Inside The Opulent & Ornate World Of Indian Wedding Fashion
Papa Don’t Preach’s Shubhika Sharma on designing her sister’s intricate bridal looks.
Shubhika Sharma’s Mumbai-based label Papa Don’t Preach by Shubhika does it all — bespoke wedding wear, flashy party clothes, shoes, jewelry. Her offerings are varied but the line’s vivacious spirit is the thorough line, as seen in its many bright colors, intricate embellishments and bold patterns. It’s a house style that demands all eyes, which is what makes it so ideal for brides on their big day. Sharma has designed for, in her words, “probably a zillion” of them since founding her brand in 2010. But a project from a certain VIP client this past wedding season (which is November through February in India) holds a special place in her heart. Yes, for her sister’s nuptials, Sharma designed the entire wardrobe for the event.
Indian weddings are serious business. I have a general sense of the expenses and the fanfare associated with them, but Sharma, an expert, runs me through all the typical ceremonies and traditions practiced in the three-to-four-day-long festivities over coffee in midtown Manhattan. She’s in the area for an event showcasing her latest jewelry collaboration, following a speaking engagement she had at Harvard, and though it’s clear that she’s super busy I end up stealing about two hours of her time because there’s just that much ground to cover.
“It’s the only time in most peoples’ lives that they’re going to be like celebrities,” Sharma explains. “Especially in India, in the six months or one year run up to it, you are treated as royalty. I don’t think most people get that in their lives, so that is special. And I think that is why weddings also end up putting a lot of pressure on the brides.” Designing for family is an extra bit of pressure, of course. Sharma jokes that she had yet to successfully design for a family member, as her ornate garments hang too heavy for her mother’s liking.
As it happens, her sister (who requested her and the groom’s names be withheld to maintain privacy) proved to be a much more “chill” client than others. That said, it’s tough to fully avoid all the typical stressors working against women as they plan their big day. The designer runs through the common anxieties around fitting into dresses and looking like a princess, but that pressure is magnified when the attendance is less of a gathering and more of a parade, as it often is for Indian couples. Weddings under 250 are small, intimate affairs. “For us, the people we invite for weddings are like 1,000, 2,000, sometimes 10,000 for bigger weddings,” she says. “You’re literally standing on the stage and there are 10,000 people coming in. Two hundred and fifty for us is like a microscopic wedding.”
The cost of a wedding — something families save up their entire lives for — and the pressures on everyone to make the ceremony an absolutely flawless, cinematic production kind of wear Sharma down. For a designer who is heavily invested in bridal wear, she’s a little bit jaded about the whole marriage thing.
“I feel like I'm somebody who doesn't really believe in marriage,” she says. “I live in a lot of contradictions and sort of find my way back to things. That is my design process, actually.”
Case in point: When Sharma’s sister got engaged and the time came to start chipping away at the behemoth stone that is planning an Indian wedding, Sharma shrugged off the idea of designing for her. “I told her to first go look at any other designers,” she recalls. “I literally made her do the rounds for two, three months. I sent her to other cities.” After searching high and low, it only became more clear that Sharma would have to be the mind behind her sister’s wedding looks. But by then, it was a little later in the timeline. She officially began to craft the multiple outfits needed for the January nuptials in November. (For reference, I’m planning my own July wedding and horrified the salespeople at several NYC bridal salons by shopping for my singular white dress a mere eight months prior.)
In storyboarding out her vision, Sharma wanted to create a sense of transformation over the several days of festivities. She’d start out with a fresh, “girlier” vibe and build up the drama over several events/outfits to make sure the final look felt the most momentous. The bride agreed: She wanted the color palettes and silhouettes to go from lighter and more playful to majestic over the course of the ceremonies.
The first outfit Sharma designed was for the Mehendi ceremony. “There's a lot of dancing, a lot of fun,” Sharma says of the Mehendi, a ritual in which henna is applied to the bride’s hands and feet. The groom’s name is hidden in the intricate designs. For her outfit, she wanted something easy-breezy. The ceremony is often held outside, and slightly more casual than the rest of the events — an occasion that called for flats instead of heels. For this, she created a two piece set: a butterfly top with cap sleeves and flowy pants.
“The family kind of sits around, we play a lot of music. It's usually the older women of the family,” Sharma explains. “We sing the songs, it's a very fun session where you're pulling the boy’s leg and kind of saying, ‘Oh my god, you're so useless. You're taking our princess!’ So that's how the bride kind of starts getting ready for it.”
The pale pink top is the product of a couple weeks’ worth of dedicated focus, all hands on deck. “This takes about 15 days to just embroider,” Sharma says. “There are about 20 to 25 steps in making one garment when you’re doing hand embroidery. So overall, it takes about a month for one outfit to be fully ready, if you want to do it well.”
There’s a genuine reverence in Sharma’s voice when she discusses the importance of the artisans that bring her work to life. Karigars, as they are called, are what keep her business running. In India’s garment industry (as in many worldwide), they’re often underpaid, disrespected, and the first to be let go. But the designer recognizes how crucial the karigars’ talent is to the brand, so much so in fact that their names are printed on the labels of her clothing. Each piece informs the wearer of who to thank for the handiwork with “embroidered by:” and “tailored by:” credits. Sharma fears their skills are in danger of being lost over generations and hopes to build a program that teaches courses like math and language as well as the crucial artisan craftwork. “It is an art that will die because they don't want to put their kids in it, they say that there's no dignity,” she says. “What they are asking for is basic. So I want to start a school where I can give them classes on math and the language but also these hand embroidery skills, so that tomorrow even if they [think] ‘OK I don't want to do hand embroidery [professionally],’ at least the skill has been taught.”
Artisanal handiwork was of the utmost importance for the bride’s Sangeet look. Sangeet is an event usually held a day or two before the wedding with both the bride and groom’s families and is characterized by singing and choreographed dances. Sharma sets the scene: “[Sangeet is] like a whole dance event. Usually you narrate the story of how the boy and the girl met through dance and music — as you know, Bollywood or Indian cinema is a lot of music and song and dance. It's a very important form of communication for us; our films have, like, five or seven songs every film and it's not even called a musical, it’s just a regular film!”
“Ornate” would be an understatement for the bride’s Sangeet look: an indigo two piece skirt set heavily adorned with gold jewels and aqua beading. And a second skirt was an absolute must, to accommodate for the dance the bride performs at the ceremony.
“She wanted a very ‘red carpet’ moment,” Sharma says, describing the fitted, decadently adorned skirt for the less active part of the event. For the dance itself, a shorter, looser version was created that allowed for free movement and a clear view of the swirling tapestries of henna carefully applied to her feet at the Mehendi.
“We were looking at more Hollywood glam,” Sharma says of the vision for her sister’s Sangeet. “Because Sangeet is where you can do a whole cocktail look — but still has to be Indian, so we used a lot of gold on it.”
As elaborate as the bride’s Sangeet outfits were, the most time-consuming piece was actually the groom’s look. His baby blue jacket with silver embellishments complement the bride’s royal blue top and lehenga with gold detailing. Romantic that he is, the groom had his bride’s name embroidered into the piece. Until the wedding, Sharma wasn’t completely certain that her male clientele would be as interested in the kind of high-drama sequins, beading, and embroidery she favors for wedding looks. But her sister’s husband-to-be was all for it. “He was a really cool, brave one,” Sharma says. “He completely trusted me.” The looks turned out so wonderfully she was inspired to expand her line to include menswear offerings.
“This is the first time we launched menswear,” Sharma says. “We used to get a lot of requests, but I was like, ‘I don't know if men would actually wear something so embroidered.’ But they were like, ‘Yes, we will!’”
She also designed the groom’s jacket for the Phera, the most major ceremony. It’s a ritual in the tradition of Hindu wedding ceremonies where the couple takes seven vows and walks circles around a fire to represent the seven promises they make to each other. The practice is seen as a sacred binding ritual, sealing the couple’s marriage.
Workshopping his Phera look with Sharma, the groom aimed to capture the essence of his partner in a garment. “She uses a really pretty pink flower next to her name on Instagram,” Sharma says. “And he was like, ‘For me, that’s her.’ He is so cheesy!” She translated his association into a floral motif for the jacket, beading pink blooms along the top of the shoulders and chest.
And while the piece is an absolute work of art, all eyes were on the bride as she made her dramatic entrance: “She actually recorded a song, so as she came down, she was singing!”
Sharma beams with pride as she talks about her sister and her vision for the Phera look. “Her story is beautiful,” Sharma says lovingly. “So as you see, she's bigger than [many] Indians are. She was so comfortable in her body and she was like, ‘Take my neckline lower. Make it sexy. Make it nice.’ And to me, that's very rare for Indians to do that.”
In Sharma’s experience, that level of confidence is not the standard for brides who aren’t slight and petite. She mentions that some of the practices around garment making for taller or curvier brides in India seem constructed to shame them for their bodies: “The reason I'm emphasizing that she's not your typical size of a bride is because in India, there's something called a fat tax; I don't know if it's a common term here,” Sharma explains. “A lot of the luxury brands or just like bridal brands charge a higher percentage on making bigger sized clothing because they say that's like more embroidery more handwork, [etc]. I feel like Indian designers need to take responsibility for calling themselves luxury. I mean, the least you can offer a person is to just make the clothing fit without charging them [extra].”
Sharma is not in the business of charging her customers an additional fee to insult their bodies. She doesn’t traffic in fat taxes; in fact, she doesn’t care much for size labels at all. In addition to featuring the names of her karigars, Papa Don’t Preach tags don’t print size labels. They simply read “SIZE: DOESN’T MATTER.”
The designer is comfortable bulldozing norms that serve no one. As was her sister: For the Phera ceremony, brides tend to wear all gold, or all red. It’s so established that Sharma (who has made clothes for a zillion brides) rarely makes garments for the ceremony. “A lot of people wear me for the Mehendi because I’m very colorful,” she says. “So I will say that she is officially the first bride who’s worn me on all the events, even on the Phera.”
Her family is Punjabi, hailing from the north of India. Sharma muses that perhaps their cultural roots make them a bit more willing to aim for something colorful and different.
“Up north, we are just so colorful, you walk down the roads and there’s color everywhere,” she says. “It’s in my blood. As [artist and activist] Alok Menon really beautifully puts it, Punjabis were the original drag queens of India.”
When Sharma says that she doesn’t totally buy the concept of marriage, it certainly seems like she’s telling the truth. But as she regales me with stories of the cultural traditions that unite two people and bring together hundreds (or thousands) of loved ones just to cheer them on, it seems like she might still be a bit of a believer.
Perhaps a truly perfect ceremony, one which stars someone who means everything to you, where the couple truly seems to belong together, and one for which so many have worked tirelessly to ensure that the bride and groom are the picture of royalty on a day they will forever look back on with joy, is enough to restore a bit of faith in the institution?
“In the run up to it, I was uncomfortable really,” Sharma admits. “But when I actually saw them together and I worked with both of them on the clothing, and I reconnected to a little bit of what it actually means to be true partners. And my jadedness kind of disappeared.”