When a former maharani of Jodhpur, the grandmother of the present Rajmata of Jodhpur, took a divided skirt -- a ghagra -- back to the cloth weaver because the heavy gold embroidery had caused the skirt to tear, the weaver advised her not to try to remake it into another skirt. "You'll never be able to wear it again," he warned her. "The weight of the gold will be too much and it will be the same story." So the gold from the skirt was melted down and made into a ewer and basin.
"Can you imagine?" said curator Martand Singh. "And we are talking about the 1930s, not the 16th century."
Neither that skirt nor the gold items made from it are in the "Costumes of Royal India" show, just opened here at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but the 150 costumes in the show are no less lavish or elaborate.
"Everything that glitters is gold," said Singh, who organized and selected the items in India for the show.
This is the 14th exhibition at the Metropolitan's Costume Institute for which Diana Vreeland has served as special consultant. And her touch is evident not only in the richness in detail and the stylishness of the presentation, but in the inclusion of portraits and furniture, background traditional music and even a special sandalwood scent by Guerlain, all of which enhances the understanding of the seemingling fabled courts of India. Everything in the show, even an elephant, is appropriately bejeweled. It may well be Vreeland's most dazzling exhibit.
"It is the most precious show we've ever done," said Vreeland. "It is so wonderful for the imagination and historic interest. People don't realize what an extraordinary place India is, with 500 languages and enormous richness among some people. And it has been there all along and even today."
"The show is visually so gratifying, so luxe, so glamorous, it is sure to be one of the biggest hits ever," said designer Bill Blass. "It knocks out any ideas many of us have about India. And it gives a whole other dimension of style. We're so accustomed to European style. Suddenly we are introduced to another civilization with another great style. It comes through the stylishness of the Indian women, men . . . even the elephants."
The remarkable craftsmanship of the textiles, the weaves, the colors and particularly the embroideries is truly the star of the show. A close look at the costume of the late maharani of Jaipur, mother of the present maharajah of Jaiphur, was made from unstitched fabric that has gold, silver and colored silk thread embroideries in the shape of birds and peacocks and fish. A peshwaz (woman's coat) from Chamba in northern India is embroidered with emeralds and pearls. "You can't get better than that," said Singh.
"This exhibition celebrates fabric as an art," said Antonio Ratti, who heads one of the world's leading silk firms and who is a major sponsor of the show. "The careful combination of technique and creativity in Indian fashions provides an endless source of inspiration for my designs and my method of executing them."
The textiles are shown off in a surprising range of fitted garments as well as the predominantly unstitched ones. "You see, a lady is never dressed in India; she is in a constant state of undress as she moves," said Singh. "The advantage of an unstitched cloth is that it is truly an expression of movement. This constant state of undress is what it's all about. There is no such thing as being actually ready," he said, but rather the wrapped clothing always seems "in a state of becoming ready -- getting dressed or getting undressed. That is the movement."
That movement is captured, remarkably, in the way the mannequins have been posed by Siman Doonan, a set designer and art director from Los Angeles who worked on the film "Beverly Hills Cop." Vreeland tapped him for the Met show after hearing of the way Doonan placed mannequins in an exhibition in Los Angeles. An Indian dancer helped him create the poses for a few of the mannequins. Several are seated on the floor because of the weight of the clothes. "One skirt with more than 150 meters of fabric took two people to move," said Doonan. A man's coat from Hyderabad, Pakistan, embroidered in gold and emeralds, weighed more than 28 pounds and had to be displayed on a seated figure.
The mannequins were a problem from the outset. They had been built to simulate the svelte figure of western women and needed to be built up not only to reflect the shape of the Indian woman, but to protect the fragile fabrics from the gilt-painted mannequins.
"Indian women are different [from western women] because they walk on their heels, not on their toes," explained Singh. "And the concept of what is beautiful [in India] is determined by the roundness of the form, not by the angular or linear dimension of that form. So you have a well-padded derrie re and a sort of well-articulated bust line for the women." Today's western beauties, however, are usually slim and angular, he said.
It became Singh's task to drape the garments, tie the turbans and add the jewelry, which surprisingly is fake and made for the exhibition by Indian craftsmen in Delhi and Bombay. (The jewelry for the elephant was created by Kenneth Jay Lane.)
"A costume is never complete without jewelry. There is no such thing," said Singh. "There is no difference between jeweled cloth or a piece of jewelry. Each has a symbolic function which may be independent of the other . . . [Yet] each is interdependent."
Similarly, there is no ornament without symbolism. "Only a married woman would wear a bindi, the central ornament on the head," said Singh. "Only a married woman would wear a chain of black beads or ruby beads set in gold, called a mangal sutra. Only a princess born to a royal house can wear gold anklets, even today; you can't wear gold anklets if you are not a princess when you marry a prince."
In India, clothes reveal all manner of social structure so that by looking at a woman you could determine by the color and style of dress whether a woman is married or a widow. "You don't have to say, 'Where is your husband?' to have her answer, 'I'm sorry, my husband died,' " said Singh.
Men's clothes are symbolic as well. A turban reveals where a man comes from, what he does and what his clan is, according to Singh.
"The shape, foremost, and then the color determines what function he performs," said Singh. "In southern Rajasthan, a priest will wear a red turban tied with a braid in front. He wears a red turban because if he is the guru of the king, he has cut his thumb to anoint the king with his blood; therefore, he is allowed to wear a red turban."
Even the simple, oversized shawl Singh always wears sends signals by the way it is worn. "If you wear it on your right shoulder, [it is for] a propitious occasion; if on the left, not for a propitious occasion. When fasting, one wears it over the left shoulder, across the chest and under the right arm. When I do that, [Indians] would know that that day I'm not eating, and there's no hassle which arises." But when he wore his shawl that way while preparing the New York show, the museum staff didn't understand the message, and so he was often interrupted with offers of coffee or a sandwich.
Singh worries that costume traditions such as this will die out if not preserved. "These are the visual, social documentations of a people, of a culture and its history which we have. The true need for it to be documented is that it is all beginning to get blurred, with airline travel and what not," he said.
That worries Vreeland, too. "You do understand, of course, that in another generation people won't even know what the pearl looks like," she told Singh.
The costumes are grouped in the show mainly by color -- one room stunning with everything in black and gold, another with purple and gold, another with pastels. "It is the colored with the gold and silver that is so striking in this show," said jewelry designer Paloma Picasso after previewing the show. According to Singh, it took five days to get the lighting exactly right for the richness of the colors.
One of the most handsom things in the show is the cotton with gold stripes. "Cotton is the heartbeat of India, not silk," said Singh. "And because it is the heartbeat, that is where the finest is. Even in all the draped cloth a lot is cotton." Cotton is used by the court as much as in rural areas. "That which separates the rural India from the court is not in its design, but in the articulation, the fineness of it," said Singh. "The embroideries are wonderful, but you find the same embroideries on a peasant skirt as well, but not in such abundance or such richness." And to make the point that such artisanry in fabrics is a continuing tradition, there are in the show equally exquisite contemporary saris and shawls in cotton and silk.
Most of the things are from the late 18th and 19th centuries and the early 20th century, but the timing doesn't matter, said Singh -- what made a difference was who was the patron at the time. "How well he could motivate or inspire and how much he knew to say to a craftsman, 'This is not good enough, take it away.' That is the whole problem with the institution of patronage."
All of the clothing in the show was taken from private homes, nothing from museums. That meant going to private houses and palaces to persuade the head of the household to permit a look at personal collections. Singh had access to the families because he is, in fact, the Prince of Kapurtula, a title he no longer uses.
His own upbringing gave him a sense of where to look and what to expect. "Garments of women in India are a very personal thing, to such a degree that up to the 1920s in the Moslem groups of Lacknow, all the seamstresses were women because men were never allowed to touch the clothes," Singh said. "And they were washed by women so that when they got slightly worn or could no longer be used they were packed into boxes and thrown in the river so that no man would touch them."
Traditions vary by state and court, Singh said. "In Jaipur, for instance, by social order, the maharajah would never wear what his father had worn. Ever. He could never wear and could never use the same objects of everyday life, nor use the same apartments. Never. And therefore the grandson had the ability of opening the grandfather's store room , but never the son." Added Singh, "My father had his own. I had my own own at age 6. I'm a grandson of a maharajah."
There are no designer names on any of the clothes and no sense that any of the vast array of styles are more stylish than others. A sari's style is determined by function, said Singh.
A garment's functionality extends to preservation, Singh said. "The single most important thing is that we [in India] are a society which minimizes waste. Therefore the concept of consumer obsolescence plays no part in our life," said Singh. When unstitched garments, even a dhoti, a man's wrapped pants, are worn out, they are put into a box. When there are seven layers in the box, said Singh, the lady of the house takes them out and quilts the seven together for a bedspread or tablecloth.
American designers, who rely heavily on Indian craftsmen for the exquisite embellishment of fabric, are not sure if the current show will influence upcoming fashion. Kenneth Lane thinks it will heighten the importance of paisley. Bill Blass isn't sure.
"It is really hard to say. We are on such a kick of plainness and austerity, and to be suddenly affronted with such affluence -- I don't know. But considering the impact of the Diana Vreeland shows," he concluded, "the Indian influence might just sneak in."
The exhibition, which is accompanied by an exceptional softbound book, "A Second Paradise," by Naveen Patnaik, edited by Jacqueline Onassis, is on view through August.
Vreeland, who frequently visited the exhibition while it was being mounted, was not well enough to attend the opening gala. Asked if this might be her last exhibition, Vreeland said, "No, I have something quite wonderful in mind for the next one."