continued to walk with a limp. This is said to have caused a trend among fashionable women, who copied the Queen’s stroll.

Jillian Mercado

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Although Queen Alexandra went to great lengths to hide her body, there is now a growing presence in the fashion industry that advocates for visibility of disabled persons. One example is seen through the work of American fashion model Jillian Mercado, who has muscular dystrophy. Mercado is signed to IMG and has become a figure in fashion in both her modeling and Instagram photographs. Mercado has appeared in major advertisements for brands like Diesel and in singer Beyoncé’s “Formation” merchandise tour.

The stigma against physical disabilities in the fashion has been dubbed by critic Vanessa Friedman as the industry’s ‘newest frontier.’ As more figures like fashion model Jillian Mercado grow in popularity and adapted clothing lines become more available, the preference for ableist bodies may shift. To learn more about fighting the stigma of ableism in fashion, visit MIT’s Open Style Lab.

Resources

Fashion: The queenly figure. (1939, May 01). Vogue, 93, 72-72, 73.

Strasdin, K. (2013). Fashioning Alexandra: A Royal Approach to Style 1863-1910. Costume-The Journal Of The Costume Society47(2), 180-197.

Nam Phuong, The Woman Who Wore Silver Trousers To Meet The Pope

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Image via Manhai (Flickr)

This post will discuss the life and fashion influence of Nam Phương, the last empress of Vietnam.

From a French Convent to An Empire

Marie-Thérèse Nguyễn Hữu Thị Lan was born in the French colony Cochinchina, which is located in a southern portion of modern-day Vietnam. Lan grew up in a wealthy Roman Catholic family and was educated overseas in France (1). In 1934, she ended her schooling in a French convent to marry Emperor Bảo Đai. According to the 1934 The New York Times article “Will Renounce Faith To Wed An Emperor,” this union required her to renounce her faith for her husband’s Buddhism. This pleased Vietnam’s general public, but was at the dismay of the Vatican.  The marriage also required her to change her name to Nam Phương, which translates to “Direction of South.”

During the four days of the marriage ceremony, Phương was described by Time Magazine (2) in, “…A great brocaded Annamite gown, she stepped into an automobile and was driven to the Emperor’s Palace, followed by the Imperial princesses and the blue-turbaned wives of the mandarins…On the fourth day a battalion of mandarins led in musicians and the bearers of the royal insignia. The new Queen, her hair elaborately wound about a tiara encrusted with precious stones…”

Leaving the Emperor 

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Image via Manhai (Flickr)

When looking at her life, it appears Phoung and her husband had a strained marriage. What are typical marital problems may have been complicated with his multiple marriages or his political alliance with the Japanese during World War II. By 1947, the Communist takeover of Vietnam caused Phương to take her children to a family home in France, which was bought by her maternal grandmother. Phương then separated from her husband and continued to live in France until she passed away in 1963 (3).

The Empress Goes to Europe 

Aside from her role as wife to the last Emperor of Vietnam, Nam Phương was a fashion influencer who wore both traditional Vietnamese and Western clothing. During her first trip to Europe in 1939, the Empress’ outfits in Paris were noted by The New York Times in the 1939 article, “By Wireless From Paris.” The article explained how her apparel inspired others by stating, “Already some élégantes are adopting trousers and embroidered tunics for evenings; pagoda silhouettes, revers or sleeve forms are also in evidence.”

In the “Footnotes” section of a July 23, 1939 edition of The New York Times, Phương was noted for breaking tradition of wearing an all-black, conservative gown and veil when meeting Pope Pius XII at the Vatican. She wore a “gold, dragon-embroidered tunic, red scarf and gold hat” with a pair of silver trousers.

Orientalism in Fashion 

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Image via Manhai (Flickr)

During the time Nam Phương visited Europe, fashion was embracing “exotic” or “orientalist” designs. Orientalism in design and fashion traces to an Eastern idealization created by the West when trade between the two hemispheres introduced silk textiles and new styles of clothing like kimonos and shawls. This interest in Eastern aesthetics was not based in understanding the cultures of Japan, Algeria, or China; rather it was created around a fabrication imagined by the West.

Phương’s style moments noted by The New York Times highlights the public interest towards Orientalism. It also also gives credit to an Asian woman, a demographic who was rarely discussed in fashion publications.

The Life of Nam Phương

 

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Image via Manhai (Flickr)

Phương was an educated woman who who challenged religious conventions through her dress. Politics aside, Nam Phương was one fascinating, and beautifully dressed, woman.

 

Sources

  1. “Annam Ruler to Wed Commoner 20 March; Daughter of Wealthy Cochin-China Family Will Be Bride of Europeanized Emperor”, The New York Times, 9 March 1934, page 21.
  2. “Wedding and Thanks”, Time, 2 April 1934.
  3. “Nam Phuong, Wife of Ex-Annam Ruler”, The New York Times, 17 September 1963.