The past is a safe place. What you don’t like about it can be reimagined. The future, however, is open-ended and unpredictable. So it came as no surprise when most couture and even some prêt collections this year chose to harvest from history.

They invoked the past, recalling historical themes, mythological characters and the unending fascination Indians have for royalty. Maharaja, maharani, grand, palatial, antique, glorious, opulent, even decadent, crowded the visual vocabulary in 2013.

Not only are couture collections “inspired" by past glory but historical references are used to erect lavish, period sets. Even where there is newness in the designs—a grammar of gold ghaghras, shimmery saris and embellished sherwanis—the affiliations are strongly archival. This repetition haunts the West as well.

“I think it is time to free couture," said Raf Simons, creative director of Christian Dior, after his Fall-Winter 2013/14 Couture show in July in Paris, France. “It annoys me that couture is thought of as the circus clown of fashion," he said of his show that explored the influence of Europe, the Americas, Asia and Africa on Dior. Huge digital projections of girls wearing clothes shot by top photographers appeared on the walls of a white box as the models walked past.

The legendary Karl Lagerfeld too drove home the need to stop bowing to the past with Chanel’s Fall-Winter 2013/14 Couture offering in July. As soon as guests settled into the haute oldness of what looked like an ancient theatre with crumbling stone walls, broken windows, musty stage curtains and artificial “dust" on everything, the curtains opened to reveal a new, 21st century city. “On the way from the Old World to the New World and fashion is the only way to make the trip," announced Lagerfeld, sizing up his show.

2013 was the year of “new couture" globally. Words like wearable, real, futuristic and “beyond the red carpet" got included in this métier bound by tradition. New, eerie-looking, diaphanous stuff, glittering circuitry, 3D effects and never-seen fabrics entered shows. Jean Paul Gaultier’s collection, in his Fall-Winter 2013/14 Couture show in July, with the catwoman as Alpha female, didn’t even roll out of a flamboyant set. The clothes themselves presented the large, immersive idea of couture.

Why then do things remain the same even when they change in India? Manish Malhotra’s finale for the PCJ Delhi Couture Week in August was inspired from the 1930s. “I visualized a maharani dressed in a layered lehnga ensemble embellished with antique gold, wearing heirloom jewellery, walking down a corridor with her entourage to meet the viceroy in his regalia," said the collection note on sepia-tinted paper. Malhotra’s set had old chandeliers, white candles, fragrant mogra flowers, ornate seats lined with deep red velvet cushions attempting a nostalgic remake of flourish that doesn’t exist any more.

Sabyasachi’s couture Opium too was set against a brilliantly created old set, with old bottles and dusty wrought-iron seats, overgrown plants—a lovely edifice of decay. Anju Modi’s collection was called Draupadi, her set a monumental palace echoing with folk dances of yore.

At the Aamby Valley India Bridal Fashion Week in July in Delhi, J.J. Valaya brought on the ramp the heavily bedecked “Maharaja of Madrid". If Raghavendra Rathore traced the genealogy of his inspiration to the 1920s for his bridal line, Ashima-Leena presented an ode to Chandni Chowk with a dastangoi performer retelling Dilli ki Daastan. Rohit Bal’s line Mulmul Masquerade flashed moments from the Elizabethan period with Victorian hairstyles, frilled, high-collared blouses teamed with saris and long robes. “The corsets…transported the audience to the Elizabethan era and reminded us of the rich and dramatic pageantry of princesses and fairy tales," said the press note.

Suneet Varma’s show The Golden Bracelet was inspired by the ancient city of Pompeii. With Roman art as the backdrop, the models came down the runway in toga-style saris. “Wreath-inspired headgear in gold, necklaces in shapes of twigs, spiral shaped long rings, and long spiral armlets were reminiscent of a bygone era," went the accompanying note.

For the finale of the Wills Lifestyle India Fashion Week Spring/Summer 2014 in October, Ashish N. Soni called his show La Dolce Vita, his passport for using 1950s as his muse for drama and design.

The point is not about derivative themes but about an almost political commitment to history, an obsession among senior designers that confuses past grandeur with elegance. Old for new. Curious, isn’t it, for the fashion industry, known for its nanosecond fickleness, to be so history-conscious?

Designers argue that they actually create contemporary garments where the past is only a departure point. “It’s easier to fall back on historical references," admits Soni, explaining that his Spring/ Summer 2014 finale collection harked back to the 1950s because that era is the uncontested decade of glamour, representing the kind of fashion that defines his sensibility. Whereas Valaya, whose brand tag line is Future of the Past, says that “royalty, being true connoisseurs of art, craft and talent and by virtue of their glamorous (often debauched) existence, provide the perfect cocktail for reinterpretation in an all-new fashion avatar". Varma offers academic reasoning. “In principle, couture all over the world is about reinventing tradition," he explains, adding that “we can only have a reference from something that’s already been done." Varma cites instances of the many global designers who have been inspired by designers like Coco Chanel, Jean Cocteau and The Great Gatsby, the book from the roaring 1920s and 1930s, considered worldwide to have been the most inspiring fashion decades. “A book called Royal Costumes of India remains my continual source. I have never not referred to it in the last 25 years of my work," Varma adds.

Tarun Tahiliani takes the debate further. “The fact that couturiers continue to emulate decadence of royals who were true patrons of art and finery, and revisit influences of our colonial past as an era of elegance, shows how difficult it is to be modern in this country," he says.

He has a point. Modern India is hardly an inspiration for resplendent couture. Ruptured roads, intermittent power supply, frightening inequalities and polyester fashion coexisting with buzzing malls, dazzling clubs and pubs and selective prosperity. Here fashion depends on underprivileged craftsmen for the unbelievably intricate embroideries that define Indian couture and make it aspirational. There are no go-to centres for extraordinary industrial sets or backdrops. Everything is handmade by local artisans and steeped in tradition.

In the West, designers are becoming sensitive to the contexts of new couture customers. Some are from West Asia, others are young and rich non-celebrity global women keen on bespoke clothes which don’t make them look like the pall-bearers of a dead princess. In India, however,wedding couture is the only real couture; new and old customers mirror each other.

So couturiers, however pathbreaking they may be, are forced to remain in the same thinking space as their clients instead of being mentors of taste. The rich plan their weddings with historical themes where the mandap is imagined as a royal palace. The bride and groom are royalty. The couturier is just the supplier of shiny goods to re-enact this vision in real life.

Yet there are new stirrings. At a recent big wedding in Delhi, the bride wore a plain Raw Mango silk lehnga with a single necklace. “A new day dawned for Indian couture," says Tahiliani, who was present.

A small but significant port of departure from history, shall we say?

SHOW-STOPPERS

Vidya Balan as Hindustani Chanel in her first appearance on the Cannes red carpet in a white Sabyasachi sari, black blouse, vintage watch and low chignon.

Designers Amit Aggarwal, Rimzim Dadu, Anand Bhushan used silicone, stretch rubber, tough leather, industrial plastic and faux metal to create New Age Indian couture, a worthy repartee to the handloom war cry.

Light fell on Indian couture as a gold and black, clingy, see-through, slit, sequinned mesh gown by Gaurav Gupta arrived on the ramp.

Film fashion

Subarna Ray Chaudhuri dressed Barun Chanda as a ‘zamindar’ in ‘Lootera’ in starched ‘addi (white Kolkata cotton) kurtas’, the best menswear entry.

Priyanka Chopra became the first Guess girl from India, a safe guess too if you had to list the best dressed in Bollywood.

Monochromes—black and white—ruled our fashion just as the rainbow ruled our social choices.

The Aam Aadmi ‘topi’ got formally elected as the most ubiquitous accessory.

Masaba became Indian fashion’s blue-eyed girl, gave the Nano her name and modern prints a run for their money.

Favourite accessory

Paromita Banerjee’s crocheted foot thongs (Spring/Summer 2014) became avidly read footnotes.

In sauntered the ‘mantastic’ Milind Soman wearing just a white towel, and we realized why old spices set a dish on fire. Aftershave, anyone?

Mandira Bedi’s stark, androgynous turnout and smoky eyeshadow in ‘24’ eclipsed Indian TV’s whopping, blinding bling.

Best innovation

Hemlines flirted with red carpets as the ‘anarkali’ left behind its ‘kurta’ avatar to become a floor-length, gown-like garment.

Shefalee Vasudev made a living out of looking at other people’s clothes.

Close