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!


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.

The salwar/churidar/kameez post – 3

Unlike the chudidar where the cloth is constricted at the knee and the salwar which is constricted at the ankle, flared trousers were also worn with the kameez. The kameez initially was a tunic with  skirt but later you can see shorter, simplified versions. Given the pictures here, the fashion appears to date back to the early 19th century (strictly more Lucknowi than Mughal). The sharara is also an example of this, though it may sometimes be constricted at the knee and then flare.

The paintings are all of nautch girls so it’s a little difficult to say whether the same fashion was followed by other women.  However at least one of the links is to the costume of the Queen of Oudh so it seems like it was the prevailing style.

For comparison two films set in 1857. Shatranj Ke Khilari uses an accurate costume but Mangal Pandey uses a later mujra costume common in Hindi cinema.

[X] [X] [X] [X] [X]

How to dress like a 1937 heroine

This post on ruffled blouses refers to Mukti (1937)* [X] [X].  The movie was a bit of a fashion influencer with Kanan’s crown braid and  Barua’s beret worn backwards apparently all the rage. It turns out the movie is on youtube. Not the best print but hey given how difficult it is to source 30s movies I will take any print! So without further ado bad screencaps deconstructing the fashions of 1937 as worn in Mukti.  Post which you can host your own 1930s themed party:)

In the movie, Prasanta (PC Barua) is a 1930s artist and bohemian in back to nature mode and his wife Chitra (Kanan Devi) belongs to the smart set of Kolkata aka the rich and Westernised elite.

First up ruffles were really on trend so if you want to do anything set in the latter half of the 1930s you can pretty much add a ruffle, either on the blouse or as a saree trim. And here are all the features of Kanan’s ruffle blouse.

In the film clip (about 00.03.00+), you can see that the sari is a chiffon/synthetic sort with a zari border (it is in fact quite rare to see “ethnic” coarse handlooms in many of the early movies-anyone with a bit of money was probably buying up chiffons and getting borders stitched or wearing translucent silks and cottons unless they were swadeshi sorts).  Perhaps given that she is upper class, Kanan wears the “modern” sari and not the traditional Bengali drape.

Kanan also has an armband (00.06.26), quite popular in the 1930s given that sleeveless or barely there sleeves were common.

Throughout the movie you will also note the lack of a bindi on Kanan.  Though sindoor is strongly associated with Bengali culture post marriage, the bindi is in fact not always seen in movies or even in vintage photographs on young women.

kanan9Here is a side view of Kanan’s crown braid.  Add to that chandelier earrings (a common feature throughout the movie) and a purse and some white heels and you were ready to party. Or at the very least shoot pool like Kanan (00.11.20+).

Barua’s persona, at least in this movie, is a little fey and eccentric. He is sort of a 1930s hipster, different for the sake of being different:).  At one point Chitra refers to his clothes as not being fit for a decent person. In his Misunderstood Artist in the City part he wears a tunic that looks like a silken poet shirt that morphs into a kurta and is worn with loose trousers. Also in the beginning some kind of long, silken jacket. Quite deshabille. I am curious, did he devise the costumes himself?

Just when you think you know EVERYTHING about the fashions of 1930s and are like 100% certain that no one ever wore long sleeved blouses with laces and all, along it comes! (see about the 00.29.00 and 00.35.00 mark).  I am going to put it down to Chitra raiding her mother’s closet. The sari seems consistent with the 1930s. Some kind of scalloped embroidery or applique on the border but no distinct pallu (the loose end of the sari).

Jokes apart, a quick look at 1930s movies shows that the full sleeved blouse does turn up now and then even though the decade is fairly liberated and sleeveless blouses were very common.

Barua really really liked scarves. At some point in the movie his character Prasanta runs off to Assam to live in a village. His attire gets more peasant like but the scarf never leaves his neck.

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Next up Kanan has a butterfly sleeve blouse with a  bit of a contrast trim (around the 0:56.40 mark). The sari is still light and translucent but looks more like a muslin Indian weave (you can also spot the pallu around the 0:59:09 mark).  To contrast with Prasanta’s “Indianness” and artistic temperament,  the smart set, including Chitra’s father, are in suits.

kananrufflesThis sleeve was pretty common in the 1930s too, here worn by Shanta Hublikar in the 1939 Manoos.

Around the 1.22.10 mark Kanan has something like a satin jacket worn over a sari, hard to get  a decent capture of it.  This is probably the only sari that Kanan wears that is a bordered Bengal cotton sari (see also 1.22.42).

A little later Kanan in another blouse that seems to have been fairly common in the late 30s and early 40s (I have seen it in old family photographs).  Kanan’s blouse is sleeveless with a  kind of – I don’t know what to call it – a cape or capelet collar? giving the illusion of a sleeve. The sari looks like a printed chiffon (1.23.41).

kanan32Kanan has a similar blouse in the 1938 movie, Street Singer.

A look at Barua’s famous cap! Every hipster in Calcutta was probably walking around with the cap worn backwards (thus anticipating the trucker cap:)). I can’t say whether it is a cap or a beret or even if its worn backwards with this damn print but I am going with beret worn backwards. (1.33.38). These scenes also have villagers in Indian clothing, both for the men and women.

kanan7And idk, I kind of  prefer Prasanta amusing Chitra by piling on all his hats (~00.07.00) :)

Last up at the climax (around 1.51.00), Kanan again opts for a long sleeved blouse but it doesn’t give off a Victorian vibe. It is more like a kurta or even a Chinese tunic with a side closure.  Kanan’s sari is again a chiffon/synthetic with a zari/gold border.

And with that you know everything about upper class fashions in Kolkata in 1937:)

*Subtitled version in 12 parts.


The movies of the 1920s and 30s are either no longer available or the prints are appalling. In fact a number of plots and tropes of Indian cinema are from these decades. And the fashion is also more fun, not so much in thrall to notions of respectability as at the turn of the century and not as formally beautiful as in the 1950s.  And there are so many interesting women in these decades too, and from what I can see fairly unapologetic about their lives to boot.

The Indian Mod Post

Typically in the first half of an Indian movie you would have a Westernised heroine before the “curse of the second half” hit and out came the saris. And of course vamps were allowed to wear Western clothing all the time! Most of these clothes are similar to contemporaneous fashions in the West, albeit a few years behind at times.

In the late 50s and 60s: Slacks, skivvies. high waisted trousers, pedal pushers, the occasional scarf. The actresses: Mala Sinha, Shashikala, Madhubala, Shakila.

The Diaspora Post

The heavy silver jewellery and skirts of Indian communities from Central and Western India are reflected in early photographs of immigrants to the West Indies. Early immigrants were often indentured labour from the then United Provinces and Eastern India. [X] [X] [X]

The first two pictures are taken in Bombay [X] [X] while the last two pictures are of Trinidadian women of Indian origin.

See also Dhurandhar’s watercolour and a portrait of folk dancers in Delhi.

The Ayah Post-3

A look at how past fashions influence modern fashions:

wp6Detail from Warren Hastings with his wife and Indian maid, painted sometime between 1784-87.

Floor length “anarkalis” (no doubt known by a different name) can be spotted in 18th century/19th century paintings.  The girl here is obviously dressed in her best, teaming it with a gold edged dupatta, jewellery and red and gold jootis. This was probably teamed with tight trousers underneath, they can sometimes be seen when the tunic is translucent. This is quite similar to styles today, including the long net/chiffon sleeves that are seen today.

I was at a store recently and the man there informed me that the anarkali trend is about 7 years old and still popular.  A few recent examples – [X] [X]

A floor length variant was worn by men too, as in another painting by Zoffany.

wp7Serving Maid, Goa, 1880s.

There are a number of 19th century versions of the “sari” which are more like the half-sari or the ghaghra-choli. More than a few modern interpretations of the sari, including the lehenga sari, rely on variations of this kind of attire. Some do away with the pleats, some retain them.

[X] [X] [X] [X] [X] [X]

The Ayah Post-1

By the 1930s the image of a cherished ayah had been enshrined in the nostalgia of the Raj that had been generated at the close of the nineteenth century. As that image took on a life of its own, individual recollections of British colonials were compressed and compelled into the one abiding memory, as Margaret MacMillan put it, of “a much loved ayah, usually a small, plump woman with gleaming, oiled hair, dressed in a white sari, who had sung to them, comforted them, and told them wonderful Indian stories”.  Responding to the West: Essays on Colonial Domination and Asian Agency, edited by Hans Hägerdal.

In addition to the ubiquitous ayah, cooks, gardeners, syces, and many other Indian domestics in colonial households influenced the daily lives of young residents. The results were predictable: British children grew emotionally attached to their ayahs and other Indian attendants, and they frequently acquired more familiarity with and fondness for the language and culture of these people than they did for the European heritage of their parents* The Magic Mountains: Hill Stations and the British Raj,  Dane Keith Kennedy.

The British in India, from the very beginning, were expected to maintain an establishment with a good number of staff. There are several accounts of the expenses incurred by domestic staff as early as in the late 18th century.  In letters home the problems and the conveniences of maintaining an establishment are detailed. Of all the employees a British household had, the ayah was the most cherished (though there are negative accounts too, particularly in the initial years of the British in India).  Functioning as domestic help but largely associated with being an Indian nanny, they appear in paintings and pictures on the 19th and early 20th century (the earliest probably being Joshua Reynolds portrait).  Partly this was to document – and perhaps boast – of their lives in India. Partly this was because social intercourse with Indians for the British was often restricted to their domestic staff, few Indian middle class families permitted the inevitable interaction in the public sphere to spill over into the private.

There are numerous photographs of ayahs, often seen with their wards and sometimes as part of a family picture. Almost always they appear in white saris with coloured borders, teamed with a printed or plain blouse. Ayahs were amongst the first Indian women to travel abroad on work, often finding themselves in a precarious position. By the 1950s, the saris are depicted a lot brighter as in this oil painting in London.


*For precisely this reason, many British children were sent back home to boarding schools at an early age.


Note: Maids, attendants and the like also occur in Indian miniature paintings and in ancient Indian art, often as intimates, in for e.g. a woman at her toilette, delivering love messages etc. I won’t be covering that at the moment.

wp3Portraits of ayahs. Some initial works show ghaghra cholis and coloured saris while later works often show women in white saris.
Sources (incomplete): [X] [X] [X]

Other examples: [X] [X] [X] [X] [X] [X]

The Goa Post – 1

The Reis Magos Fort in Goa has an exhibition of Mario Miranda’s 1951 illustrated diary. It is an amusing and  interesting look at Goan society (largely the Catholic part of it) circa 1951. I loved the captions and little quirky insert panels as in the one featuring a village woman with a pot on her head. A lot of late 40s/early 50s fashion. Often influenced by Portugal (in one Mario records the clothes ordered from Portugal) and closer home, the then Bombay.

t4In the illustrations Kashi is definitely the loveliest of the women featured. That kind of top as well as Goan fashions is featured in many movies set in Bombay and Goa (e.g. the 1952 Jaal, the 1973 Bobby), albeit in it’s Bollywoodised version.