In Culture X Fashion Part 1, I explored the meaning of the Hijab with Aaya Ahmed. This next part will explore traditional Indian fashion.
I was drawn to interviewing Ishwari (owner of Vintage India NYC) from seeing her blog, which showed me how involved and knowledgable she is in her products and what they represent. I really enjoyed hearing from Ishwari that she hopes people treat her pieces with care after purchasing them. Her items are handmade, and there is a liveliness that fills the store.
An important value in Indian culture I learned is cherishing the things that you are consuming. There were a lot of questions I had about this rich culture and this idea, and below is my interview with Ishwari.
What got you interested in Indian style fashion?
I’ve always been interested in fashion since I was a little kid. When I was in my twenties I came across a book of some fashion from India from the 1800’s during the British rule. I was fascinated by the clothing, and I was working for a fashion photographer. There wasn’t really a place to buy Indian clothes in New York. I used to wear a European nightshirt with thermal underwear trying to have an Indian style. I got those pieces at vintage stores, so they had vintage embroidery and it kind of looked Indian. I’d show up to work with these clothes, and no-one cared because it was a fashion place. They didn’t know what I had on anyway, so no-one questioned my color coordinated pajamas. Shortly after, I realized I was really drawn to the spirituality. That’s been a long journey that continued.
I saw from your blog on the store’s website how involved you are in not just the fashion but the culture as a whole.
I’ve been involved in various forms of Hinduism for over 35 years. It is an incredibly rich tradition and one of the few that is still in existence from ancient times. One of the practices is called Shringhar; it is decorating and dressing your deity (a statue of a God). You offer food to it and you focus all this energy on this item that it then gives back to you. As I was performing this practice, I received a message that I would be doing this on people and dressing them. This was the beginning of the actualization of this shop. Fashion became part of my life in a way, but spirituality has been more of a journey in terms of understanding what’s behind the things in India. The spirituality is really infused in all of the work there.
How do you incorporate spirituality into the store?
A lot of people in India that are becoming more Westernized. I think they have in their minds that Hinduism is a superstition, a form of voodoo or trying to form some sort of magic. It actually is not. In Bhagavad Gita (a Hindu scripture) it actually says, “offer without any thought of reward.” You just offer your life and just do whatever you are doing. If I have this store, I have to do it in such a way that I create beauty, that I create joy, that people want to see these things. They can have an experience when they come in here. I want you to feel like, “Wow I love this. I hope I have this my whole life; I’m going to take good care of it.” Some of these things in here, I don’t know if they’re even going to be made anymore. In India, the next generation is not so into this. Even if they do want be in fashion, they want to do Western style fashion. In my opinion, it’s a mistake because then they’re going to be competing with all the people that are already doing Western style fashion. What they have that is special are the styles that have come from their lineage that they could tweak like this gown. It is a more Western style made from Indian style fabric.
Is everything in your store made in India?
Yes. I have a few things that are made in Nepal, which is north of India. They make some simple men’s shirts and harem pants. The only thing that’s really from India, I mean true like back to day one, are two things: a sari and a thing called a dhoti, which is almost like a male version of a sari. All of these coats and everything are actually mogul influenced from what has now become Islamic culture and have been incorporated into Indian clothes. It has all merged over the years. This has been centuries that it’s been going on.
What is the significance of the turban?
Ones worn for weddings look regal and elevate the wearer to his princely state. There are other kinds of turbans and headwraps that had a more practical use. It keeps the heat off the head and the Sikhs used to wear them whenever they used to go for fights as they were the warriors of India. The meaning changed over time, but they were mostly for religious purposes or fights. Certain styles would be worn by certain people, like Muslims or Rajput (a caste from the Indian subcontinent).
Can you share why color is a big part of Indian fashion?
People in a lot of countries wear color, but if you go to India in certain times of the year, the flowers are growing everywhere. There’s just so much color around, and they use flowers to decorate everything. Traditionally these dyes were made from nature, so whatever was in the environment was used. It was aesthetic, but it’s also a spiritual thing. Every color has a meaning.
In hinduism nothing is without purpose. If you believe in karma then every action has a reaction, so you have to do things in a proper way. For example, they wear these glass bangles. We wouldn’t even think of having glass bangles because they break. If you think about just the sound, when you put these on you have to have a different mood. Your whole being has to be careful. It can’t be rushing, throwing stuff.
What is something you want people to know about handmade items from India?
There’s a lot of detail in the handwork. The level of detail and focus is difficult to replicate; it’s a cultural thing. Every region has a different style of embroidery. It has been passed down for generations. In other regions there is block printing on fabric. It is done by just a couple of people at these big tables and they hand block the fabric. Most people would just see these and think that it’s printed. They’re close to perfect but it’s not. I have customers that will come in and start nitpicking the clothes. I’m trying to make them understand that it’s a handmade item. If it’s perfect, it means a machine made it. That’s not human. You can feel the warmth in this place, which has to do with handmade items. There’s an aliveness to it because it has a soul.
Since spirituality is a big part of the store, I see now what plays a role in the reason for your trips to India to source. Can you share some things you see while you’re there?
The people doing fashion week think of themselves as in the fashion industry. The merchants are actually a cast. They care about making money, that’s the goal. I deal with people that are working in a small factory, basically a women’s cooperative. It’s very expensive because I have to buy at a retail price, and people would rather buy the ones I have on sale for forty-five dollars. The cooperatives are helping people because it supports a cause; the others are helping people because it’s their job. Even when it’s business, there is something else at play. You can feel it. There are temples everywhere with people going in and out all day long. There are altars on every street, in every shop, in every business. You will see a group of people on any given day who are doing some kind of pilgrimage, celebrating a holiday, or performing rituals. It is everywhere. In my shop, I am also doing my spiritual practice. My shop is a huge part of my spiritual practice. You can feel it. It is most important to me that people experience this mood if they step in here and that they will leave feeling better than when they walked in.
Traditional Styles Found at Vintage India NYC are still on the runways in India! See some examples below from Amazon India Fashion Week Autumn/Winter 2018.
Lehenga: A long skirt that falls to the ankles normally paired with a blouse (choli) and a scarf.
Kurta: A loose shirt that normally features a buttoned placket (a slit or the flap pf fabric under a slit) and goes down to the knees.
Sherwani: A long coat-like jacket usually worn for formal occasions or weddings.
Jooti: Slip on shoes that have a straight tip (pictured below) or extended curved tip.
Saree: A single piece of cloth with one end wrapped around the waist to form a skirt and the other left loose or used to cover the head.
Anarkali Suit: A long flowing dress-like garment. The bodice is cinched just below the chest. It is paired with bottoms and a scarf.
All runway images from vogue.in