Sarah Fee, Senior Curator, Global Fashion & Textiles (Asia and Africa), Royal Ontario Museum

It may be forgotten today, but long before blue jeans, much of the world dressed in indigo-dyed cloth.


There is beauty not only in the making of indigo dyes, but also in dressing the body in deep blue. Dyes derived from indigo-bearing plants have been applied directly on the body, from permanent tattooing to ephemeral black “henna” for the hands, to dyeing the hair. In Yemen, men might lather the body with a mixture of indigo and sesame oil, until, in the words of an observer, “they shone like blue metal.” The aim could be aesthetic, or to absorb the perceived medicinal and protective properties of the plant. Across millennia in many parts of Asia and Africa, including ancient Nubia and Egypt, blue was the dress of elites. In the 19th century, a vast swath of ordinary people wore blue cottons of an astonishing variety: from the white-and-blue kimono of rural Japan, to the skirts and tunics of hill tribes of mainland southeast Asia, to the  deep blue robes of Palestinian brides, to the work dress of Slovak peasant women and French workmen, to Mayan women’s skirts, to East and West Africa where much of the population dressed in striped or solid blue, among them the Tuareg  “blue men” of the Sahara in their 60 foot-veils.

And while much of this global blue fashion was made locally, a large part of it was imported from India.


Arguably the most vibrant colors­­­, the most skilled dyers, and the most exuberant patterns originate in the Indian Subcontinent. The most potent of the indigo-bearing plants, Indigofera tinctoria, is indigenous to South Asia, with several other Indigofera spp. varieties available besides. Ancient texts and medieval archaeological finds attest to deep shades and nuanced patterns – including 6th-century fragments of indigo-dyed Indian textiles found in the Nile valley, and a 12th-century trousseau list of an Indian bride resident in Cairo mentioning 6 different shades of blue. 


Jyoti’s contemporary wearable art works remind us that the global desires for India’s cotton cloth and potent dyes, the millions of yards of printed cottons that shipped to other parts of Asia, to Africa, Europe, and the Americas, were mainly consumed as dress. Indian printers and dyers customized color and design to serve an amazing variety of clothing forms, including majestic wrappers in the courts of Java and Sumatra, and a variety of stitched silhouettes for Iran, Europe, the Americas, and beyond.


Her new kaftan series carries forward the themes of the show, encoding in palette and pattern the brutalities and tragedies that lie behind the beautiful fabrics and fashions: European ships, spheres to represent the globe and wheels of time, the color red speaking to imperial flags and to the bloody consequences for the Black and Brown bodies that birthed the cotton and the dyes for western capitalist commerce. Her choice of the kaftan cut intentionally speaks to further east-west fashion entanglements, namely the spread of the kaftan out of West Asia to become a global fashion worn around the world.


At the same time, the kaftans and her earlier 2016 structured indigo jackets — made of the khadi cloth intrinsic to liberation, inflected with the embroidery and mirror-work of her beloved Gujarat — also speak to resilience, hope and futurisms. Despite the historic traumas and disruptions, and thanks to the craft activism of Mohandas Gandhi and many others, India’s textile skills, knowledge and artistry endured. With her modern bold geometries and inventive re-combinations of heritage ajrakh motifs, and boxy, roomy silhouettes, Jyoti and her artisan collaborators such as Juned Khatri prove in a blaze of color how heritage textile arts and motifs can be made fashionable for contemporary life and capture the imaginations of the growing numbers of people around the world seeking low-waste cuts and sustainable colors and fibers.