Vintage Styles of India: Throwback to the Days of Graceful Fashion

A history of female clothing in India, the changing hues from the 1930s to now.

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Fashion
3 min read
Actresses of the 1950s and 1960s. (Photo: <a href="https://www.facebook.com/VintageIndianFashion/">Vintage Indian Clothing</a>)

Why we wear what we wear – surely we can find the answer to that one, buried somewhere in the yellowed pages of history. And more so, in the films of yesteryear, given that many of us are more allured by moving frames.

My preoccupation with finding a connection between history and fashion led me to discover this 1953 documentary on feminine fashions, posted by the channel, Films Division on YouTube.

A thousand tabs later, I arrived at a Facebook page, Vintage Indian Fashion, which has been diligently documenting the clothing history of India. Anu, who runs the blog and the Facebook page, tells me this is a hobby for her, while her professional designation is that of a scientist.



Begum Akhtar aka the Mallika-e-Ghazal in 1942. (Photo: <a href="https://www.facebook.com/VintageIndianFashion/">Vintage Indian Clothing</a>)
Begum Akhtar aka the Mallika-e-Ghazal in 1942. (Photo: Vintage Indian Clothing)

Anu notes how this photo of Begum Akhtar aka the Mallika-e-Ghazal in 1942 has influences of both the 30s and ‘40s in her attire. Note the elegant brooch on her sari, which is sadly no more in vogue. And the clutch – I have seen something like that in my grandmother’s closet – so I reckon it was quite a rage back then.

Anu’s commentary is sharp — part historical and part personal. And the plethora of photos on her site, to me, are what candy is to a little kid.

A stark contrast to the earlier photo is this one which perhaps adequately reflects the fierce nationalistic mood of the time.

Phulrenu Datta.(Photo: Courtesy  <a href="http://www.feministpress.org/books/malavika-karlekar">Malavika Karlekar</a>.)
Phulrenu Datta.(Photo: Courtesy Malavika Karlekar.)

The sari has simple borders here – the materials are swadeshi. And the attire, put together hurriedly, is reflective of the urgency of the time.

For lovers of yesteryear’s glamour, this photo of Vyjayanthimala can exude plenty of nostalgia.

Nigar Sultana, Veena, Naseem, Vijayantimala Al-Nasir and other films stars who took part at the International Film Festival on arrival at Willingdon Airport, on February 22, 1952. Vyjayanthimala exuding a bit of old school glamour (Photo: <a href="http://photodivision.gov.in/IntroPhotodetails.asp?thisPage=1429">Photo Division</a>)
Nigar Sultana, Veena, Naseem, Vijayantimala Al-Nasir and other films stars who took part at the International Film Festival on arrival at Willingdon Airport, on February 22, 1952. Vyjayanthimala exuding a bit of old school glamour (Photo: Photo Division)

The other actresses seen in the picture are Naseem and Veena (in the tortoiseshell sunglasses), both stars of the ’40s.

Their vintage, old school glamour is to be preserved as a style lesson for all eras to come.

The 1960s also saw the hem of the kameezes go shorter.

The women in the picture are Persis Khambatta and Meher Mistry. The materials in these photos are likely silk, as Anu notes.

 Meher Mistry and Persis Khambatta. (Photo: <a href="http://handle.slv.vic.gov.au/10381/219413">State Library of Victoria/Herald &amp; Weekly Times Limited portrait collection</a>.)
Meher Mistry and Persis Khambatta. (Photo: State Library of Victoria/Herald & Weekly Times Limited portrait collection.)

In this photo, note the eye winged liner, the glorious, albeit highly uncomfortable bouffant and the modest neckline of the kameezes.



Persis Khambatta and Meher Mistry. (Photo: <a href="http://handle.slv.vic.gov.au/10381/219413">State Library of Victoria/Herald &amp; Weekly Times Limited portrait collection</a>.)
Persis Khambatta and Meher Mistry. (Photo: State Library of Victoria/Herald & Weekly Times Limited portrait collection.)

This photo of Shabana Azmi in the 70s takes us back to a time when saris were simple, devoid of any prints. And to go with them, the blouses, bindis, even lipsticks were all carefully matched. But even with the rude colour blast, Azmi does manage to look characteristically uncomplicated here,



Shabana Azmi: (Photo: eBay)
Shabana Azmi: (Photo: eBay)

Aside from the visual delight it offers, I ask myself why this throwback to old fashion is important at all. Perhaps it’s because even though we may have advanced to what we think is the zenith of fashion — after all, some of the best known international and national brands have been camping inside our malls — they’ve all miserably failed to replicate the timeless elegance of the past. One is almost ashamed to admit how grace has flown out of the window, between then and now.

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