The most distinctive dress that marks the identity of the Indian woman across the world is the unstitched draped garment, saree that is accompanied with the underskirt called the petticoat and a short fitted blouse, typically known as the ‘choli’. The classic drape worn since the earliest times persists in modern India with evident changes accustomed to the women of today and their lifestyles.
The saree holds a special place for Indian women, gaining importance in different phases of their lives. In cosmopolitan India, the saree is symbolic of tradition and culture, donned on special occasions by young women on attaining adulthood, while graduating from school and later at the time of wedlock, when a young bride carefully selects sarees for her wedding trousseau. Sarees are a prized possession and have an emotional value, as mothers pass them on to their daughters as heirlooms. In the urban society, a saree is considered a formal ensemble, ideal for working professionals employed in the education, hospitality, health, media and allied industries. Women in politics follow the saree as their dress code, upholding Indian values and ethos. The versatile saree conveys a multitude of looks, from glamourous and opulent, mature and professional to ceremonial and culturally intrinsic to India.
Over the years and significantly in the 20th century, the saree attire has evolved and new trends have been set by Indian icons from different walks of life that have trickled down to the masses. The changing persona of women and their status in society and interrelated influences have impacted the saree fashion at a particular time.
It is believed that the saree worn in its present form, with a fitted blouse and petticoat became prevalent in the beginning of the 20th century. It was during the British rule that a large number of Indian women made modifications in their saree drape as well as added an underskirt worn beneath the saree and a blouse that integrated elements from the Victorian dress such as lace edgings and trims like frills, ruffles and pleats.
The change in the saree ensemble was an attempt to conform to the new rules of modesty prescribed by the missionaries and in accordance to the European fashion. The western inspired blouse was readily adopted by the educated elite women of Bombay and Calcutta. An important icon of this period was Jnanadanandini Debi, Rabindranath Tagore’s sister-in-law and wife of Satyendranath, the first Indian who joined the Indian Civil Service, who took inspiration from the Parsi ladies in Bombay, and introduced the new style of draping the saree, the nivi-style that was a precursor to the modern day saree drape, teamed with a blouse and petticoat.
The changes in the socio-political environment led to increasing participation of women in diff erent fields, including music, dance and theatre. In the early 20th century, the socially active royal Indian women altered their attire, in order to emulate European fashion trends, yet retain the traditional character of the saree. It was the Maharani of Cooch-Behar, Indira Devi, who pioneered the trend for pastel coloured, sheer chiffon sarees, teamed with sleeveless blouses. Subsequently the Maharani’s daughter, Gayatri Devi, Maharani of Jaipur popularized the trend among the royals and the crème de la crème.
In the wake of the Indian freedom movement, Gandhi introduced ‘khadi’ to the nation, as a symbol of nationalism, thereby discouraging the use of foreign fabrics and goods. The father of the nation motivated Indian women to adopt the plain ‘khadi’ sarees and become a part of the ‘swadeshi’ movement. The committed women freedom fighters in ‘khadi’ sarees worn with simple, loose styled blouses served as a marker of national identity communicating a strong message supporting the freedom movement and endorsing indigenous materials.
The Working Woman
Post-independence, women got an opportunity to work outside their homes, thereby giving a boost to their economic status. The working women and their increasing participation in outdoor activities like social get-togethers implied an array of clothing styles. The alleviation of the economic and social standing of the women impacted the saree and blouse, which became more trendy and contemporary in nature.
In post-independent India, though industrialisation ushered in mill-made sarees, the Indian Government made concerted efforts to promote the regional handloom sarees and fabrics. Hand woven sarees from different regions of India were also endorsed by eminent women like Pupul Jayakar and Indira Gandhi. In the fifties, political leaders, literati and artists favoured the hand woven sarees, while others wore mill-made sarees with mismatched blouses.
The Cinema Buff
The 1960s witnessed the growing trend of the working class women, who were acquainted to latest fashion through different media, predominantly Hindi cinema as well as English films, and fashion magazines like Femina. During this era, joint fashion shows and beauty contests were conducted, followed by participation of winners in international beauty competitions. Exposure to western culture and fashion images brought about socio-cultural changes, influencing lifestyles and clothing styles of the urban women.
Indian cinema was a dominating factor that became an important means of recreation. The newly styled saree drapes with sleeveless blouses donned by the leading ladies on the big screen were gradually adopted by the masses. Innovative saree styles like stitched saree worn by Asha Parekh in Hindi film ‘Do Badan’ and hipster saree sported by Mumtaz in the movie ‘Brahmachari’ attracted the attention of the ladies and were copied precisely by the tailors.
The Western Appeal
The saree reigned supreme in the seventies and synthetic sarees became popular with the masses. The 100 percent polyester wash and wear sarees were manufactured and promoted by brands like Garden Silks, Bombay Dyeing, Khatau Group and Vimal by Reliance Industries. In this decade women were influenced by western trends, reflected in the styling of their saree blouse, baring the skin with sleeveless décolleté neckline, sleeveless or with deep cut armholes. The party goers were comfortable in halter neck blouses teamed with sheer georgette and chiffon sarees.
The Ethnic Chic In the 1980s, there was a renewed interest in the handloom saree by the intellectuals, artists and politicians who understood the importance and uniqueness of Indian textile heritage. The preference for hand woven sarees over synthetic sarees was credited to Indira Gandhi, the then Prime Minister, who wore exquisitely woven sarees from different states of India with a modest blouse that covered the midriff well. The former Prime Minister was also instrumental in organising festivals of India world-wide in order to promote the handcrafted textile traditions and the craftsmen. Film personalities like Smita Patil and Shabana Azmi also sported handwoven sarees. The eighties woman embraced ethnic fashion in an attempt to differentiate herself from the west. During this period fashion attained a new height owing to upward social mobility and the growing middle class consumers.
Daring to Bare
In the early nineties the onset of the satellite television led to the entry of foreign channels and hence exposure to global fashion. Around this time beauty pageants became more popular, following the achievements of beauty queens Sushmita Sen and Aishwarya Rai as Miss Universe and Miss World respectively. There was admiration for the young confident Indian women, who set forth new notions of beauty and fashion, enthused by the west. The women of the nineties were comfortable to show their skins and fl aunt their bodies.
The 1990s steered large number of Indian designers, who were talented and creative, displaying a wide variety of innovative styles to the Indian women who desired exclusiveness in their attire. Bollywood continued to be a key factor in impacting fashion trends and designers started playing the role of costume designers for Bollywood films, thus integrating Bollywood opulence with fashion. The saree attire gained prominence as a sensuous wrap that reveals as well as conceals.
Fashion in the 21st century has transformed the saree ensemble, making it more glamourous and modern in its appearance. The new age saree has inculcated interest in the younger generation who is keen to wear sarees with a blouse that is more westernized in styling. Leading Bollywood stars like Priyanka Chopra, Deepika Padukone and Sonam Kapoor dressed in stylish and innovative saree styles have impacted the new age women.
Contemporary designers have enthused unconventional ideas into the saree that are readily being accepted by the modern woman. Also the increasing numbers of working women with high purchasing power are looking forward to innovation in saree designs.
The changing role and perception of women in society have prompted changes in the saree attire. The metamorphosis of the saree from a modest traditional attire to a fashionable ensemble is attributed to the changing personality of the Indian women. The contemporary woman does not mind to bare as she is particular about her fitness. She is well informed, well-travelled and financially independent, and is selective in her choice. The economically independent woman is aware of the latest trends and is able to make her own choice with ease. This is reflected in her clothing style, which is more personalised and innovative.
In the 21st century, an assortment of saree styles co-exist that are aptly selected by the wearer, based on her socio-cultural values, beliefs and customs. The preference for the saree is also related to the type of saree, fabric, style of draping, the occasion for which it is worn as well as the personality of the wearer. Deeply rooted in its cultural ethos, the contemporary young Indian woman prefers the saree on special occasions yet retains modernism by teaming it with a stylish blouse.