Nose rings. Dresses over pants. Ear cuffs. Crop tops. To many people in the world, these trends are considered hallmarks of forward-thinking fashion folk. But to 1.25 billion people in India, not to mention the millions of Indians across the globe, these are as much a part of traditional fare as a button-up shirt and dress slacks: Nose studs are called phuls, and a salwar kameez is a tunic over a pair of fitted pants. Earrings are extended with sahaara chains that drape over your ear. And those crop tops? They're sari blouses, worn by women of all ages, shapes, and belly sizes. This is all to say that when we went to India to shoot a story in Pushkar, Rajasthan about modern Indian fashion, we didn't try to shoot "new" Western trends or attempt to prove that "new" Indian trends look like Western clothing. With stylist Kanika Karvinkop as our guide, we captured a story about the nuanced politics of modern clothing. "Modern fashion in India is inspired from tradition — it's adding and modifying the fashion, and not really going against or breaking any rules," Karvinkop says. But, regardless, it's still a departure from the norm — when we attempted to cast this story with a local model, most women we approached declined because the clothes were still considered improper. "The modernization of fashion in India is taking place only among the fashion-forward community in big cities — not in villages [like Pushkar]."
"Pushkar is a small town in Rajasthan known for a camel fair that happens in November at the time of the Kartik Purnima full moon," says Karvinkop. "It is a spectacle on an epic scale, attracting more than 11,000 camels, horses, and cattle, and attended by over 400,000 people over a period of around 14 days. It's one of the last great traditional melas, or fairs. The idea of the shoot was to dig into the age-old traditions of our country, and the Pushkar Mela seemed like the perfect fit."
Despite the rapid modernization in India, modern clothing is still seen as a symbol of modern ideas, no matter how much both respect tradition — it's a small version of the struggle that many women around the world are navigating. For our purposes, it's a conversation Indian designers are having with Indian women: How do you respect cultural traditions while giving women more opportunities to choose their own traditions? Below, we explore that idea with Karvinkop and a variety of Indian designers who are asking themselves those questions with every garment they create.
"Designers are definitely inspired by the past, but now they are making clothes that are more wearable, relaxed, and easy," says Karvinkop. "The beauty of the entire India Modern moment is that 'India' is in focus. Rules aren't being broken, they're being reinterpreted. Indian women are asserting their potential in every sphere of life. They are more active both inside and outside of homes. We see them in unconventional career choices. It is only natural and logical that clothing is evolving, too." Here, model Radhika Nair wears an Anavila sari over a T-shirt-like knit.
Traditional menswear in Rajasthan consists of a loose tunic called a kurta and drawstring trousers, called a dhoti. This outfit is a spin on that silhouette — Karvinkop paired a dress by Rimzim Dadu with woven pants, two modern pieces utilizing traditional Indian textiles. The chain necklace is also native to Jaipur craft culture, and touches on a big emerging Western trend of oversized amulet necklaces. The weave on the dress is based on a traditional weaving technique of Gujarat called patola. "The traditional patola is an extremely labor intensive weave," Dadu explains. "We took leather, converted it into fine cords, and used these leather cords in multiple colors to painstakingly weave a typical patola design... Modern fashion in India is a lot more experimental than before. And when I say experimental, I don’t mean over-the-top. In a culture where more is more, modern experimental fashion could be really minimal, as well."
"[Jewelry designer] Amrapali modernized the design of traditional antique silver jewelry and have made longer chains and chokers, which have been worn by Indian women since the early 20th century," says Karvinkop. The skirt is a nod to the lehenga trousers, but the print isn't a traditional one. "These designers have made it more minimal and modern."
Here, the shirt is made with traditional Indian prints and fabrics, but is fluid and oversized, giving it a contemporary edge. The pants are a blend of silk and cotton. "We develop our own blends in the studio," says designer Gaurav Jai Gupta of Akaaro. "The idea was to do something more progressive." Karvinkop added ankle ties to accentuate the volume.
People who've never worn a sari might not know that it takes a lot of effort (and hands) to tie a long piece of cloth so it hangs like a single garmet. Designers these days are creating ready-made sari dresses with a zipper, which are the equivalent of a clip-on tie. To accentuate the waist, Karvinkop layered on an apron skirt for fun.
Designer Rahul Mishra is one of the most well-known Indian designers globally, who's known for his rich fabrications and dramatic shapes. The jacket is Indian-inspired but in a modern, moto cut, and paired with a gold chanderi fabric skirt. "Indians love a proper gold," says Karvinkop.