Vintage Indian Clothing

A brief and non-linear pictorial history of Indian fashion. And the women who are much more than their (often) fabulous clothes.

My "avatar" is usually a photograph of the actress Kanan Devi.

अदा/adaa (Urdu): Style/Charm/Grace

In the pics: Mala Sinha, Shakila, Meena Kumari, Waheeda Rehman, Salma Agha

vintageblackglamour:

Dancer Scoogie Brown at Geoffrey Holder and Carmen de Lavallade’s wedding reception in Westport, Connecticut on June 26, 1955. Ms. Brown was a dancer from Trinidad and Tobago who performed with Mr. Holder and his Trinidad Dance Group. She would gain even more notoriety during the “calypso craze” in the 1950s with her dance partner, Leo Ryers, who was also a member of Mr. Holder’s troupe. Photo: Saul Mauriber, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Ms. Brown also has a bit part in the 1956 film, “Carib Gold” which also starred Mr. Holder, Cicely Tyson, Diana Sands and the great Ethel Waters. The film is linked in the comment section.

"So elegant - love the jewels peeking through!"
Thank you aadnesen for sending the link!

vintageblackglamour:

Dancer Scoogie Brown at Geoffrey Holder and Carmen de Lavallade’s wedding reception in Westport, Connecticut on June 26, 1955. Ms. Brown was a dancer from Trinidad and Tobago who performed with Mr. Holder and his Trinidad Dance Group. She would gain even more notoriety during the “calypso craze” in the 1950s with her dance partner, Leo Ryers, who was also a member of Mr. Holder’s troupe. Photo: Saul Mauriber, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Ms. Brown also has a bit part in the 1956 film, “Carib Gold” which also starred Mr. Holder, Cicely Tyson, Diana Sands and the great Ethel Waters. The film is linked in the comment section.

"So elegant - love the jewels peeking through!"

Thank you aadnesen for sending the link!

Kamini Kaushal in the 1950s.
This looks so much like bohemian themed clothes in stores like Tree of Life.
Corrected, thanks kasuchi.

Kamini Kaushal in the 1950s.

This looks so much like bohemian themed clothes in stores like Tree of Life.

Corrected, thanks kasuchi.

Cat Ladies (1. Nalini Jaywant 2. Veena 3. Detail from a Johan Zoffany painting (1786) 4. Detail from a miniature painting).

Samyogitaraje Holkar, c 1930 (see also X)
More zari bordered Parisian chiffon (click for larger view).

Samyogitaraje Holkar, c 1930 (see also X)

More zari bordered Parisian chiffon (click for larger view).

Dhanvant Kunvari of Dharampore, who married the last ruler of Kashmir. Her birth year is given as 1910 and this appeared in a news report of 1924. She has on a pretty embroidered sari - probably a chiffon - and her sari is worn Gujarati style (Dharampur is in Gujarat). Also note headband and a sign of modernity which rather unusually looks like a man’s watch.

Dhanvant Kunvari of Dharampore, who married the last ruler of Kashmir. Her birth year is given as 1910 and this appeared in a news report of 1924. She has on a pretty embroidered sari - probably a chiffon - and her sari is worn Gujarati style (Dharampur is in Gujarat). Also note headband and a sign of modernity which rather unusually looks like a man’s watch.

Two Women, 1930. Pic 1, sari worn nivi style, Pic 2, sari worn Gujarat/Parsi style. Brooch in both pictures, you can see a much simpler blouse style too as compared to previous decades.  And the jewelled headband of pic 1 which is also seen in the 1920s/1930s.

There are a number of photomontages taken by Wilson Studio, Bombay in the 1920s and 1930s (sometimes the saris seem similar, see Parsi gara of pic 2 and here)

The Sari: 1921-1930

There are more than a few changes in the 1920s. For one, the number of royals getting themselves photographed seems to have substantially increased! It is the period of silent cinema and glamorous actresses like Patience Cooper, Miss Gohar and Ruby Meyers. There were more women in political life, more middle class women in the Arts.  There are as a result diverse photographs from the decade so I will cover a few.

At the beginning of the decade, the short sari and boots seems to have been a Thing and it was duly satirised by Gaganedranath Tagore in 1921 (pic 1). See also here. The whole brooch to fix sari to blouse and pallu on the head thing seems to have been on since at least the turn of the century, probably due to the burning question of “how the hell do I keep on this pallu!” with the nivi style. The style stayed on for a bit, Sarojini Naidu in 1929 (pic 2) still sports it. Also see here

One of the royals, Cooch Behar’s Indira (pic 5, year 1928) was responsible to a large extent for the “I want to be super classy in my Parisian chiffon saree and pearls look” and it was in the latter part of this decade that she wore it most often.  As the Motherland article puts it, it was a shift as significant as Chanel’s LBD and still remains a style statement (though perhaps more for ladies of a certain age:). In fact Bengal princesses were prone to do their own thing as in the 1927 photographs of the Burdwan princesses (pics 3 and 4) - can anyone id if those are lame saris? Jewellery is also pretty minimum and there is no brooch. As for the saris almost all seem to be chiffons with stitched zari borders. In this decade they are not as routinely heavy or ornate like in the 1930s (1925*, 1928). of course heavier tissue kind of saris of the previous decade (Pic 6 of Rani Amrit Kaur - also on the Gentlewoman cover) as well as the full sleeved blouse remained (pic 7 of Abida Sultan, also in this 1925 photograph).

Elsewhere, handlooms and simpler styles remained with regional variations. Rukmini Devi (seen here in pic 8 with her husband George Arundale) wears hers Tamil style - note pallu drape over the shoulder and the tucked in part akin to a nine yard. Similarly in pic 9 Nirmal Kumari Mahalanobis, who accompanied Tagore on many of his 1920s visits, wears her sari in a style common in Bengal in the early part of the 20th century. See also Santiniketan in 1925, Parsi women in 1925, at the 1929 Suffrage Alliance, 1925 Karachi and Calcutta, Lakshmi Sehgal as a teen and studio portraits 123 and 4).

Its hard to see the blouses given the way the pallu is draped but for the most part they seem to be simple with little of the lace or detail or embroidery of previous decades.

The pleats are not very clear to me in most of the 1920s pictures - unless the photographs are inverse, sometimes the pleats go the other way and sometimes they are barely there. In short, the way of pleating we are used to still seems to be in question.

Notes: I have covered the paintings of the 1920s in more than a few posts. See as an example the painters of the decade, MV Dhurandhar [X, X, X] Hemen Mazumdar [X, X, X] and Damerla Rama Rao [X, X]

*I could have sworn that border was 1930s but I am wrong. Tchah!

Vijjaka*, who considered herself to be Sarasvati incarnate, said ‘Not knowing me Vijjaka whose skin is as dark as the petals of a dark blue lotus flower, in vain did Dandin declare that Sarasvati is all white.

[X] [X] [X]

*Vidya (or Vijjaka), one of Sanskrit’s earliest women poets (possibly 7th century). 

North & South. Instant Wedding, Ancient Indian Style. As illustrated by Amar Chitra Katha.

The comics: Shakuntala and Manonmani*.

*Manomaniam is a historical verse novel written in 1892 by  P. Sundaram Pillai and set in the time of the Pandyas.

earth2infini said: See Air India advertising and also wiki entry noting the Airhostess mode of sari wearing becoming the ersatz suit for professional women.

Noted!

The evolution of the modern sari

If not already apparent, I will be doing a series of posts on the evolution of India’s “national costume” aka the sari, blouse and petticoat from the 1870s onwards. They are going to be exceedingly wordy for tumblr but I thought it might be useful to collate images from each decade and discuss them so that it gives some idea about the “look” of each decade.  On the one hand there is continuity, on the other hand there are specifics like kind of sari, style of wearing it, shoes, blouses or hairstyles where you can see recurring motifs in a decade. 

This is by no means comprehensive given that there are so many a) regional differences b) caste differences c) class differences d) religious differences ) orthodox customs that dictate clothing etc. in India. However, each decade does have its own zeitgeist and in a way the posts do their best to capture this. By necessity this often means fashions worn by upper class women. Especially so in the early decades given that “on the street” fashion is only really visible in photographs from the 1920s onwards. Prior to this most photographs are of elite women, courtesans and “ethnographic studies”.  However, given that some of these upper class fashions became ubiquitous, it is useful to look at it.

I will be breaking up the posts rather than having them up one after the other. Mainly because each post is a beast to do.  I spend many hours looking at stuff and its hard to find a cohesive story sometimes. To the best of my knowledge there is a good amount of material but no detailed discussion of the fashions in India in each decade so I have little to go by except my own thoughts. So with these posts, if you want to reproduce, please do credit!

Any hints or tips are always welcome!

The Sari: 1910-1920

It’s kind of hard to pinpoint any pivotal moment in this decade. Except that the “jacket” was more or less commonplace amongst upper class women, even in Kerala where they not been common they appear in photographs. The Westernised blouses in this decade are Edwardian influenced and have shorter sleeves (though strictly this decade was post-Edwardian). Almost always the saris are richly embroidered or are zari bordered and the pallu draped over the head (except in South India).

Wearing shoes had been common for awhile amongst upper class women in India (though there was no requirement in India regarding shod feet) and they appear in a number of photographs in the decade.

In 1911 the Indian royals seem to have had photographs taken at various studios in London. Pic 1 is of the Rani (Queen) and Kumari (Miss/Princess) of Gondal (Gujarat). The blouses are more like cholis but the sleeves and high neck speak of far greater modesty than usual with a choli. The Kumari’s sari  looks a bit like chiffons seen in later decades whereas the Rani’s dress seems to be three part (the site mentions that the skirt has a chinai border made in Surat by Chinese embroiderers). Pic 2 is also taken in 1911 and is of Maharani Chimnabai who retained the nine yard style of wearing a sari. Her blouse is however of a Westenised type and while not averse to wearing shoes, it seems she was equally likely to throw them away in a London studio:). Pic 4 is of a Parsi lady in 1914, again the blouse is quite different from the Victorian influenced blouses seen in previous decades.  Similarly on this rather stylish lady at the end of the decade (pic 5, 1920) - that blouse looks fairly daring with its translucent overlay.

Pic 4 is of Kamala Nehru post her wedding, probably 1916. The double border style (i.e. the sari is wound twice around the waist) is seen much later so this looks a bit unusual. However, I don’t think full pleating was as common as it was in the next few decades now so it maybe due to this.

Notes: By the end of this decade there are a few hints of the momentary fashion of short saris and shoes. Mill cloth became more common after this decade thus changing the materials Indian women wore.  And in the first two decades of the 20th century, magazines and advertisements aimed at women started increasing which would no doubt have had some role in the dissemination of fashion.

Further Notes: There was a fair bit of criticism of the East-West fusion  that some of the fashions of the early decades entailed. Personally I think it a lot of it is rubbish and more often than not it is just women experimenting and having fun till they found a look that pleased them:)

Lafayette Studio Portraits here.

Sarla Devi on male costumes in her family in the late 19th century.  Pic 1 is of young Rabindranath aka Rabi Mama (far left) with friends, Pic 2 of Rabindranath with his brother Jyotindranath.  Not much evidence of turbans but by Sarala Devi’s account quite popular with the Tagore men.  The shawl/chadar draped Bengal style remained popular for a long time [X] [X].

Mejo mami aka Second Aunt is Jnandanandini Devi.

Source: The Many Worlds of Sarala Devi, A Diary (translated by Sukhendu Ray)