Sanyogeitaa Chadha, head of deaprtment for fashion design at Pearl Academy of Fashion looks at the journey of essential ethnicwear ensembles that is glamourising women’s ethnic wardrobe.
Tribal women in India either wore no blouse with their saree or dhoti; or draped fabric to cover the upper half of their body. There are three words that describe the stitched garment for the upper part of the body and all indicate that the garments were larger and fuller. The word choli is clearly related to the Sanskrit word Chola or Cholaka which was more like a long coat like covering. The Kanchuki is derived from the Sanskrtit word Kanchuka which also seems to have been more like a coat perhaps of hip length originally.
Like wise the angia or angika indicates a covering for the body that had greater length or fullness than the garments that came later. During the Gupta period and onwards there is evidence from art remains that suggest that the choli was common in India. It was widely adopted in North India- Punjab and Rajasthan and with its great popularity with the Rajputs the short bodice became extremely popular during the Medievial Times. The cholis were fastened by chords or threads and usually left the wearer’s back naked. The early styles varied in length of the sleeves, cut of the neck, manner of tying the back, leaving the back naked or covered or partially covered, the length of the garment, the shape and whether there were cups in it or not.
So if you add the variety of fabrics that could be used, the variations in decorations etc. it is clear that there was no one uniform norm that could be laid down for the garment. In general, the choli in Rajasthan and Gujarat signify a relatively brief garment fastened with strings or tie cords. The cholis also varied in the amount of embroidery that was done on both sides. So often the side that was exposed had more embroidery than the side that was covered. A study of the traditional or royal costumes of Gujarat and Rajasthan throw up any number of variations of the choli and each variation is unique and beautifully designed.
The cholis were worn with long skirts or the lehenga and were further accessorized with the dupatta or odhni. One of the most sensual attires of a woman in India is undoubtedly the saree. It is a long unstitched piece of cloth, usually six or nine yards long that is draped in a set pattern. It accentuates the curves of a woman and the mid-riff is usually exposed. However, the way of draping a saree may differ from place to place. The saree is usually worn with a blouse that covers the upper part of the body and underneath it is the petticoat, which helps to tuck in the pleats of the saree to hold it in place.
The word ‘saree’ originated from the Prakrit word ‘sattika’, which is mentioned in the early Buddhist literature. The word got shortened and was called sati, which further evolved into saree.A statue recovered from the Indus Valley Civilization depicts a female priest wearing a cloth draped like a saree. The saree used to be draped in a way so that it divides the two legs and forms a trouser like attire. This was basically done to aid the temple dancers in their movements and also cover to their modesty. It is believed that the ‘dhoti’, which is the oldest Indian garment that was draped, is the foundation behind the saree. Till the 14th century, the dhoti was worn by both men and women.
The early statues of Goddesses show that the saree was draped in a sensual manner, like a ‘fi shtail’, which was tied at the waist, covered up the legs and came in front of the legs like a decorative drape. During that era, the upper part of the body was either partially covered or was left bare. Down south in the state of Kerala, one can still see people wearing the traditional saree, which is a two piece garment, consisting of a lungi and a shawl. With the coming of the Muslims, the ghagra or the petticoat was discovered and clothes with needles were impure. The blouse came into existence with the Muslims and also the British.
The saree is synonymous with Indian women and till recently it was considered the clothing of mothers and older women and not something that the young girls and women would wear unless they had no choice. India is also Bollywood and somehow whatever our stars wear becomes a trend and is followed by the public. While Shabana Azmi made certain kinds of silk sarees popular with broad borders; Rekha made plain color Chiffon sarees worn with high neck blouses in Silsila popular; and so on but they never became truly aspirational.
They remained saree that the heroine wore in a movie! The blouses also changed and every heroine started a new trend. Deep necks; collared blouses; long sleeves; short sleeves etc, but they did not create the hysteria that is happening now.
But suddenly the saree has come to be a fashion statement! It is worn by the young and the famous and it is worn to show off the beautiful fi gures the women have. While the fabrics have changed, and so have the designs what has truly changed the dynamics of this garment is the Blouse and method of wearing the saree! For very long when women went to tailors, they were given either round neck or square neck or Deep V necks, and some variations in the sleeves. Usually the sleeve could be really short or three fourths or long! So women still wore sarees but the excitement was missing! It was not still aspirational!
So what changed this feeling towards the saree? The biggest contributor is perhaps the TV soap operas! When Sushmita Sen wore the Chiffon saree in Main Hoon Na with a deep back and sleeveless blouse, it perhaps stirred in the women in our country that they could also look sexy, given some tweaking in the way they wore their blouse! With Ekta Kapoor and the soap operas, it was as if they had unleashed this can of worms that were showing women that they could look and feel sexy even if they did not have perfect bodies! The older women in the homes, mothers, sisters in laws etc were all sporting these revealing blouses that made them look amazingly sensual. This was the turning point! Suddenly women who had never experimented with blouses, and usually gave them to the same boring tailor, began looking for designer tailors who could replicate the blouse from Main Hoon Na or any other movie! Tailors began charging a premium as they realized they had captive customers who would pay anything to wear a good blouse. The saree remained the same 6 yards but now the excitement was wearing it with a blouse that would get you a second look! The developments and the experimentation were with neck lines; sleeves and the back suddenly became the center of all attention!
Designers and customers realized that the back of the blouse that was till now ignored lent itself to so much of experimentation, with amazing outcomes! Sarees began being worn lower on the hip and when an actress like Deepika Padukone in Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani wore a low hipped saree and lehenga with the tiniest of blouses it became national hysteria! All the young girls wanted to wear exactly that! You were traditional yet not boringly so!
You felt sexy and you looked it! Even in Southern India which is so traditional and wearing Kancheepuram sarees is the done thing, the change is visible! Kancheepuram sarees teemed with tiny blouses have given the silk a different look and feel. At weddings you still see the traditional beautiful silks, but they look totally different with the new age blouses. It is not just the style of the blouse but also the fact that one can now wear gold and silver blouses with most sarees and look gorgeous that has done the trick!
Blouses began to stand on their own! They were embroidered,had sequins; stone work; and embellishments and now there is mno looking back! The depth of the back neck went deep but was restrained because the bra straps could be seen if it went lower! Once the padded cholis were discovered and women got comfortable wearing them, and tailors got comfortable making them, there has been no stopping the design of the blouses! All women, young and old; fat and thin are wearing the sexy blouses, which makes them feel more attractive and enables them to wear six yards of fabrics and yet look sexy! So while the saree has got a new lease in a younger and sexier avatar it is the blouse that is behind this revolution! Women all over India have gone back to wearing sarees and really enjoying looking so appealing!