New book explores the story of India’s richly coloured textiles, ahead of the ROM’s original exhibition of costumes and pieces hidden away for over 50 years.
Cloth that Changed the World: The Art and Fashion of Indian Chintz is a collection of essays about the influence that printed and painted cotton cloth has had on the world, from its origins 5,000 years ago to its current place in fashion and home decor.
The book combines vivid field photography of artisans at work with striking images and illustrations from the Royal Ontario Museum’s (ROM) collection as well as from India’s fashion runways and the work of top designers embracing heritage textile in modern times.
“The world would be a drab place without India,” says Sarah Fee, associate professor at the University of Toronto’s Department of Art and the book’s editor.
Many of the techniques used to create colours and prints were developed centuries ago. “Our blue jeans and printed T-shirts trace much of their lineage back to the ingenuity of India’s cotton printers and dyers,” says Fee.
The book explores the resiliency of the art of print and dye-making in the face of modern industrial imitation and shares stories of the revival of natural dyes and hand skills in India today.
The book will come to life as an exhibition, Cloth that Changed the World: India’s Painted and Printed Cottons, in April 2020 in celebration of India’s role in clothing the world in exuberantly coloured cottons for thousands of years. Costumes and other pieces from the ROM collection that will be on display have been hidden away in its archives and haven’t been seen for over 50 years.
As the senior curator of fashion and textiles from Europe, Africa and Asia at the ROM, Fee will be the show’s curator. With a PhD from the Institut National des Langues et Civilisations Orientales and a master’s degree in anthropology from Oxford University, she is responsible for the museum’s 15,000-piece textile-related collection.
The show will look at the adaptation of chintz for international markets and the environmental impact of the global textile industry over time but its focus will be on clothing and home furnishings. The exhibition will feature 80 objects spanning 10 centuries and four continents and will consist of religious and court banners for India, monumental gilded wall hangings for elite homes in Europe and Thailand, and luxury women’s dress for England.
Fee also contributed to the stories in the book along with 18 of her colleagues; professors and historians. Cloth that Changed the World: The Art and Fashion of Indian Chintz, published by the ROM and Yale University Press, will be available on December 2 in the museum’s store.