Everything about the “India in Fashion” exhibition in Mumbai is grand - the scale, the designers, the materials, the show’s opulence and last but not least, the venue itself. Housed in the newly opened Nita Mukesh Ambani Cultural Center at BKC Mumbai, it spreads over 50,000 square feet (more than 4,600 square meters) and nine exhibition rooms and dazzles with a one-of-its-kind experience.
Curated by Hamish Bowles and designed by Patrick Kinmonth with Rooshad Shroff, the exhibition is dedicated to showcasing Indian fashion, but not only in India but also its influence on the world. Thus, visitors are not taken on a purely chronological journey but also on side excursions into the world of materials, silhouettes and of course, embroidery.
Any exhibition of this scale located in the very center of the behemoth that is the Bollywood film industry is almost obligated to give a nod to this omnipresent force in every Indian’s life. Like no other, movies fuel the imagination and that includes what the heroes and heroines, their sidekicks and the many minor characters wear.
After an introduction that looks at how Indian finery refined Indian silks and embroidery at court in the 19th century, there is the obligatory nod to Bollywood with “An India of the Imagination” that traces Indian wear from fantasy to film.
From there, visitors are “Gathered in a Mughal Garden” to admire a splendid display of opulent floral chintz dresses, which made quite the impression on the fashionable West and got picked up by European couture, as did muslin creations, shown in the next room through six summery and light creations.
The next three rooms are dedicated to “India’s allure meets Paris couture”, with one room each dedicated to ensembles by Chanel, Christian Dior and Yves Saint Laurent from 1960 to 1968 that were inspired by Indian fashion.
While transitioning from one theme to the next, one is struck by American fashion columnist and editor Diana Vreeland’s realisation (in 1956 no less!) that “pink is the navy blue of India”. No kidding, a trend that anyone who has been to an Indian wedding or even an Indian office can vouch for - pink is everywhere, proudly worn by women and men alike.
Valentino’s creations await in the next room, symbolising “a marriage of East and West”, followed by the inevitable “Journey of the Sari” and a look at how this marvel of drapery has claimed its rightful place in the history of western fashion. Here unfolds the story of the sari’s constant reinvention, from Paul Poiret’s creation in 1922 via Elsa Schiaparelli’s interpretation in 1939 to Mainbocher, Madame Grès, Carolyn Schnurer, Hubert de Givenchy, and more recently, Cristobal Balenciaga, Ritu Kumar, Jean Paul Gaultier and Raw Mango.
“India’s most enduring garment, with its layers and draping, has captured the interest of fashion designers more than any other Indian form of dress,” confirms the accompanying text.
From there, one gets to the only part of the exhibition that seems to be put together rather randomly. Titled “The Great Exhibition London 1851” in remembrance of the international event inaugurated by Queen Victoria that saw more than 100,000 objects on display, here, there are dresses, accessories and other objects that span various decades before and after the event.
According to the accompanying text, the Great Exhibition “marked a hight point in the complex colonial relationship between Britain and India”. “The fashion for Kashmir shawls and the use of the buta [paisley design] reached a height of sophistication in the 1850s and continues to appear in the work of both Western and Indian designers from Christian Lacroix to Anamika Khanna,” it continues.
India’s influence on fashion boomed in the 1960s and after when people started travelling to India and got inspired by the country’s fashion and culture. The exhibition honours this development with “The Hippie Trail”, a room dedicated to the playful and colourful creations of designers from the ‘60s and ‘70s.
Last but not least, the exhibition ends with a nod to “Traditions and Innovations”, a look at contemporary Indian fashion: “The identity of an Indian designer is intrinsically tied up with that of the country’s rich textile and craft heritage. India’s exceptional crafts community has brought its magical skills to the collections of the 21st century, forward-facing design visionaries.”
“In a final honeycomb of spaces, we celebrate contemporary Indian designers’ remarkable diversity and their ability to see India in many different guises. As the world opens its eyes to their contribution and to new dimensions of representation, Indian fashion designers are finally receiving their due in the modern lexicon of global fashion,” concludes the show.
Putting together an exhibition of this scale was no easy feat and one can only applaud those who had a hand in it. The list of lenders itself is impressive, ranging from the archives of couture houses like Jean Paul Gaultier, John Galliano and Balenciaga to designer Ritu Kumar’s personal collection and museum loans from The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, MoMu Fashion Museum Antwerp, the Museum of the City of New York, the FIDM Museum in Los Angeles and Palais Galliera in Paris.
Before you visit, here are a few tips: Don’t get discouraged when you try to book tickets online and it says “sold out”; there are walk-in tickets available at the venue. Also, make sure to take along good reading glasses as the exhibits are dimly lit and labelling fairly small. There is lots of staff in every room who gently but firmly discourages walking back - so make sure to gather all information and sensual stimulation you need before walking ahead. And last but not least, for some perusing in peace, ear plugs are recommended as the piped in music does not fit the otherwise calm and well put together exhibition.
A must-visit for any fashion lover in any case. “India in Fashion” at Nita Mukesh Ambani Cultural Centre in Mumbai is on display until 4th June 2023.