SNARK WEEK: Sorry Not Sari

24

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When you’re a hobbyist costumer for renaissance faires, the SCA, Dickens events, Jane Austen balls, and the like, you often take short cuts. You’re on a budget, you don’t have much time, you make use what you have on hand. As long as it passes the 10-foot-rule, it’ll do.

But when you’re a professional costumer for film and TV, you have to worry about your work being seen on 20-foot screens and in high-definition these days. And every little detail can be obsessed over via screencaps online. So while the pros also may have tight budgets and short deadlines, sometimes using any old fabric just doesn’t cut it.

Especially when it comes to the use of modern Indian sari fabrics, sari trims, and Indian embroidered materials. These are too frequently called to stand in for richly embellished historical fabrics, and sorry (sari, hah!), no, there’s a big difference.

It’s also ironic that Indian fabrics were super expensive and rare in western European fashion when they were first imported, starting in the late 18th century. The distance made these materials hard to get, and the fine quality of the cottons, in particular, made them valuable. Highly embellished Indian fabrics were used sparingly both due to cost and rarity. This all flipped in the late 20th century with global trade, labor, etc., and now embellished Indian fabrics are cheaper than having to embroider and trim a garment in your own costume workshop in the U.S. or U.K.

For a good on-screen example, the 2004 Vanity Fair directed by Indian-American Mira Nair has a legit Bollywood flair but still doesn’t go over-the-top all the time when it comes to the Indian fabrics.

Vanity Fair (2004)

Nice, subtle use of Indian fabrics. Barely noticeable!

Vanity Fair (2004)

Here, it’s more crazy, but this is a masquerade, so it kind of fits.

Oh, and who could forget the 1995 Pride and Prejudice — everyone’s favorite snotty sister wears sari fabric!

Pride and Prejudice (1995), Caroline Bingley

And Caroline Bingley makes it look good, while being so bad!

So while there are points in European fashion history when using Indian materials are accurate, most of the stuff we see in frock flicks is just a budget-saving effort. Especially because it’s so often done for periods waaaaaay before Indian fabrics were historically accurate, like Elizabethan. This gets so obvious and cliche that, oh yeah, let’s snark it!

2014 Vikings season3 Princess Gisla of Frankia

We don’t expect much from Vikings (2014), but I can tell you that I used to have THIS EXACT SHAWL so I know for a fact it does not date from whatever time period the show is supposedly set in (also, it’s itchy; the shawl, not the time period, afaik!).

Outlaw King (2018)

Then there’s Outlaw King (2018), where Florence Pugh runs around in this not-so 14th-century dress for half the flick.

Outlaw King (2018)

Pretty sure those are shisha mirrors.

Isabel (2011)

I couldn’t make it very far through Isabel (2011), but I did catch this entire coat made of Indian fabrics that reminded me of a bedspread I once had.

Borgia: Faith Fear (2011)

Borgia (2011) rocks another polyester Indian veil because why the fuck not, amirite?

Now, the 16th century is really when Indian fabric use goes to hell on-screen. Let’s start with a little background on what things might have looked like in the period:

16th-century trims

Left to right: 1552-1553, Juana de Austria by Alonso Sánchez Coello ; 1567 – portrait of a woman, artist unknown; 1569, possibly Helena Snakenborg, English artist.

I chose these because this is the style of trim most often attempted in movies and TV, yet most often failed. 16th-century trim tended to be regular in pattern with geometric or small evenly spaced motifs. It’s typically just gold or gold and black or gold, black, and one color, but not multi-colors. And none of the big flowers or little shisha mirrors that are commonly found in Indian embroidery!

The Spanish Princess (2019)

Obviously, The Spanish Princess (2019) got this wrong, among so many other things. Even worse, this dress was recycled from La Corona Partida (2016)!

Lucy Worsley's Six Wives (2016) - Catherine Howard

But even otherwise excellent productions fall prey to the cheap fabric trap. The wonderful docu-drama Lucy Worsley’s Six Wives (2016) dresses up Katherine Howard in a generally nice gown, but it’s decked out with Indian trim, a really weird necklace, & WTfrock is with that crappy Chinese brocade on the French hood?!?

The Tudors (2008) - Mark Smeaton

Costume designer Joan Bergin really likes to rock the Indian fabrics. She used a shitton in The Tudors (2008), starting here with Mark Smeaton.

The Tudors (2009-2010) Catherine Howard

Katherine Howard is where things go off the rails. This gown is redic, & the use of Indian fabrics make it just nuts.

The Tudors (2009-2010) Catherine Howard

Even this gown, in a generally appropriate historical shape, is covered with inappropriate spangled sparkly Indian trim.

Then there’s that time Joan Bergin just gave up & put Anne of Cleves in a lehenga skirt — that’s the highly decorated, full pleated skirt Indian women traditionally wear for formal occasions.

Dangerous Beauty (1998)

Courtesans get in on the fun too! In Dangerous Beauty (1998), this orange dress is covered with oodles of Indian trim.

Dangerous Beauty (1998)

Maybe The Tudors got the sleeve idea here?

Doctor Who: The Day of the Doctor (2005) - Snark Week

If the pin-tucked dupioni weren’t bad enough in Doctor Who: The Day of the Doctor (2005)…

Upstart Crow (2016) - David Tennant

Easy way to tell it’s Indian fabric? Look for the paisley. Sorry, David Tennant, I love you, but your cape in Upstart Crow (2016) betrays you.

The Virgin Queen (2006)

Despite good acting, The Virgin Queen (2006) was one of the lower budget QEI showings of its time, as that front panel shows.

Anonymous (2011)

Anonymous (2011) is a shitty movie, but the costumes are pretty. This trim screams “sari trim!” but I’m not hugely offended because it’s in a geometric style (also looks like a trim I’ve used on a ren gown, lol).

Anonymous (2011)

Same here, another gown from Anonymous (2011). The kirtle trim is Indian, but well-chosen. Now, the smock fabric, that’s another issue…

But wait, there’s one more! Or, at least, one more recycling:

A Little Chaos (2014) - Helen McCrory

Oh Joan Bergin! That Indian skirt didn’t work for 1540s in The Tudors (2009), & it doesn’t work for 1680s in A Little Chaos (2014) either!

 

Do you notice Indian fabrics and sari trim in frock flicks? Do you use it when you make historical costumes?

 

 

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About the author

Trystan L. Bass

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A self-described ElderGoth, Trystan has been haunting the internet since the early 1990s. Always passionate about costume, from everyday office wear to outrageous twisted historical creations, she has maintained some of the earliest online costuming-focused resources on the web. Her costuming adventures are chronicled on her website, TrystanCraft. She also ran a popular fashion blog, This Is CorpGoth, dedicated to her “office drag.”

24 Responses

  1. tanya2austin

    I notice sari fabric and trim, mostly because I’ve used it myself and have done a lot of shopping for it, so I recognize it. That being said, I’ve only ever used it in Regency gowns, which makes it a bit more in-period, and once or twice for 1920s beaded dresses.

    Reply
  2. Nzie

    I haven’t noticed it a lot, but I am getting better at noticing. As your examples point out, there are some ways to use it that can be more in keeping with history and help save on the budget side. What I wonder though is whether anyone’s thought it worth it to work with some manufacturers there? I imagine custom work is more affordable or they may have options that might be able to be used well as some designers have managed to do.

    Reply
  3. Roxana

    I’m not educated enough in fabrics to recognize sari patters but I can tell that it looks wrong but often it’s so pretty one let’s it pass.

    Reply
  4. Shashwat

    As an indian,I must say that sarees are an integral part of our culture.For a costume designer,it is just a heap of glitzy cloth at a low prize.But designers for period pieces fail to understand that even sarees come in quality.The rhinostone applique bordered sarees are seldom worn even in a casual party,with women preferring plain silk sarees that designers could use in place of heavy taffetas(if you are stooping low,don’t sink to the bottom of the earth;substitute shouldn’t scream SUBSTITUTE).Banarasi and Kaanjeevaram sarees feature beautiful closely woven thread borders(no glitter,just ultrafine copper twisted with silk)that could be a perfect for small patches requiring brocadey fabric particularly in tudorbethan costumes.Inaccurate,but really doesn’t show it it is a geometric motif in dark silk.Case in point,most of the gable hoods in the Other Boleyn Girl (the best thing in that atrociously inaccurate film)feature saree border on the lappets,which seems like brocade unless you peer at it in high resolutions and try to spot the densely woven motifs.But no,designers insist at using the worst available fabric in the most conspicuous places.
    Even my sister regularly uses sarees and gets them made into gowns,and it doesn’t really show if the fabric choice is right.Maybe if the designers have no desire to use quality fabric,they should atleast purchase sarees from silk fabs instead of online transactions;fabs are subsidised so heavily that you can purchase saree worth 540dollars at 70dollars(or ₹32000 at ₹4000).My family purchases sarees from fabs only.Elsewhere in India it has become hard to find fine sarees at a reasonable price.
    Anyways,it is not the fabric but the threads of the costume designer that matters.We saw how denim was used brilliantly in The Favourite and…not so well in Mary Queen of Denim.

    Reply
    • Katie

      Exactly! If you are going to try to save money by using saris fabric used saris that look like you’re trying to copy! Or instead of cutting up a sari for Elizabethan trim, go to India and hire the people who are still doing goldwork embroidery the traditional way and have them make you proper trim.

      Reply
    • Trystan L. Bass

      Yep, if a designer has a more period eye & chooses better quality Indian fabrics, it can totally work! Like ‘Anonymous’ above, I can tell it’s Indian trim, but just barely & it still works for 16th-century. Unlike all the cheap shiny glitter stuff used in ‘The Tudors.’

      I had an amazing experience visiting Varanasi silk weavers many years ago, & oh yes, they make some stunning high-quality fabrics! Totally different than so much of the junky imports we tend to get in the U.S.

      Reply
  5. Kate D

    Even when the costume designer has a small budget and has to take some shortcuts, I appreciate when they try… Like the theater costuming tricks of the historical flicks from the 1970s where they used glue dots in place of pearls and tried to match the look to a portrait from the era. Or like Sandy Powell’s cost saving tricks on The Favorite, using denim for the servants and laser-cut vinyl instead of lace.

    I don’t always catch sari fabrics onscreen, and some I don’t mind much, like the trims you show on the screencaps from Anonymous. Those seem to be done with restraint in an outfit that’s generally aiming for historical. Even if I didn’t know that sari fabric was used, seeing the front panels of the dresses in The Spanish Process and The Virgin Queen, my only reaction is, what the frock…?

    That veil in Borgias made me laugh. Looks like someone would try to get past Props & Atmosphere at my medieval LARP.

    Reply
  6. Katlin

    I usually notice it’s off but I didn’t realise it was Indian fabric and how often it’s used. Wow.

    Reply
  7. Kelly

    The BBC Much Ado About Nothing from 1984 (Cherie Lunghi and Robert Lindsay as Beatrice and Benedick) is pretty well entirely costumed in sari fabric, some of which was embroidered in India for the production (Hero’s cream dress w/blue gillyflowers is especially charming). They are gorgeously colorful and they move beautifully in the dance numbers–I’m particularly fond of a black and white number on an unnamed extra.

    Reply
  8. Saraquill

    My stash is too big to consider sari shopping, and I don’t want to sacrifice the saris I already have. The sentimental value is too strong.

    On the other hand, I’m in dire need of new cholis.

    Reply
  9. Frannie Germeshausen

    Two things: I know I’ve done it – my Last Night on the Titanic Dinner dress (GBACG, 2012) was made with a sari, but being pale seafoam green it didn’t scream SARI. Second: I spell it shit-ton.

    Reply
  10. Aleko

    Anyone here have or know the Kyoto Costume Institute’s lovely book of their exhibition “Revolution in Fashion 1715-1815”? There’s a blue-and silver c.1795 gown illustrated in it, pictured here on the right: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/118078821465122904/ (you won’t find it in the KCI archives, it was a loan from a private collection). It has silver stripes and dots woven through the blue silk gauze sari fabric, and borders of silvered shells stitched on.

    A lovely thing, but it caused one of the most wrong-headed of the professional makers of costumes for the British Napoleonic reenactment movement to run around showing it to prospective clients and saying excitedly ‘Look! Sari fabric is authentic for the period! Why not have me make you a ballgown out of this lovely emerald green sari with gold lurex trim?’ And of course no amount of boring old me grumping along behind, shouting ‘Read the words, dammit! It was made for the wife of the Chief Justice of CALCUTTA! SHE WAS LIVING IN INDIA! IT WAS MADE THERE! OF COURSE SHE WORE INDIAN FABRICS & TRIMS! That doesn’t mean that they were commonplace in Britain!’ made the slightest difference, and a rash of gowns made out of cheap lurex-trimmed saris in violent shades of green and orange broke out among the female contingent of the NA.

    Reply
    • Trystan L. Bass

      That’s exactly what I’m talking about — there were times & places in history when specific types of Indian fabrics were used in European fashions. But it wasn’t random!

      Reply
  11. Daphne

    The purple dress worn by Katheryn Howard in The Tudors IS actually a recycled dress from Dangerous Beauty…. so there you go.

    Reply

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