Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
From the publishers of THE HINDU
REACHING OUT: April 08, 2001
Ajit Bhimsen Khatai
The writer is a fashion and crafts designer.
Clothing and lifestyle, the two visuals of fashion, existed in a fragile, unpredictable manner from the beginning of time. It changed with every season, dictated initially by individuals and later, by social, economical and political conditions. Gradual intermingling of cultures and the emergence of the global village concept has evolved a New World tribal community which overlaps each other. Is fashion inter-linked? If so, what are the factors that dictate fashion and make it such an enviable world to be associated with?
Fashion began the day Eve covered herself first with the fig leaf. Closer home, the Indian woman was as fashion conscious as her Western counterpart, since she had a richer heritage. She had not only draped fabrics around her but also made an attempt at tailoring a costume, when the West had just moved from fig leaves to animal skin.
Fashion history, which started from Eve's fig leaf couture, evolved to the Greek and Roman drapes as impersonal and generic clothing, which was followed by personal and national clothing in the 14th Century. Finally came a period which could be identified as impersonal and international clothing where habits crossed national boundaries. This phase of clothing still dictates fashion and the revolution has never been as visible as it has been in the 19th Century. The change goes on at an enormous pace. What could be an obvious reason for this transformation other than an impatience that overtook humankind - impatience for exploration of new lands and cultures; impatience for global interaction; and impatience to break free?
Indian fashion evolved through necessity. Inclined to spiritual existence, clothing evolved as a reaction to religion and climate. Hence, Indian fashion tended to become a cultural and tribal identity. The visible fashion revolution in India began during the British Raj. Men switched to suits and women, unable to sport Western dresses, styled their cholis to match the latest fashion line in the West. The beginning of fashion influences, which initiated then, has never ceased to influence Indian psychology.
In the 1900s, Charles Fredrick Worth, the father of fashion, dethroned the crinoline and liberated the Western woman. The 1920s, better known as the Roaring Twenties, associated with the Charleston era, brought in Eton - chopped hair style, while the cholis of the Indian counterpart took on the shimmering flash of the Charleston dresses - long sleeved in lace, satin, silk or cotton. Fashion in the 1930s defied the Wall Street Crash and the Great Depression. The Bonnie and Clyde look was in, though women were still bosom-less and bottomless. Hemlines again fell to mid calves or ankles and suits appeared with slightly flared appearance. While the World Wars were making an impact in Western fashion and "make do and mend" was the norm of clothing, in India, life remained unaltered.
The Independence Movement of India in the late 1940s ushered in some revolutionary changes on the fashion scene. Japanese georgette, chiffon and imported silks gave way to khadi and hand-woven South Indian silks. In the same year as India attained its independence, Christian Dior revealed to the Western world his "New Look" and the world of fashion was never the same.
By this time, the Indian counterpart of the Post Independence era, tired of imitating, forsook the modified Western style bandwagon. Deciding to be her own trendsetter, the attention turned to the blouse which became shorter. It was referred to as the choli and the Western style was replaced by the katori style borrowed from her rural sister. Ideas of clothes lasting and being repaired had now all but vanished in the West. Slightly damaged garments were consigned to rubbish bins, used alternatively, or sent to charity. This trend has only reached Indian society in perhaps the last one decade.
In the 1960s, the most sensational fashion discovery of all times hit the West - the mini. The skirt went an inch above the knee and then higher and higher till there was nothing left to the imagination. The Indian woman was not as daring, but the kameez did sneak up quite a few inches above the knee. This era also ushered in the age of synthetics. Nylon, with its creaseproof wash 'n' wear qualities, captured the Indian fancy. The heavily bordered sari gave way to printed nylons and polyesters. The sari sported a shortened pallav which got tossed nonchalantly over the shoulder.
The salwar kameez adapted to fashion changes in the West in terms of cut, length and hemlines. It was a long journey for this peasant attire from the fields of Punjab to the fashion capital of India, Bombay. As the salwar kameez took the fashion scene in India by storm, the choli took a back seat with sleeves just above the elbow and the styles less flamboyant. A slight innovation was the front knotted choli. The French chignon or roll became the rage in hairstyle. The salwar kameez with adaptation to western fashion ruled supreme till 1964, when the sari with its new look made a dramatic comeback - draped tightly around the body to accentuate every curve and worn slightly below the navel. The choli or blouse now revolted from its stodgy durable look and became sleeveless or with deepcut armhole. The sari was no longer a six yard cloth draping around the body - it was a seductive garment with limitless possibilities for the future. Sometimes, the top half was draped twice over to flaunt the border. The mini sari, draped above the knee however, failed to make a statement.
The salwars which had given way to the churidars could not get any tighter, so the Indian women replaced them with nylon stretch pants. The kurta by now had reached just below the hips - a la the micro mini! Other innovations that followed the churidar kurta were the lungi kurta and ghagra kameez. Sometimes the kurta was worn with bell-bottoms or denim pants. All these innovations that revolved around the kurta made it the most versatile garment of the 1960s and 1970s. By the end of the 1970s the salwar kameez and churidar kurta learnt to co-exist with variations. By the 1970s, the pant-suits became popular in the West and among the fashionable in India.
The high birth rate between 1945-1965 almost doubled the pre-war number of children throughout the world - the emergence of this new clientele of young people (less than 20 years of age), whose financial resources were by and large superior to those of their parents at the same age. This resulted in the identification of youth as a target market. Everything made was to accentuate the youthful spirit. This was the earliest form of sportswear, which was to become the identity of youth world over in another couple of decades.
Today the MTV, Mac Donald, Coca Cola, Levi's and Nike generation throughout the globe can be identified with a kind of dressing which has crossed every boundary, thanks to the communication breakthrough. When a fashion wanes or a garment is past its best, it is simply jettisoned. This suits the quick turnover high street market led by mass production in which, to ensure survival, every element of apparel manufacture is thoroughly researched. Thus places like Mumbai's Fashion Street have become the place for the fashionable to walk into. Western apparels, which defines fashion, are manufactured in underdeveloped countries. The surplus and rejects find their way to the local markets. Innumerable shops selling export surplus mushrooming in the fashion streets make it possible for the city's vulnerable crowd to throng to these places and pick up apparels at throwaway prices. When mixed and matched, a fashion statement is ready to be made as in any western country. Dressing-room mirrors throughout the ages have reflected these trends. It has also happened so in the Indian fashion scene though appearances have been quite subtle. By fusing tradition and modernity, craftsmanship and new technology, the world fashion scene absorbs the inevitable globalisation of markets, arranges the blending of cultures and introduces culture to the next season.
The question of adaptation of Western clothing habits by the Indian is an ongoing debate. The mirror image is more often than not missed. If Indians ape the West, so do the Westerners look back into the dust of India for many an inspiration to their clothing. Paul Smith dresses down the traditional sari as a sarong, while Dries Van Noten outfitted stars such as Julliane Moore in hot orange salwars. Gautier made the collection on Krishna and Madonna sported the sari. Are these not enough proof that India is hot in terms of fashion and changes do happen slowly in this country?
Experimentation and evolution of fashion in India is happening. Instead of criticising the ever-stuck fashion arena in India with "Zardosi and traditional attire", there is a necessity to look at many other designers who keep a low profile but experiment with silhouettes, colour, texture and look, giving an Indian identity to an Indian psyche and not just aping the West blindly.
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