‘Decolonization of Indian Women’s Fashion’, by Vaibbhavi Pruthviraj Ranavaade

India’s unique textiles and spices have been attracting European traders for many decades, eventually resulting in the British Raj in the 19th Century based on political and economic supremacy. In their quest for power, and in order to impose British textiles on the local markets, illegitimate taxes were levied on homemade indigenous handcrafted textiles. Severe atrocities inflicted on craftsmen even forced them to stop their craft practices, which affected the local handmade textile industry adversely under British Rule. The chief motive was to feed raw material like cotton fibre of good quality from India to the British factories and then sell the low quality machine made textiles at a higher cost back to the Indians masses. Therefore, part of the Indian freedom struggle under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi, was a clarion call for “Swadeshi” and other peaceful non-cooperation movements to gain back control. The impact of the “Swadeshi” (domestically produced) movement was the adoption of home-spun “Khadi” fabric by the freedom fighters (male and female); representing their socio-political affiliation with the independence movement.

Khadi Fabric natural indigo dyed
Natural Indigo dyed Khadi Fabric. Photography credit: Pruthviraj MR

The influence of western fashion on Indian sari fashion during colonial times is visible two folds; first in terms of materiality, when French chiffons and laces were imported for the elite. The use of these light weight saris led to the practice of attaching a strip of 6-8 inch wide fabric on the hem of the sari to enhance the fall/drape, which led to the colloquial reference of this fabric strip as “Fall” (the traditional handwoven sari and draping styles do not require attachment of “the fall strip” due to their woven borders; they are ready to wear straight off the loom.) The second influence is the practice of wearing an undergarment, a frilly petticoat for both modesty and decoration, and the transition from the traditional bodice, choli to the blouse.

Fusion Fashion Indian textiles in contempoeary silhouettes Label Vaibbhavi P
Fusion Fashion Indian Textiles in contemporary silhouettes. Label: Vaibbhavi P.

In particular the race season organised by the British was a melting pot of fashion and culture in Colonial India and all these multicultural exposures transformed local clothing styles considerably. Royal women retained their saris, but due to the import of European chiffon, their patronage to high-skilled local weaving decreased considerably. Simultaneously, under European influences, they adopted more modest blouses and decent petticoats. Notions of immodesty were based on colonial views, in the land of Kama sutra, as well as moral policing for the LGBTQ community following colonial laws framed during the British Raj. Only in September 2018 the Indian constitution amended the article 377 of Indian penal code, after continuous activism for equal rights.

Furthermore, the colonial legacy of evening formals and the gymkhana (a recreation club for the elite with strict dress codes) necessitated the introduction of “evening formals/ party wear” in the Indian fashion system in the early 20th Century (Nivi sari). In the later part of the 20th century, the long evening gown and crop tops became an intrinsic part of the Indian fashion system. A scarf or stole came to replace the dupatta, which was an inherent part of Indian ensembles, be it the ghaghra choli, or salwar kameez suit. Accessorising skirts and tops and pant suit with a scarf or stole would meet the modesty requirements and was considered socially acceptable according to Indian customs.

The classic little black dress (LBD), in its turn, has influenced the acceptance of the colour black in Indian women’s wardrobe for formal occasions, despite the belief that black is an inauspicious colour. It is considered inappropriate for the tropical weather, as it traps heat, even though there are some nomadic tribes like the rabaris, who wear a considerably amount of black.

The Indian fashion system’s expansion due to European influences has had a positive impact on Fashion MNC’s and Hollywood productions, who are partnering with Indian counterparts to expand their market share in India. Especially India’s important youth population (demographic advantage) and common fashion trends are important catalysts. The Internet has made Indian fashion more dynamic and stimulates women to adopt fashion trends across borders more rapidly. The Indian shalwaar kameez and sari can be found everywhere in India in 21st century. The fusion space in which Indian silhouettes and textiles are interpreted, ranging from Anarkali kurta and evening or wedding gowns to sari gowns, whereby a type of ‘neo sari’ aids to create a hyper reality for the post-modern woman for occasion wear, transcends into the contemporary wardrobe.

Fusion fashion Poncho and trousers Label Vaibbhavi P
Fusion Fashion poncho and trousers. Label: Vaibbhavi P. 

With more Indian women experiencing socio-economic emancipation, the Nivi sari transcends into its post-modern avatar in terms of materiality and innovations and dimensions, whereby designers are referencing historical craft techniques or draping saris that can be worn over trousers or jeans or pleated knee length “sarinis” in a more classic style. It is not a moral question, but rather an individual’s style and/or interpretation. The sari has certainly undergone many makeovers since ancient times and is a testimony of decolonization.

There is a prevalent practice of adapting western fashion trends to Indian garments in terms of color, fabric, decoration, cut and silhouette. However, numerous efforts to apply western trends to Indian apparel without much tweaking and/or understanding of Indian consumer preferences, have resulted in poor acceptance of these styles. For example, a modest choli’s adaptation to a slinky spaghetti strap, halter neck, bikini top, corset, bustier or jacket have not been successful so far.

The success of the crop top trend can be attributed to the fact that baring midriff is acceptable in India due to local fashions like sari and ghaghra choli. Customised petticoats for the sheer snug sari draped seductively on the body could be one of the reasons for the diminished use of Indian heritage textiles in saris. Young Indian women require innovative options in terms of fall, drape, weight, visual appeal, etc.

A good practice towards decolonization is that the Indian fashion calendar is planned to cater to consumer demands during regional festivals ranging from August to December. Currently, the Indian fashion industry follows the western fashion calendar of Spring/Summer and Autumn/Winter. But the wedding season based on the Hindu calendar (the majority of Indians follow Hinduism, and also in sync with the change in seasons in India), sees a huge demand in bridal wear and the retail calendars are planned accordingly. India is a tropical country which experiences 6 months of summer and 2 months of winter, while the other 4 months represent the major festive period and most of the market prepares their main stock for this season. The monsoon/festive lines essentially cater to festive requirements and occasion wear. Autumn/Winter is an extension of occasion and winter wear which is region specific. The collection for this season is a mini capsule collection just to add on the stock flowing from monsoon/festive.

Indian women have adopted and assimilated a great variety of apparel in their wardrobe like sari, ghaghracholi (skirt and bodice), shalwarkameez (tunic and trousers), western fashion silhouettes including skirts, trousers, denims, dresses, gowns and sportswear as well as occasion appropriate clothing. Best Indians practices, like Yoga and Ayurveda, found favour in contemporary India after the Americans and Europeans adopted and endorsed it. There is a tremendous need to stand our own ground and appreciate our local traditions and practices on a scientific basis and take it forward in a more mindful manner to create a decolonized fashion identity in India.

Dr Vaibbhavi Pruthviraj Ranavaade’s diverse research experience is in the area of the semiotics of fashion, the Indian fashion system, the slow fashion side of sustainable fashion and varied applied research for design projects. Her doctoral research with the Title “A Semiotic study of the Indian Sari” has garnered lot of interest in the academic community as well as the industry. The study focuses on the non verbal communication through the sari as well as its significance in the contemporary fashion scenario and changing narratives.




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