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Salwar Kameez


There is a rich legacy of traditional designs in the Orient which when adapted to the Indian salwar kameez gives the outfits a unique look. An experiment by Indian designers in transferring these ancient designs from Turkeys, China and Russia has opened new vistas for the Indian fashion world.

The year 1947 not only marked the division of India, but also the division of cultures, traditions, dress codes and ways of life. After partition, the saree became the national dress of India, whereas the salwar kameez that of Pakistan. Between 1947 to 1989, the salwar kameez had a magnanimously fluctuating graph, reaching the epitome of popularity in India in the late 50s and early 60s, then vanishing out of the fashion scenario for the major part of the 70s just to come back with a ‘never like before’ bang in the 80s.

Today the salwar kameez stands as the second most popular dress in most parts of India. The popularity and comfort of the dress has reached such stupendous heights that most of the new breed designers have started channelising a major portion of their creative abilities to give this ensemble a new look. Varying from the ethnic touch to the cocktail look, the salwar kameez has come to suit all occasions and what could be better and more creative than adaptation of embroideries of various countries on this dress – each country lending its own flavour to this dignified ensemble. Indian designers have borrowed extensively from the ancient traditions of China, Russia and Turkey giving the salwar kameez a different look.

In China, the art of embroidery dates back to the Qin dynasty where embroidered robes, and even undergarments made with fine needlework, have been found. This art was popularly known as ‘Ziuhua’ or ‘Zhahua’ meaning making ornamental designs with a needle. Even though the earlier specimens found were not exquisite pieces of art, embroidery gradually attained perfection, a fact borne out by the previous relics excavated in recent decades. The techniques involved in embroidery attained a very high level through which the artist incorporated ornamental as well as utilitarian features.

Among the various stitches used by the artists in China, chain stitch became very popular especially for the lower echelons of society. This was mainly credited to the durability of the stitch compared to satin stitch which mainly adorned the robes of the rich. Chain stitch reached new heights in popularity and development mainly between the Shang dynasty and the last years of the eastern Han dynasty. Designs were coloured lines or patches universally embroidered with chain stitch with rare exceptions of satin stitch. The varieties of chain stitch were open ring stitch, the close ring s stitch, the braid stitch, the loop stitch, the daisy stitch, the fly stitch and consecutive stitch, (split stitch), the last being easier to do but producing almost the same effect as the chain stitch itself. The loop and daisy stitch were usually used to form dots and strokes, while consecutive stitch was employed to delineate the thin end of a fine line.

However, embroidery adorned with gold showed a particular development during the Yuan reign. As by this time, there was a government run embroidery factory employing women to make a variety of items for daily use, much progress was made in use of gold.

Inspired by the experiences of Song and Yuan artists the GU family living at Luxiangyuan Jiangsu province in the last years of Ming, specialized in embroidering pictures after famous artists and succeeded in leading the fashion and taste of the time. Influenced by the use of extremely fine lines to outline human figures by the painter You Qiu, they initiated “hair embroidery” in which new born babies’ hair was used.

The art of Chinese embroidery when adapted to Indian salwar kameezes, gives the attire a very delicate touch due to the fine needlework. An original Chinese piece was a colour in the shape of ‘ruyi’ with designs of “Two Phoenixes Worshipping the Sun” and butterflies amid flowers embroidered in pulling stitch. The motif was based on verse from the book of songs. It signified a period of peace and prosperity when the able and virtuous were given full scope. The picture shows the original piece and its Indian adaptation.

In Turkey, the earliest embroidery work can be traced to the middle of the 16th century. The embroidery which has come down the generations can be thought of as ‘heavy’ category are nearly all military accoutrement… The main items in military artefacts are saddles and saddle cloths heavily embroidered in gold and silver thread. Even the tents used by the Turkish army commanders were made of heavy linen decorated on the inner walls with applied shapes of linen, wool or even leather in basic colours of red, blue, green and cream in the floral pattern which the Turks found so pleasing.

Heavy metal thread embroidery was also used in a religious connection for mosque hangings and prayer carpets. Every year the Sultan dispatched a caravan bearing treasure and valuable cloth to the shrine of Mecca. The huge cloth worked with quotations from the Koran and was used to cover the Shrine during the period pilgrimage. Other articles embroidered were wallets and document cases.

However, embroidery on dresses came only during the early years of the 19th century with the change of the Turkish traditional dress. Now the long skirted kaftans were replaced by the upper classes with the West European frock coat and trousers. Though the fashion for elaborate gold embroidery on jackets and waistcoats and on the pockets and seams of trousers seems to have been started by the Turkish navy, soon they were worn with great charm by civilians. The gold embroidery on most of the army and leather articles and garments worn by men made by male artisans in professional work rooms.

Embroideries in the ‘light’ category existed in far greater quantity, mostly worked in coloured silk on linen, fine cotton or silk cloth. The background cloth was mostly left in its unbleached state.

The Turks being mostly Sunni Muslims interpreted the Koranic prohibition on the representation in decoration of the human figure. This was however relaxed to allow the use of flowers. The most popular flowers being rose, carnation, hyacinth and sprays of fruit blossom. These flowers were sometimes endowed with symbolic meaning or expression of mood.

Though the fine and beautiful embroidery was made by Turkish women in the harem – women’s quarters in a royal household-there is evidence of existence of professional workshops as early as 1628. by the middle of the 19th century, commercial workrooms were producing embroidered lengths of fine muslin or silk for women’s trousers and pieces for ladies overdresses. Slowly work was being produced for the bazaars. Gradually, embroidered pieces were being exported to central Europe and Germany.

Indian designers have experimented with this embroidery. The blend of rich Turkish embroidery on the salwar kameez gives the ensemble a very exquisite look as shown in the picture. The original piece could be the dress of a carrier of messages or organizer of travel. The material used is couched silver thread.

From the cloth used for covering the Kaaba of Mecca a border was chosen and adapted to form the front of the Indian kameez giving the piece an exquisitely Oriental look.

Russian needlework is represented by ecclesiastical and secular embroideries of the 12th century to the 17th century. Although there is indirect evidence that a great deal of fine needlework was done in Russia in pagan times, it was Byzantine influence that raised the craft of embroidery to an art. Worked with silk with a flat stitch (as opposed to the raised work), embroidery established itself rapidly. Until the 15th century nuns were responsible for all important religious panels embroidered in Russia. But in the 15th and 16th centuries many fine panels were made in sewing rooms which the ladies of the ruling families established in their palaces.

The Russian gold embroidery is among the most sumptuous and delicate needlework ever made. The surviving ecclesiastical vestments of this period are worked with small figures or religious scenes. These designs were worked with coloured silks in a fine regular split stitch, generally on a background of couched gold thread.

First the design to be embroidered was transferred onto the material. Such designs called cartoons were either made by the embroiderer himself or commissioned from an artist. The outlines of the cartoons were pricked onto the sheet of paper, which was then laid on the fabric. Powdered charcoal or other such substance, called ‘pounce’, was rubbed over the paper so that it passed through the pricked holes and marked the outline on the fabric. The outline design would then be traced with Chinese white or Indian ink.

Many of the finest large embroideries were produced in the late 15th and early 16th centuries. Workshops developed a style in which grace and profound piety were combined with stylistic restraints and economy of detail. In the 16th century the background became more complex and more use was made of gold and silver thread. As the metal was apt to tear the stuff, it became customary to couch the thread along the fabric, stitching it into place with coloured silks. Sometimes gems and pearls added more glamour to the embroidery. However, in the 18th century fabrics and materials had raised work with gold and silver thread. This period also saw the popularity of embroidered pictures for decoration.

An ideal example of 17th century embroidery is where the composition usually includes a central stylized motif flanked by subsidiary elements. The motif represents pomegranate, a decorative device frequently found in Islamic art, symbolising fertility. It has many petalled flowers with scrolling tendrils bearing leaves and fruits. This traditional pattern has been adapted the Indian ensemble and gives it a rich look.

A classic example of gold embroidery complimented with pearls, jewels, coloured glass beads, gold studs, spangles and heavy bullion which is being experimented on the salwar kameez. The outcome is rich, royal retro.

While on the one hand there are designers looking to the West and creating haute couture a la Paris fashion houses there are others who are looking to Central Asia and the East, discovering a treasure-house of designs. Their experimentation in the transference of designs has produced Oriental fantasies giving the Indian outfits a uniquely glamorous look.