The new British series Indian Summers (airing Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on PBS) is a picturesque period costume drama set in 1932 during the last days of the Raj that's been described as "Downton Abbey goes to India." It's really more of a Falcon Crest with rickshaws, and I've been enthusing about the soapy, highbrow history lesson ever since I binged on the press screeners. I watched it with a critical eye even as I luxuriated in its trappings – the starched collars and creamy three-piece linen suits, the floral cottons and salwar kameez by costume designer Nic Ede (who was wardrobe master on Richard Attenborough's Gandhi).
Initially, however, I watched with unease and concern for what might be even unwitting imperial nostalgia, of the sort levelled at Taylor Swift when her retro Wildest Dreams music video homage to Out of Africa debuted at the MTV Video Music awards to accusations of glamorizing racism and a whitewashed African colonial fantasy. The scrutiny has created an overdue (and frankly welcome) second-guessing about how casually we approach, create and consume cultural products like these, what cultural misappropriation and levels of understanding are involved, and whether (or how much) they can be enjoyed.
Some cultural appropriation and exoticizing dress practices are obvious, like taking ceremonial Navajo headpieces out of context and casually commodifying them as fashion accessories, or donning glam Bindis at music festivals as though they were just another makeup look; the latter prompted South Asian women to take to social media with a #ReclaimtheBindi campaign. Others are less so.
Susan Scafidi, a Fordham law professor, wrote the book Who Owns Culture? and considers both the ownership and authenticity of cultural products through the American legal system and a general ethical framework. Fashion designers casually "ransack the world's closet for inspiration," as Scafidi puts it. The most helpful distinction was between exploitive, or colonialist, misappropriation (headdresses, et al.) and a cultural exchange that is beneficial to the source community. For example, Ralph Lauren's last spring collection, which explicitly referenced British colonial and Indian dress, is worth cringing at. The mash-up of khaki jodhpurs and other cargo-pocket safari separates with vivid jewel-tone silk blouses draped diagonally across the shoulder, sari-style, seemed glib, especially given the powerful negative historical associations of Imperial rule the juxtaposition evokes.
Unlike Lauren, Haitian-Italian designer Stella Jean was inspired by Indian regional costume tradition this fall, but filters her own exuberant sensibility through use of the decorative traditions of the Himalayas, with hand-painted maxi coats and pietra dura motifs – she slays no sacred cows except for the ironic kitsch ones emblazoned on a few skirts. The approach is more in keeping with Alexander McQueen being inspired by details in Indian royal costumes, or the ongoing collaborations that designers like Hermès, Isabel Marant and Dries Van Noten have in craftspeople communities across the sub-continent.
In something of a counterpart to the Metropolitan Museum's mammoth, cross-departmental China: Through The Looking Glass exhibition, the Victoria & Albert Museum is opening the India Festival this week – a series of exhibitions, events and digital initiatives celebrating and exploring the culture of South Asia to mark the 25th anniversary of the museum's Nehru Gallery and the Nehru Trust (for more information visit vam.ac.uk). The India Festival includes large-scale retrospectives like the Al Thani jewellery collection, demonstrating the culture's influence on European jewellery houses of the early 20th century such as Cartier and Boucheron. But the major area of focus is naturally India's material culture – namely, a history of innovative textile production, thousands of years of dyes, pioneering techniques and cotton and silk. These have significance, be they political, religious or cultural.
Thoughtful costuming in Indian Summers reflects this in subtle but significant ways that I appreciated all the more for having questioned the nature of my own appreciation. In one scene, a witness attempts to offhandedly dismiss the white cap worn by a man accused of attempted murder as merely the generic topi style, worn for centuries to shield the head from the sun. In fact, as the V&A's show details, the white cap made with Indian-spun cotton, called a khadi, became code for the self-reliance and nationalist movement, and at the time had a new meaning as a symbol of political defiance (as it did again last year when worn during India's election, not by Gandhi's Congress party but the insurgent AAP party). It was just a small prop, but a larger symbol of opposition and non-cooperation with Imperial domination that adds dimension to the show.
All the very proper English floral dresses do, too: according to the Berg Fashion Library, East India Company directors stationed there wore garments made from English or European fabric rather than homespun Indian cloth. That recalls the advent of chintz, a colourfast patterned cotton made for export to England by the East India Company in the late 16th century. "After many trials," Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary in September, 1663, "I bought my wife a chintz, that is, a painted Indian calico for her to line her new study, which is very pretty." But as the new television drama and museum show demonstrate, it's never just pretty. It's there to be understood.