Things old and new, borrowed and blue

  • Renuka Narayan, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Dec 14, 2014 17:09 IST

With the Indian wedding season in full swing, it's interesting to think of the similarities between cultures. For instance, Celtic brides in ancient Europe wore red, just like Hindu brides do even today - and for the same reason, that it's the colour of fertility.

The early Christians adopted blue, to link with Mary's mantle, hence "something blue" like a ribbon or jewel featured in the English bride's dress. A Jewish or Christian bridal pair in the West had a cloth held ceremonially over their heads, the same as in India. A few medieval Western princesses wore white at their weddings, as did Mary, Queen of Scots. But for a great many centuries, Christian brides in the West apparently wore their 'Sunday best' in 'modest' colours like grey or brown, with a veil and a chaplet of flowers, avoiding white as both 'unlucky' and impractical.

This changed dramatically in 1840, when Queen Victoria married her German cousin, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg. We "cannot help taking a certain interest in her" as writer Thomas Carlyle, her contemporary, put it. Victoria designed a satin wedding dress in white, reportedly criticised by some for its colour. It had a long train and ruffles of English Honiton lace. She wore a simple orange-blossom wreath and a lace wedding veil that did not hide her face (her veil went to her grave with her in 1901). She also wore a Turkish diamond necklace and an enormous square sapphire brooch designed by Prince Albert as a wedding gift.

Almost overnight, white dresses became the thing for Christian weddings. In fact, we can't imagine a Christian wedding dress as anything but white today, can we? Yet this seemingly timeless tradition is under two hundred years old. There's even an exhibition on until March 15 at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, showcasing "the development of the fashionable white wedding dress and its treatment by key fashion designers such as Charles Frederick Worth, Norman Hartnell, Charles James, John Galliano, Christian Lacroix, Vivienne Westwood and Vera Wang".

Similarly, there were two recentish Indian royals who invented women's wear that we consider utterly 'traditional' today. It was that hugely influential painter of ancient deities, Raja Ravi Varma (1848-1906), who is held to have invented the modern drape of the six-yard sari. A vivid example is in his painting of Sita on a swing, an image recreated in the Oriya Pattachitra style in May 2010 for the first solo painting exhibition at the Indian Cultural Centre in Bangkok by Andhra painter Neerja Tata: a curious cycle of art into life, tradition into modernity and back, classical into contemporary into folk.

And it was Maharani Indira Devi of Cooch-Behar, mother of Gayatri Devi of Jaipur, who persuaded the weavers of Lyon in France in the 1930s to make chiffon in 42-inch widths, thereby inventing the chiffon sari. The signature look of many stylish 20th century Indian women, it is now identified as 'Rajput' and 'Army'.

Tradition is often a living, changing thing. But men who wear tea cosies on their heads like to keep those on forever.

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