A Net of Pearls

At the time of Rhea Kapoor’s August 2021 wedding, I was struck by her pearl net veil, surely the standout feature of the ensemble. Back then I also did a mini poll on the veil with a few folk and the overwhelming response, bar one, was that they didn’t like it. Perhaps it was the newness of it or perhaps it felt too gimmicky for most folk.

As it happened, I never got around to doing a post on it and wasn’t sure if it needs one now, given the short life of celebrity events:). Nevertheless, since it seems to be still rattling around in my head somewhere, here is the post. It’s not entirely a “historical precedents to the veil” kind of post, perhaps more like rummaging through the myriad thoughts and associations brought about by looking at an ornament or dress. And then turning it to somewhat coherent prose. So here goes!


The lines above in the first screenshot (source) are the last of the Purva Megha of Kalidasa and as in much of his poetry draw a parallel between the natural world (in this case the rain clouds poised over the city of Alakapuri) and an ornament, here the net of pearls aka muktajala over a woman’s hair. Here Kalidasa suggests that the rain clouds look like a pearl net over the city, suggesting that such an ornament was in use and familiar to his audience.

Generally, around the time of Kalidasa, woven hair nets (jalika) with pearls (muktajala) or gems (ratnajala) were used to decorate the hair as well as keep it in place. There is reference to sculptures at Bharhut, as well as Ajanta murals, having women wearing such hair nets but I couldn’t locate a picture that unambiguously showed a net. Suffice it to say that head coverings/veil, be it silk cloth (like Shakuntala’s in the Kalidasa play) or one with gemstones are quite extensively described in Indian literature. There is some degree of ambiguity, however – it could be that the net lies over the hair or pearls are interwoven through the hair to form a net.

The hair net is of course not particular to Indian attire. In Renaissance paintings, for example, subjects often wear hairnets, veils and snoods. Pearls, gemstones or just metal threads were used to form the nets. See for example, the painting of Eleanor de Toledo wearing a hair net (resilla) as well as a pearl net that forms a shoulder detail of her dress. The same detail is seen in another painting of Eleanor. Like in India, the ornaments serve both purposes, to keep the hair tidy as well as add visual appeal.

Source: 1, 2, 3. See also the Juliet cap.

Of these paintings, Ambrogio De Predis’ work (3) shows the net draped and fastened to the hair. But it remains a hair ornament and is by no means a veil.

As I mentioned earlier veils (or more correctly head coverings) are mentioned in old Indian texts. Where once it was the uttariya, serving a practical function of covering the upper part of the body or head as required, the use persisted even after the adoption of the modern saree. Thus even though the modern saree’s pallu is a good enough head covering, you often see brides wearing an extra piece of cloth primarily to veil the face or cover the head during ceremonies.

Head coverings appear quite extensively in miniature paintings. More often than not it is a fine translucent fabric as in the pic below, intended to display the head jewellery as well as the base garments. And that aesthetic has persisted to this day, making this the conventional covering or veil or dupatta.

In the late 19th to early 20th century however, the head covering enjoyed a brief spell as a fashion accessory. That required a bit of a twist, thus the European inspired head covering, often of fine lace. It looks much like a mantilla and I had covered this in an earlier post. Here you can see it on Suniti Devi of Cooch Behar.

Coming back to Rhea’s veil, the most obvious comparison is the bridal veil in western fashion which often incorporates pearls. However the pearl net here draws entirely on a timeless gem and then uses it in a way that has several cultural nods, thus making it its own thing. Of course as Rhea is a celebrity it was much reported on, but other takes on the veil are also around – example floral ones that seem fairly popular (this pic via wedmegood, pic by Aviraj Saluja). .

In liking the pearl veil I might be in a minority. I think I was drawn to it because it reminded me of the above quoted lines from Meghdoot. Much of Sanskrit poetry in fact evokes the movement of jewellery and the comparison of pearls with water drops is also common. So if one is fanciful, this veil goes beyond the confines of the cloud and net in the poem as well as the renaissance snood. It is a cascade akin to rain drops and it does not as much contain the hair as flows with it.

To end, like with art, any costume is imbued with the tastes, history, stage of life and the like of the creator and wearer. In turn, the viewer or observer brings her own views and interpretations to it. This is mine, no doubt others may have different views or be able to elaborate more on jewelled veils.

About Anu M

A potted history of Indian clothing and fashion.
This entry was posted in 1900s, 19th century, Accessories, Ancient India, Costume, Early 20th Century, fashion, gems, Indian Aesthetics, Indian Bride, Indian fashion, Indian Women, Jewellery, Late 19th century, Vintage and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to A Net of Pearls

  1. Thank you for another interesting post! Those hairnets are quite pretty in themselves, and real pearls are actually much lighter than gemstones so hopefully they aren’t uncomfortable to wear, but there is a kind of old-fashioned thing about them … it reminds me of those nets my granny used to wear in bed to avoid getting up with her hair in a mess…

    • Anu M says:

      Thank you! Yes and I think the hairnets your Granny wore were quite lightweight too as they were made of synthetic fabric. They used to be used a lot in India too when hair buns were fashionable.

  2. Arsalan Khan says:

    Hello, I wanted to tell you that I appreciate your effort in fashion history, I understand it’s rather challenging to research given not many people write about it, nor we have a decent book on South Asian fashion history. Still, hopefully, we will have it, one day. Your website is one of many resources I used for my projects, especially ‘South Asian Princesses’. So I thank you for it.

    P.S. you can check out my works on Instagram, ArsalanActual

    • Anu M says:

      Thanks you for the kind words! There are some good books but they are usually reasearch books and largely text. I visited your instagram site – excellent work!

  3. Yaamini A says:

    Hi . I really enjoy reading your posts, very interesting blog. I am Yaamini, a PhD scholar from Srishti Manipal Institute and I am doing research on Women’s work wear. It would be a great value to my research to have a conversation with you. Can I connect with you for a research interview? Thank you.

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