18/07/2016 4:55 PM IST | Updated 18/07/2016 5:04 PM IST

How Indian Style Set European Scarves Aflutter

Miniya Chatterji

Cats sell. Elbowing my way through the crowd of Paris fashion week attendees on Rue François-1er last month, I stopped at the sight of wild cats on Hermès's show window.

Inside the store, a new Dallet scarf of a leopard lunging in the grass was on display. There were cats on cashmere, silk shawls and tote bags on the shelves. There was also plenty of equatorial fauna, including monkeys, parrots and more wild cats illustrated by naturalist artist Robert Dallet on the Hermès 90cm square thick silk twills that melt around the neck.

Miniya Chatterji

It does not even have to be so fancy. Just take an inexpensive dress, grey shoes, a classic bag and a wonderful scarf -- and it will always be elegant.

French women have the genes to knot them right, the Italians wear theirs with easy panache. Christians have worn wimples, Jewish women wear a tichel, and Muslim women a hijab. Scarves were worn by the Chinese and Egyptians even in 1000 BC. And in 10 AD the Romans too began to knot a kerchief around their neck. By the 17th century, Croatian mercenaries wore scarves to signify rank, and the French wore their 'cravates' -- derived from the Croatian word kravata -- in colours that showed off their political allegiance.

Elsa Schiaparelli... created in 1935 designs referencing the sari for evening gowns. These gowns were wrapped gracefully around the body and were worn with scarves.

From serving rank and politics all over the world, scarves shot to stardom when none other than Napoleon Bonaparte sent cashmere scarves, sourced from India, by the dozen to his empress Josephine. Beethoven too wooed his lady Therese Malfatti by wearing fashionable silk neck scarves matched to his suits. Queen Victoria loved wearing them as well and she set the humble scarf up to be an icon of femininity and sophistication.

Miniya Chatterji

In 1837 the Hermès luxury silk scarf was created -- those were the halcyon days of the scarf. At least three generations of the Hermès family have loved to travel extensively, and their scarves have reflected this passion in their iconic marine designs and artwork that the family commissioned to artists in India and other countries around the world.

Scarves became more affordable with the invention of rayon as a staple fibre in the 1920s. Pieces of cloth churned out of a machine with a thousand just like it! Ladies wore them "touring" style over their heads, mimicking the chic glamour of Grace Kelly, Elizabeth Taylor, and Audrey Hepburn whose scarves fluttered ever so prettily in the warm Riviera breeze, on the silver screen.

Indian-style drapes and motifs have been a major influence on European scarves, even though this love was not returned.

In the 1930s, many French couturiers such as Grès and Rochas began to be profoundly influenced by the Indian style of draping unstitched cloth, in part because of the international fashion expositions that took place at that time in Europe.

Elsa Schiaparelli, Italian by origin and education and who lived and worked in Paris, drew on her memories of the young Indian princess Karam of Kapurthala whom she had met during one such exposition. She created in 1935 designs referencing the sari for evening gowns. These gowns were wrapped gracefully around the body and were worn with scarves. The designs of these scarves were inspired by India too, and were worn either draped over the head or formed loose shoulder panels.

Miniya Chatterji

Later, designers such as Versace incorporated Indian-style drapes into their collections of kurta-like pant suits and scarves with Indian motifs.

Next door to the Hermès store, the lady from Goosens Jewellery stood outside on the pavement taking a smoke. "Our current collection is inspired from India... Come inside take a look?" she invited.

Even though the sari, dupatta drapes, as well as Indian designs and motifs continue to inspire European design, in India the European-style short scarf never took off. I politely declined the lady's invitation, making a mental note to myself, that besides the fashion ramp, it would be hard to spot a scarf wrapped demurely around the head Hepburn style in New Delhi.

Perhaps the flight of scarves was shot down too soon, much before India had even opened its door for the world to enter.

The combination of student protests, contraceptives and second-wave feminism in most parts of US and Europe during the 1960s and 1970s had thrown gendered roles of society and fashion in to the gutter. Young women could now choose when to be mothers, who to have sex with and how to express themselves. They rebelled against traditional clothing styles. The hemlines of skirts were raised. Tights replaced nylon stockings. During these times there was even a disastrous attempt to reinvent the scarf as a belt or tied around the torso as a bandeau top.

Only Elsa Schiaparelli's wild and blazing scarf prints battled on.