The Pearl of India
Princess Karam of Kapurthala, the glamorous Maharanee who took Paris by storm in the 1930s and inspired a Schiaparelli collection based on the sari.
by David Wolfe
One of the most publicized beauties of the 20thCentury, known as the loveliest woman in India and admired as a high fashion icon, is virtually forgotten today. But in the 1930s she was the toast of Europe, photographed frequently by Cecil Beaton, pictured in "Vogue" and declared one of the world's five best-dressed women.
Only 14 years old when she arrived in Paris, the beautiful young princess had already been married for a year to the son of the reigning maharajah of Kapurthala, a Sikh state. Her father-in-law was a dedicated Francophile and had turned his kingdom near Kashmir into a delightful stage-like facsimile of France.
Dark and slender, dripping with extravagant jewels, the young woman entranced high society and became a rage. Her every outfit was breathlessly reported in the press, her party-going was a matter of great interest and her immense wealth was envied by a world suffering the Great Depression. Even though she usually wore couture creations by the most famous designers in Paris, Princess Karam's traditional Indian saris inspired the 1935 collection by Elsa Schiaparelli who was then the most sensational talent in fashion. The designer was famous for her wit and her connection to the cultural scene. She created slender evening gowns and coats that spiraled around the body and were worn with scarves call ihramsthat either draped over the head or as loose shoulder panels. Although many designers since have been inspired to interpret the sari into contemporary fashions, they usually travelled to India for their ideas. Only Schiaparelli was lucky enough to have the woman who was known as "The Pearl of India" come to her.
The global turmoil of World War II ended the giddy reign of Café Society and the Princess returned to India, had two children and lived a long life out of the limelight until her death in 2002. So significant was her place in the pop culture of the time that the "Ziegfeld Follies of 1936" featured a production number that glorified the glamorous Maharanee. Ira Gershwin's lyrics capture her effect.
Even if you were just half as sweet,
It would still be like heav'n to meet
Such a gay Mahranee...
Paris is at your feet!