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.

 

 

More Than Chintz: The Opposing Styles of Sister Parish

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Images from Sister Parish: American Style (2011)

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

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Image from Sister Parish: American Style (2011)

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.

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Image from Sister Parish: American Style (2011)

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.

 

The Fashionable Side of Guam

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Chamorro Performers| Image via Marilyn Sourgoseoriginally posted to Flickr as IMG_7883

Within the United States, Guam is often known as a strategic U.S. naval base. However, the 30-mile island is much more. It is home to a historical and growing fashion culture that incorporates traditional costume with a modern shopping market.

Guam is currently an American island territory, but it has a history as both an indigenous and colonized country. Among its citizens, the Chamorros call Guam home. These people’s ancestors date early in Guam’s history and provide a strong example of how the influence of colonization affects the dress of a culture.

Early Dress
Documentation of early Chamorro dress in Guam often comes from personal accounts of foreign explorers. This can illustrate the actual traditions of a people, but can also provide a personal and cultural bias of the descriptor.

The early Chamorros utilized their natural surroundings to fashion coverage for their bodies. According to Judith S. Flores in “Dress of the Chamorro” (2010), women wore leaf and bark around the waist and, at times, used turtle shells styled into an apron-like clothing piece. Women would also wear a tifi as a top and men were bare-chested, but both genders used floral and coconut scents on their bodies. In numerous European accounts of early Chamorros, men and women were documented as having long hair. In some reports, men tied their hair into buns, while others stated that men shaved their head with the exception of one lock.

This form of dress is still remembered today with the works of Guam residents Joe and Ray Viloria. Together they create clothing and accessories that are inspired by the island’s early indigenous population. Through this effort, the designers can teach audiences and acknowledge social taboos, like showing excessive skin, through their clothing.

Dress Under the Spanish Empire

This mode of clothing changed once the Spanish Empire colonized the island in the mid-1600s. The Spaniards were a Catholic-based nation who embraced ideas of dress that hid the human body, especially the female form. According to Flores (2010), this resulted in a rise of the mestiza (mestisa) costume, which originally developed in the Philippines. Men wore an outfit of a loose button-down and bleached cotton (manta) trousers that ranged in length depending on the formality of the situation. Women covered their bodies with a slip that had a round neckline and bell-shaped sleeves and an ankle-length skirt. The style evolved during the Victorian era from what Flores calls  “the starched ‘butterfly’ look.” During formal occasions, women covered their heads in white handkerchiefs or shawls.

Guam transitioned into American hands after the Spanish-American War in 1848. The island was under the jurisdiction of the Secretary of the Navy and held under what Dough Herman at Smithsonian.com calls martial law. In 1941, the island was bombed hours after Pearl Harbor and was held under Japanese rule for three years. This occupation resulted in over 13,000 locals being imprisoned in camps and 1,123 dying under Japanese control.

Fashion Today
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After the war, Guam fell back under American rule and became an island territory. What may be due to the American influence and/or its reputation as a tourist destination, Guam has formed into an economy that provides a variety of shopping opportunities. For the tourist or local looking for the newest designs by international fashion designers, the island offers the Tumon Sands Plaza, which houses Balenciaga, Chloe, and Givenchy.  For more moderately-priced options, there are many malls and outlets within consumers reach.

For those wanting to dress in local wares, events like Guam Fashion Weekend and the Guam Fashion Delegation showcase Guam fashion talent. There is also a scene of local fashion designers who integrate Chamorro culture with Western trends and styles. For example, Tao Pacific Designs creates ready-to-wear clothing in block prints that identify and honor Chamorro culture.

The history and status of fashion in Guam evolves from one influence into another, but there is still a sense of pride and acknowledgment in the island’s Chamorro culture. This is a rare feat for an indigenous group who has experienced a significant amount of colonization that demands change and dismissal of one’s norms. Although Guam is a part of the United States, and may one day be an official state, it is also an island with a rich history that is communicated through its fashion scene.

For more on the island of Guam, visit Guam.gov or the Guam Museum.

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.