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Royals are always in fashion




Elsewhere, Maharaja Srikantadatta Narasingharaja NEW DELHI: A chance look at the family tree of the Patiala royals - whose current head is Punjab CM Amrinder Singh - reveals a tantalising bit of trivia: a princess from the clan actually modelled for the Parisian couture house of Elsa Schiaparelli in the 1930s.

This tidbit highlights the diverse role that royal families have played in the evolution of Indian fashion and style - as patrons, buyers and, now, even as designers.

Britain’s Princess Diana and Monaco’s Princess Grace are the best western examples of modern trendsetting royals, with the latter living on in the fashion pantheon as the name of the world’s most coveted accessory - Hermes’ Kelly bag.

But Indian royals have not lagged behind in creating waves in the fashion world, as discerning patrons of the world’s best brands, from the debonair Jagatjit Singh of Kapurthala to Sita Devi of Baroda. The stylish Baroda Maharani famously annoyed the Duchess of Windsor by declaring at a party that the tiara of the American wife of Britain’s former King Edward VIII was once her (Sita Devi’s) ‘paijeb’ or anklet.

“Royal families have played a tremendous role in the development of both fashion and aesthetics,” says Jodhpur’s Raghavendra Rathore, currently the fashion frat’s bluest blood, who previewed his newest collection this week.

“They spurred the development not only of court wear, which set the trend for what commoners wore too, but also promoted the evolution of embellishment techniques which are now Indian fashion’s USP.”

That Rathore chose petite actor Riya Sen (actually Dev Burman) to model his collection was also piquant for she is also blue-blooded, as her father is from the Tripura royal family. She continues in the tradition not only set by the Patiala princess but also more recent royals like Sabita Dhanrajgir and Vijayendra Ghatge in the 1970s.

Fashion diva Ritu Kumar’s book Costumes and Textiles of Royal India reiterates the fact that embellished regal raiments worn by countless maharajas and maharanis in turn-of-the-century sepia-tinted photos are the most obvious inspiration for formal and festive Indian wear today.

“No one can make a sherwani like Amar Singh did for my grandfather,” reminisces Kapurthala scion Tikka Shatrujit Singh, now brand advisor to the luxury conglomerate LVMH. “The cut, the fit, the styling was better than anything in the west.” Even Armani’s version of the bandgala pales in comparison, say connoisseurs.


And it is no coincidence that the two prominent Rajput designers today are known for their distinct cuts: Rathore and Rajesh Pratap Singh.

Wodeyar’s revival of the age-old silk and zari motifs of the Mysore royals and Richard ShivajiRao Holkar’s re-evocation, through his brand Rehwa, of Maheshwari sarees (invented by his ancestress, the legendary warrior queen Ahilyabai Holkar) hark back to the role of royal patronage in the development of Indian design and fashion. Indeed, much of what the Indian fashion mavens parade on the ramp has roots in royal karkhanas, from zardozi and bandhni to kundan and minakari.

The first foray Indian fashion made in the west, though, was via riding breeches. The story goes that the irrepressible Maharaja of Idar and regent of Jodhpur, Sir Pertap Singh, had a wardrobe malfunction in London and had to get his riding breeches replicated at Savile Row.

When the tailors asked what the distinctive baggy trousers were called, the royal replied, “Jodhpur”, misunderstanding the query. Thus tagged, jodhpurs became a hit in late Victorian London and are still the mainstay of the aristocratic horsy set the world over.

The most enduring fashion statement popularised by royals, however, is the classic look of wispy French chiffon sarees and Basra pearls, now the dress code of India’s impeccably-coifed grande dames of the corporate and social world.

Rajmata Gayatri Devi, when she was the stunningly beautiful third wife of the dashing Maharaja Sawai Man Singh II of Jaipur, wowed the west with this signature look, which she adopted from her own soignee mother, the elegant Maharani Indira Devi of Cooch Behar.

This was apt, for another Cooch Behar royal had a definitive role in the evolution of the modern saree: Maharani Suniti Devi pioneered the way the garment is now worn, with pleats and a pallu draped over the left shoulder. What better evocation could there be of the royal roots of modern Indian pret?


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