Dressing up the era

Instagram launched in India in 2010, but had it been around three years earlier I imagine most people’s timelines would have been choked with pictures of women attempting variations of Geet’s look from the filmJab We Met.

Back in 2007, the film had become an overnight success and then transmuted into a cultural phenomenon on the back of its fashion. In particular, the long white tee and patiala salwar combination that Geet wore during the first half of the film reimagined a language of comfort for Indian women that merged style with tradition. “There is ultimately no question that films impact the way many Indian women dress,” observes fashion journalist Sujata Assomull in the introduction to her book100 Iconic Bollywood Costumes, a meticulously illustrated coffee-table tome that charts the evolution of costumes worn by women in Hindi cinema over the last six decades. The seamless transition of the Jab We Met look from the big screen to the wardrobes of countless women echoes Assomull’s argument — a testament to how a film creates fashion trends that outlive its own life cycle.

Not just fabric

Hindi cinema and fashion have a symbiotic relationship — they replenish each other, they define and are defined by each other. In that sense, the book (with wonderful illustrations by Aparna Ram) acts primarily as a repository of how these two facets of visual storytelling went from a state of co-existence to co-dependence. Each of the looks that Assomull and Ram painstakingly document in 100 Iconic Bollywood Costumes is an estimation of how the Hindi film industry has adopted and embraced fashion as a fabric of its own.

The book opens with Mehboob Khan’s Aan (1952), Hindi cinema’s first Technicolor film, also the highest grossing outing of the year. Even though three costume designers (Fazal Din, Chagan Jivan, and Alla Datta) are credited in the film, Assomull describes this period as “pre-costume designer days”, adding that the female lead, Nadira, was heavily involved in deciding all her looks in the film.

If Aan rendered a picture of costume design that was yet to get a grip on itself, existing as an extension of an actress’s commitment to a film, then Veere Di Wedding (2018) — the book’s last entry — depicts it as a beast of its own making. Here, the roles are clearly demarcated: Stylist Rhea Kapoor, who also produced the film, brought on board fashion designers Abu Jani-Sandeep Khosla to create distinctive, customised outfits for its four leading ladies. The film’s fashion, replete with intricate lehengas, plus-size bikinis, high-street brands and fusion trends (a lehenga is paired with a bikini top-style blouse) is a response to its times. It is fuelled by pleas of inclusivity in fashion and caters to the country’s collective obsession with mining designer ethnic wear as social media artefacts. In many ways, the film — a stark contrast to Aan — encapsulates the post-costume designer days of Bollywood, where fashion isn’t merely a look. Instead, it is a vision; an aspiration as well as a statement.

Conservatism and costume design

The book is not just an itemised time-machine of aesthetics — styles and designs — that dominated eras gone by. The litany of costumes that it spotlights, right from Madhubala’s anarkali dress in Mughal-e-Azam and Zeenat Aman’s pink kurta and long skirt in Satyam Shivam Sundaram (1971) to Madhuri’s Dixit’s knee-length orange ghagra and backless choli in Khalnayak(1993) and Aishwarya Rai’s turquoise blue one-piece swimsuit layered with a white mini-skirt in Dhoom 2(2006), holds clues to something more significant. By training their gaze only on the costumes designed for women, Assomull and Ram examine clothes as a device to establish a relationship between the prevailing degree of conservatism in Indian society and the varied ways clothes have been employed to police women’s bodies. Each of these outfits, over six decades, depicts both the limitations imposed on female modesty and the creative shortcuts adopted by designers to sneakily bypass them.

The ’60s, for instance, took to trending sleeveless garments. In these outfits, the focus was on a woman’s bare arms, which invariably became sensualised on account of being left exposed. Vyjayanthimala’s white-and-red Bengali-style sari in Sangam (1964) was teamed with a white sleeveless blouse; Helen’s cabaret costume in Teesri Manzil (1966) was a sleeveless red floor-length Spanish dress; the pairing for Mumtaz’s orange zip sari in Brahmachari (1968) was a sleeveless blouse as well.

However, there were also instances where designers had to work around women internalising the unspoken societal dictum that equated showing skin with questionable moral integrity. In Guide (1965), the bandeau blouse that costume designer Bhanu Athaiya designed for Waheeda Rehman’s Amrapali costume (a two-piece outfit comprising a dhoti drape and a strapless bustier) is actually a deception: It is a blouse with an attached nude high neck and long sleeves, stitched in place, to placate Rehman’s discomfort about exposing her arms. In essence, it was a garment that wasn’t designed as much as it was Indianised to suit the culturally specific demand of maintaining modesty.

Similar shortcuts were adopted by costume designer Mani Rabadi in An Evening In Paris(1967), where Sharmila Tagore wore a one-piece swimsuit instead of a two-piece bikini so as to not rile the Censor Board. Helen’s red cabaret costume in Jewel Thief (1967) comes across as a skimpy strapless bustier one-piece at first glance, when it is, in fact, a sleeveless outfit that came with a nude chest covering. The actor also wore stockings underneath it to conceal her legs. This adherence to moral boundaries is at the heart of the examination of fashion in 100 Iconic Bollywood Costumes, and Assomull and Ram pave the way to interrogate the purpose, limits, and implications of clothing in Hindi cinema. It is the fashion of this decade that wholeheartedly served — and heralded — Indian costume design that thrived on giving off the illusion of revealing skin while covering every part of it.

No longer bound by prudishness

As the book posits, the decade that followed was comparatively reckless and eschewed conservatism. The fashion of the ’70s embodied an inimitable mix of flamboyance and free-spiritedness that was equal parts rebellious and inventive. There was an emphasis on a display of legs in most films — think Saira Banu’s red mini dress in Purab Aur Paschim (1970) or Helen’s white skirt with thigh slits in Don (1978). Outfits with cuts that bared arms and the midriff were fair game too: Parveen Babi’s strapless red dress in Amar Akbar Anthony (1977) and Dimple Kapadia’s tie-up blouse and buttoned miniskirt look in Bobby (1973), which was the precursor to the modern crop top. This attempt to normalise the female body culminated in the defining fashion moment of the ’70s, one that exploited the ideals of female modesty to titillate.

In Satyam Shivam Sundaram (1978), Zeenat Aman is wrapped in a knee-length white cotton sari, whose flimsiness outlines her curves in the scene where she is under a waterfall, highlighting what is now known as the “wet sari” look. It is perhaps the most economically erotic moment in Hindi cinema. Athaiya sneakily relied on water and the predictable transparency of just one piece of garment. The wet sari essentially shows a woman in a stage of undress without really undressing her at all.

It is this escalating intrepidness that underpinned the experiments that films in the ’80s and ’90s embodied in their fashion. The boundaries of Indian costume design no longer seemed to be dictated by prudishness: In Qurbani (1980), Zeenat Aman wore a red dress with side cut-outs and a thigh slit. Athaiya recreated the diaphanous wet sari look with Mandakini in Ram Teri Ganga Maili (1985); Madhuri Dixit and Malaika Arora donned backless cholis in Hum Aapke Hai Koun..! (1994) and Dil Se (1998) respectively. This relaxed atmosphere also meant a greater creative control for designers, who were at last envisioning clothes as catalysts for sexual awakening as well as female expression in Hindi cinema.

On women, by women, for women

In that sense, the turn of the decade seemed to almost be a blessing. Designers had the luxury of inventing style statements without being forced to subscribe to any traditionalist expectations. So they decided to offer their own spin on tradition itself.

The epochal outfits of this period — Kareena Kapoor’s sharara in Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (2001), Preity Zinta’s blue lehenga in Kal Ho Naa Ho (2003), Sushmita Sen’s red chiffon sari in Main Hoon Na, Aishwarya Rai’s lehenga-choli in Bunty Aur Babli (2005), Priyanka Chopra’s silver sari in Dostana (2008) — focused on making ethnic wear compatible with a flirtatious display of skin. The tables had turned: Designers were now intent on embracing drapes that highlighted a woman’s curves while giving off an illusion of covering it.

The women in Hindi cinema weren’t just wearing clothes. For perhaps the first time, they were also freely flaunting the bodies wearing them.

It’s natural progression then, to assume that the costumes worn by the women populating Hindi cinema today would be subject to no patriarchal obtrusions. But even as the necklines become longer and the hemlines shorter, Hindi film fashion is yet to completely break free of the shackles of its fraught history. On one hand, there is Deepika Padukone wearing a bikini blouse with a blue chiffon sari in Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani (2013). And on the other, the very existence of her bare midriff in an outfit made up of a ghagra, blouse and an odhna in Padmaavat (2017) incited violent protests. The need of the hour was once again a shortcut: Padukone’s midriff was digitally covered so as to not offend sentiments. Even six decades later, fashion remained obligated to uphold morality.

Yet, embedded in the layers of 100 Iconic Bollywood Costumes is also a silver lining. In highlighting the conservatism imprinted on the cuts of these 100 costumes, the book, by extension, charts generations of female labour. It acts as a reminder that even before costume design became structured enough to be a well-oiled machinery in the Hindi film industry, it was built on the silent contributions of women that saw actors, wives, and mothers designing looks for female leads.

By the time costume design managed to hold its own ground, Bollywood was teeming with female designers: Athaiya and Rabadi gave way to Neeta Lulla, who in turn ushered the current generation of stylists such as Maxima Basu, Anaita Shroff Adjania and Rhea Kapoor.

In a way, it’s perhaps poetic justice that the fashion in Hindi cinema largely found a way out of the trappings of the societal restrictions imposed on women’s bodies through the ingenuity of female ambition.Read more at:queeniebridesmaid | vintage bridesmaid dresses uk

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