The evolution of the modern sari

It’s been difficult for me to update this blog along with tumblr as I am a little hard pressed for time.

The only significant thing that I need to update here are a series of posts I am doing on the evolution of India’s “national costume” aka the sari, blouse and petticoat from the 1870s onwards. 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.

You can follow it all on tumble under the sari history tag. As always the oldest post is at the bottom.

PS: 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 Spring Post

yellow1 (2)yellowyellow5पुष्पिताग्रांश्च पश्येमान्कर्णिकारान्समन्ततः। हाटकप्रतिसंचन्नान्नरान्पीताम्बरानिव॥

And look at these flower-tipped karnikāras everywhere – they look like men robed in yellow and laden with golden jewellery. [X]

Spring (Vasanta) in India is generally in the months of Phalguna and Chaitra (roughly March and April) though it officially begins in Magh (February). It is also time for the first leaves and flowers of the gulmohar, mango and amaltas. The last of these may well be the karnikara mentioned in Kalidasa’ Ritusamhara.

Pics courtesy: Bonhams, Vogue India. Insert pic of Amaltas.

The Group Photo Post

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Group photographs are great because they give an actual sense of what people wore back in the day.

The first pic for example is probably Madras in the 1930s. All the women are in the then modern six-yard sari.  The pallu at this point in Tamil Nadu was normally tucked in (a hangover from the older nine-yard sari?) or draped over the shoulder, leaving it loose in the current fashion was frowned upon by traditionalists.  On the men, the dhoti and angavastram (literally cloth for the body and more or less a shawl cum scarf) set has ancient roots, the shirt or kurta was added on in mughal/colonial times. The coat likewise was added on, like the modern blouse it served as an incorporation of a Western element. I think the male headgear here is from Maharashtra (the black conical version) – there is a reference in one of the texts I read to “black velvet Gandharwa caps” which were one of the first sartorial statements in Poona – and Mysore (the white turban). The coloured turban (second from left, seated row 2) is probably similar to those worn by Gujaratis in the west of India but I can’t say this for certain.

Pic 2 is probably from the 1940s and includes a few spunky ladies involved with the freedom movement. In the first seated row of women and in some of the men, you can see the Tamil attire discussed above. The second seated row of women are probably Gujarati given the style of wearing the sari. I think Kasturba Gandhi is also in the pic.

Pic 3 is a group photo of students of Kinnaird Collge for Women, Lahore. Probably taken late 1920s (McNair was appointed Principal in 1928) or early 30s. At this point the six yard sari was modish so its not surprising to see so many of the Lahori students wearing it. Two of the women are in salwar kameez.

Pic 4: Sgt. Carl W. Ritter does a roundup of the “Vassar of the Orient” (Lady Irwin College, Delhi) on 7 Feb 1946. More pics at the link.  The students seem to be from many states, including the South.  As for the attire, there is the modern sari, the salwar-kameez and also a girl in a sari worn Bengal style.


I haven’t updated this site in a long time meanwhile the tumblr keeps getting refreshed. Partly this is because I have just been doing simple posts and there is no grand theme: Newish movies; Recurring patterns in Hindi cinema [X, X] – the pompoms still amuse me!, the halter neck blouse and the closed neck modest blouse [X, X], the long shirt worn in Haryana, the Victorian/Edwardian blousesleeping women, the fishtail braid and the pallu.

I note that Mardi is back. I can’t comment on her blog but welcome back Mardi and loved all your pics of the Indian visit! It looks like an amazing trip.

Betsy, who I “met” through this blog, has a new book out-Love Potion No. 10. Exciting! If you like cozy mysteries do check out.

Deepa, I keep following your adventures and its always great when you drop by on this blog, though I might have been a bit amiss in not responding to comments.