Phryne Fisher Costumes

I saw the new season stills circulating on tumblr (stills from here) and Phryne and clothes look amazing as usual so I felt compelled to take an Indian fashion break!

With bonus Jack and Dot.

The exhibition is coming to Melbourne – the stills are from here. Now to plan the trip and wait for S3 to start!

Ladies Tailor


Singer Sewing Machine advertisement, 1892.

All my past attempts at making a vintage(ish) blouse have been rubbish, not least because I have never found a tailor with any interest in old patterns. Just a few months back I finally located a tailor who was quite enthusiastic about making stuff from old photographs. The blouse he stitched for me is a variation of a 1937 pattern (below).


Seriously boring guy – or dead – given the lady’s expression. Late 1930s.

Being a little obsessed with soft collars and Chinese frog closure buttons I added these (pic of my blouse below). I wear the blouse with a sari or a skirt. I like it.

Finished piece

Finished piece; Crap phone photography

While collecting the blouse I casually asked the tailor how and why he came to the profession. Something in the question must have set him off for he was still talking three cups of tea later (as anyone who might have gone to a non-mall shop in India may know, cups of tea are often ordered for customers). It turned out to be an interesting insight into the garment trade.

Mr S is a fourth generation tailor whose formal education was kept to the minimum given that he was expected to follow the trade. He took over the shop from his father in 2000. The shop is like many of the tailoring shops in Mumbai’s suburbs. Small, personalised and directed to the middle classes. Mr S thinks of himself as a creative person, he is in it not just because of his family but because he genuinely enjoys tailoring.

In 2000 business was brisk and regular even though the rise of malls and readymades through outlets like Shoppers Stop was on the rise. The shop had seven machines and a number of apprentices to handle work. In 2014 he has just 1 machine and business is intermittent. The fall in business he says is due to several factors.


Mr. S at his shop.


Naturally, the biggest factor is what Mumbai women wear today. The clientele of a shop like Mr S’s is largely middle class, the working classes tend to rely on their own tailoring skills or cheaper establishments. Given that amongst the former class the sari is everyday wear largely for older women the sari blouse is no longer the bread and butter of the tailor shop.

Salwars/Chudidars/Kurtas are commonly worn by middle class women in their 30s and 40s. These are usually store bought though it is not uncommon to get a piece stitched. As for Mumbai’s young women, few wear Indian clothing on an everyday basis. In fact visiting a tailoring shop for a mall bred generation is a bit declasse and left to the “aunties”. The business is therefore reliant on the demand for “fancy” one-off stuff – the wedding trousseau, the party dress, a variation on a designer dress in the magazines and the like. Occasionally he does Western dresses for younger and middle aged clients – Japanese design books are a great resource according to Mr S.


Mr S himself is a more than competent tailor and does his share of the work. Some days his father comes in to assist and do odd jobs. He is also reliant on karigars (apprentices/workers) who are usually from UP or South India. Previously an apprenticeship would last several years and a tailor was expected to learn all aspects of the work from cutting to finishing to embellishments. For most karigars these days the small tailoring establishment is simply a stepping stone. As a starting job the shop is ideal as they are quickly hired even without experience or a formal education and are taught the basics. With a little bit of experience their employment options widen. As an example with designers, who typically run small establishments that pay higher wages. The garment factories in Surat/Valsad in Gujarat also offer jobs. As in China, newbies usually stay in dorms and do one part of the garment but the regular wages and fixed shifts make it a more attractive option. The most coveted move is to a mall job as a shop assistant. This offers regular hours (8 hours as opposed to erratic hours at a tailoring establishment, stretching at times to 12 hours during peak season) and wages of Rs 8000-10,000.

At present Mr S also has a young girl who comes in to do some of the work. Her parents live in the area and this makes the job ideal for her.


Apart from the conveniences of the readymade for the customer, factory made garments rule because of the technology. High speed machines are now the norm, though these aren’t anywhere on the Chinese scale in India. The assembly line machines of course are capable of producing very many varied pieces and the turnover time is so quick that the average tailoring establishment cannot begin to compete. The industry uses computer aided designs these days which makes the task quicker – Mr S showed me a piece and you can spot the monotonous regularity of motifs, finishing etc quite easily (I was a little taken aback with how this made even screen prints look a little softer and irregular).


In Mr S’s opinion tailor shops of his kind are dying, leaving just the high-end and lower-end tailoring establishments. At the very lower end, the hole in the wall shops that mend, darn and alter have a steady business. So do the smaller shops that charge nominally for tailoring and cater to a different clientele. At the higher end is the designer industry. Typically a designer employs 1-3 master tailors along with staff. An option for people like Mr S is to join such a place as a master tailor. However having got used to running his own shop he is a bit reluctant to do so. The business is also hereditary and old and he says it’s also a matter of pride to have one’s own establishment. Still Mr S thinks it quite likely that at some point he may be working from home given the cost of maintaining a shop.


The frog closure button that I provided Mr S with got him quite excited. Apparently these were quite common about twenty years back (really, obviously I missed the memo) and young lads like him were put to work making them by the dozen. Very few of his young apprentices know how to make it now given it’s not very common in Indian clothing. In fact according to Mr S, factory workers cannot be called karigars as they slowly lose the skills to make an entire garment from scratch.

The situation for the “Gents Tailor” is even worse. Mr. S reckons only a  handful of establishments remain.

I also got a few salwar-kurtas made.  Having moved to readymades awhile back, I am now a bit of a convert to the tailored version. The suit fits perfectly and I realise I have been putting up with some really bad fitting (especially of the salwar) given I am a petite person and most suits are intended for someone a few inches taller.


You can have a whole city on your kurta. Or a palace. Or a zoo.

As for what’s really popular now – move aside Anarkalis, it’s the digital print that is all the rage. Sigh, some day there will be a trend I can get on board with…..bring back the 1930s already!

वसन्त ऋतु – Spring

wp1It’s spring in India. And while the illustration above* is all mildness and white (and indeed the kunda finds mention in a lot of Sanskrit spring poetry) the flowers of spring that are emblematic of the season are quite red on the whole.

The spray of red asoka as spring begins
is a public notice writ by love. Manovinoda, translated by Ingalls.

The month of Chaitra begins on 6 March 2015.  The month is associated with spring and in ancient India with the worship of the Asoka tree.

The Asoka constantly recurs in ancient Indian art and literature from the Asoka vatika to Buddhist folklore (with the Buddha said to be born under the Asoka tree or sometimes the Sal) to sculpture (also see X) to spring poems. The last of this often plays on tree flowering and women.

Pics above:  miniature painting of a maiden under a Asoka tree; cover of Amar Chitra Katha’s Malavikagnimitram, sculpture of a young woman pressing a Asoka tree with her foot and Asoka flowers painted by Zain-ul-Din.

wp1All around kimsuka groves blaze fiery red,
trees swaying in the breeze bend low flower-laden;
instantly transformed by Spring, the earth glows
like a radiant young bride in her robe of red silk. Ritusamhara (6-19) as translated by Chandra Rajan.

The kimsuka (Sanskrit, ‘like a parrot’ due to the flower resembling the beak of a parrot) or flame of the forest is a tree that flowers in spring.  The tree in bloom is a mass of orange and the branches and trunk sometimes leafless and dark giving rise to fire similes. Consequently it appears both in war poetry and classical love poetry.

The painting above is Spring by Avik Chakraborty.  As for that lotus bloom, classical Sanskrit poetry also describes ponds blooming with lotuses in spring.


The Kerala Post

This post was in response to a reader request on tumblr. Its fairly basic and is confined mainly to the 19th and 20th century but does cover some ground. Here goes! kThough the “set-mundu” consisting of two pieces of cloth is considered the traditional attire in Kerala, in practice its fairly common to see the lower half i.e. mundu alone in many 20th century photographs. This is usually worn with a jacket like blouse or sometimes a saree blouse as in the 1965 film Chemmeen.  Typically the mundu is a woven cloth of cream or off white with a border. While the border can be a simple coloured band, the festive version has a woven gold border and is called kasavu. You can see the kasavu mundu worn with a blouse on three of the women in this photograph of the Travancore sisters and others. Of the three sisters in the middle, Lalitha on the left wears a neriyath (the upper part) as part of a half-saree like ensemble. Ragini wears a mundu and velvet jacket and Padmini on the right wears a half-sari that is common in Tamil Nadu (in the 50s this was usually a silk skirt, a georgette upper part and an embroidered blouse). Photograph circa 1954 courtesy Betsy Woodman. L to R Ambika, Lalitha, Chandran, Ragini, Betsy’s dad, Padmini, Sukumari.

Kerala Costumes, the variations over the decades:
Pic 1: The mundum neriyathum as worn in the 19th century (see also Ravi Varma’s painting of the mother of Sethu Lakshmi Bayi)
Pic 2: The addition of a blouse and in this case also a lacy cape on Sethu Lakshmi Bayi (these additions to local costumes were common in India in the late 19th/early 20th century, a clearer picture of the blouse here).
Pic 3: Karthika Thirunal wearing a mundum neriyathum with the upper part draped like the six yard saree and worn with a sleeveless blouse (1934). Like many a young royal of the 1930s, the Princess was quite stylish.
Pic 4: Syrian Christian girls wearing mundu with kuppayam (blouse or jacket).
Pic 5: Sethu Parvati Bayi as a young girl wearing the neriyathu (the upper wrap) with a full skirt and blouse (like a lehenga choli).
Pic 6: Miss Kumari wears a fitted saree blouse with the mundu in the 1950s (still from Neelakuyil (1954).
Pic 7: Miss Kumari again, this time in Aniyathi (1954), wearing the mundum neriyathum with a fitted saree blouse characteristic of the 1950s.
Pic 8: Karthika Thirunal, her brother the Maharaja of Travancore and her mother Paravti Bayi in a 1933 portrait, the six yard modern saris and styling is akin to that of many other Indian portraits of the period.
Pic 9: Aranmula Ponnamma in Yachakan (1951). While the mundum neriyathum with the upper portion (neriyathu) draped in the fashion of the six yard sari and the blouse are seen in the 1950s, many films of the period also feature the six yard sari which was common in India by this decade.

In some cases, the Kerala weave can be a six yard saree.

Notes: For royal costumes in Kerala, please go to this link. This link is a tumblr illustration of the mundum neriyathum, but I can’t locate the source.

….their black glossy hair, tied in a knot in the middle of the head, is copiously anointed with cocoa-nut oil, and perfumed with the essence of sandal, mogrees and champas; their ears, loaded with rings and heavy jewels, reach almost to their shoulders, this is esteemed a beauty;…..they are adorned with a profusion of gold and silver chains for necklaces, mixed with strings of Venetian and other gold coins; they have also heavy bangles or bracelets,….their skin is softened by aromatic oils,…Oriental Memoirs, A Narrative of Seventeen Years Residence in India, James Forbes (1813).  She has a regular profile, pure features and magnificent large eyes, in fact all the beauty of her race. In accordance with the tradition of the Nayer family her jet black hair is wound round her forehead. Pierre Loti on the Travancore Maharani (1903).

In the 19th century earlobes amongst women in Kerala were sometimes elongated, I think so that a large “thoda” could be worn as in pic 1 (see also X). Some of the jewellery worn in Kerala can be seen in pics 3 and 4 (Source). In general, like in many parts of India, a large amount of jewellery was worn (though the Rev Satthianadan remarks that Tamil women could learn from their Travancore counterparts and go easy on the jewellery:)).  Hair wound into a round coil (pic 2) and placed in the centre or the side is very Kerala (in fact the style is known as a Malayala hair bun as in this 1950s description of hairstyles). This could then be decorated with flowers or jewels. PS: There is some serious hair envy on the part of travellers visiting Travancore, almost all accounts are whoa this is glorious hair!

A number of photographs discussed so far are of Nair costumes.  For the sake of completion, this post includes the clothing of the Mappila (pic 1) and Syrian Christians/Christians (pic 2, also see here and here). I had done an earlier post on the Jews of Kerala (see also here). Almost all costumes do build on the mundu or lower garment with the addition of the head cover amongst Muslims in Kerala. The practice of wearing a kuppayam or chatta (jacket/blouse) was restricted to the Christians, Muslims and Jews in Kerala before it became common for everyone in the state in the 19th century (see also the Channar revolt). Kerala also has a number of small tribal communities (e.g. the Kādir, the girl here has a decorative comb and large earrings, the costume appears to be akin to the short sari). And there is a bit of indigenisation of the skirt-blouse in Kerala as in pic 4 (1973 via photodivision). See also the costumes of the Oppana and Margam Kali.

Let’s turn to some period drama. The stills above are from Celluloid, a biopic on JC Daniel who made the first Malayalam movie. Pic 1 is of the actors playing the film-maker and his wife (Prithivaraj and Mamta Mohandas). Pics 2 and 3 are of the actress Chandni playing PK Rosy. The movie is set in the 1920s.  It’s difficult to say how authentic the costuming of the film is without viewing it but the few stills suggest a period later than the 1920s.

And lastly flowers and literature.

Wherever you turn your eyes Nothing but trees in floral splendour Even a gentle breeze Would let loose a rain of flowers. Changampuzha Krishna Pillai (translation from the chapter on Ramanan,  Changampuzha by S. Guptan Nair).

The flowers of Cassia Fistula aka Golden Shower Tree (kanikonna in Malayalam) are Kerala’s state flower. They occur a good deal in Malayalam literature and are also an important part of Vishu celebrations. Pic 1: Painting by a school student exhibited at the Trivandrum museum. Pic 2: Woman plucking kanikonna flowers in Kerala.

The Mughals-1

It’s probably accurate to say that an indigenous form of the Islamic clothing brought in by the Mughals (a mix of Turkish and Persian influences) took shape during the reign of Akbar and Jahangir.  This period also sees the style (imo) at its most balanced and elegant, particularly during Jahangir’s reign (1605-1627).

A slip of a young woman dressed in a pink -tinted *peshwaj*, a filmy overgarment speckled with blossoms and worn in conjunction with her blush-yellow *paijama*, a long golden *patka* ornamented with flowers, and a translucent *odhni*. She assumes a coy pose, tilting her head and glancing across her body, one hand pinning a stretch of her golden *odhni* against her narrow waist and the other lifting the hem of her relaxed *peshwaj*. (Pic 1: Young Woman By Muhammad Ali, Born in Iran, Active in India 1600-1620).  The components of a woman’ garment usually seen in Indian miniature paintings in the 17th and 18th century. A little more on the peshwaj here. The paijama is the tight fitting trouser, the patka the sash and the odhni aka dupatta is the pale green wrap. The shoes look like mojris. Apart from the anklets, all other accessories are fairly discreet.

Pic 2: Portrait of Prince Salim 1620-30. The 17th century Mughal costume for men consisted of the 1) jama, a garment that was fitted till the waist and worn crosswise and fastened at the side with a lower skirt like portion that fell below the knees 2) the tight paijamas for the legs 3)  the patka (sash) which here is secured with a jewelled belt 4) the chadar aka shawl and 5) the turban. The jama and chador were usually fine muslin, fine enough to see underlying jewellery. The shoes seem to correspond to the salimshahi, a type of shoe introduced by Jahangir aka Prince Salim, flat heeled with a pointed front end (often curved) and without a backstrap (perhaps a precursor of the modern mojri).

Pic 3: A portrait of a Rajput nobleman, attributed to the Mughal master Manohar, mounted on a royal album page, Mughal, circa 1610-20. [X].  The clothing of this Rajput noble is similar to that of Jahangir, by the emperor’s time there was an intermingling of Persian and Rajput influences in Northern Indian clothing. While not always adhered to strictly, the ties of the jama on the shoulder are different – tied on the right side for Muslims, on the left for Hindus as in today’s pic.  Note the very light, translucent muslin used for the jama – reputedly spun over the wet months in Bengal. The lightness of the material allows the paijama (literally leg garment) to be showcased. The paijama’s decorative aspect – often floral or striped – is offset by the patka or sash and the turban.

Very thin muslin seems to have had its heyday in the early 17th century in the Mughal court, making way for thicker patterned cottons for men (the linked painting also appears to have a bit of a throwback to Central Asian boots as opposed to mojris like in today’s pic, it is possible that the crossed collar is also Central Asian in origin).

PS: So light an upper garment would require some manscaping I think:)

The chakdar jama seen in the two pics above is similar to the standard jama except that the hem falls in 4 to 6 points. Commonly shown in paintings from the time of Akbar and Jahangir (late 16th/early 17th century), it is speculated that it is derived from the clothing of the Rajput courts. You can see the style in later paintings too, e.g. this one from 1750. Also see X.

For info on the yogini of pic 1 go here. Pic 2 is a portrait of Karan Singh I of Mewar. Karan Singh has a double patka or sash, which is sometimes seen in portraits.

Gauri Ragini, First Wife of Malkos Raga, 1605-6Pic 1 above: Gauri Ragini, First Wife of Malkauns Raga, 1605-6

Early 17th century depiction of a ghaghra-choli (aka gathered skirt and bodice).  The odhni or dupatta is extremely translucent and patterned and probably muslin. Usually in this period the garment appears in Rajput or mythological themes, the peshwaj and paijama  being more common in Mughal paintings. The patka (the white piece anchored to the skirt) is not always present in paintings depicting the ghaghra-choli. Why it is added is unclear, explanations range from hiding the join (the ghaghra presumably resulted from joining the ends of the antariya, which was in any event worn with a sash with a centre pleat) to controlling the volume of the skirt.   Black tassels or pompoms often appear in miniature paintings.  See also Keshavdas’s Rasikapriya illustrations, Malavi Ragini, Gita Govinda circa 1630.


The ghaghra with the patka was still around in the early 19th century (see Thanjavur company painting in pic 2 above) though the odhni is draped in a style that is familiar from the modern sari.

The first four Mughal emperors in the pics above. The cross collar was present in early Mughal attire but the tunic was worn loose and with a long overgarment. By Akbar’s reign this was changed to introduce a skirt like lower feature for the jama or tunic and the side fastening was doubled (doshala). This was worn with a fitting paijama, much like a churidar, which also differed from early Mughal attire. As mentioned in a previous post, the patka (sometimes two) was added to the garment.  Another change was in the turban, the Akbari pagri (turban) consisting of closely and tightly wound layers of cloth to which a sarpech could be added, much in the manner of the Rajputs.  For the sleeveless jacket designed by Jahangir called the nadiri (novelty) see the painting of the emperor embracing the king of Persia, Shah Abbas. The multiple side ties of Jahangir’s jama or tunic are also seen in this painting.

The emperors: Babur, Humayun (painted c 1650), Akbar (seen here with a courtier) and Jahangir (seen with his father Akbar).  See also: The earliest datable Mughal painting

Republic Day

“The concept of this procession and exhibition and everything else should be to demonstrate both the unity and great variety and diversity of India…..Each State should represent some distinctive feature of it’s own in the tableaux or in the exhibition or both. Thus the procession would be a moving pageant of India in its rich diversity.” Jawaharlal Nehru in 1952. Quote on Republic Day celebrations from Beyond Belief: India and the Politics of Postcolonial Nationalism, Srirupa Roy.

Today, India’s 66th Republic Day, will see about 25 tableaux from States and Central ministries and departments.

In these 1958 pics the then Prime Minister, Mr. Nehru, poses with Republic Day contingents.  Pics include contingents from the East, North, Centre, Islands, South and West of the country (Manipur, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Andaman & Nicobar, Madras, Kerala, Maharashtra and Rajasthan).

Source: photodivision

Home Science in India and the 1950s

Home Science teacher trainees in Poona in 1957 learn to make rangolis to ‘brighten up” traditional meals, pound rice, scrape coconut, use a “model kitchen” and much more…..including making some kitchen music.

Lots of nine-yard saris in there.