The people of Pataliputra* dressed well in flowered muslins embroidered with jewels, and an umbrella was carried by an attendant behind the head of a noble when he went into the road. Kleitarchus, however, found that in other, poorer parts of India, they wore fillets (turbans, no doubt), on their long hair, and robes of plain white muslin or linen. Intercourse Between India and the Western World, H. G. Rawlinson, 1916.
Conclusion to the sari history series which I started in March 2014.
I didn’t quite know what I wanted to blog when I decided to do a decade wise breakdown of the evolution of the modern sari. In the end it took a whole lot of research and time – and I mean a LOT! – because I was pretty much working off very little basic material. It has been tiring but worth it.
Though I started with the 1870s, the posts as a whole I think are proof that what we as Indians wear reaches way back to the past (the extract describes the Mauryan Empire around the 3rd century BCE) and yet it is not wedded to the past. The forms our clothing adopts is constantly shifting, we are constantly stimulated by the external world and yet we always stay true to our own principles of aesthetics. Elsewhere in the 21st century there may be normcore, a culture where body shape itself is couture and a drift towards the adoption of the principles of male clothing history in the West. In India on the other hand trims, gems, sequins and gold and silver threads bloom in profusion on our fabrics today. This is true even for Indian fashion designed for men. Our fluid drapery remains even with the most ornate of our clothes. Our clothing is experimental and also recreates our past. At the same time the ordinary, worn beauty of our everyday clothing is also evident on our streets.
One of the problems with the links to the past is that our clothing is termed “traditional”, “timeless”, “eternal” and any number of other adjectives – in itself fine words – but often used to denote a lack of change or forward movement. Though less so in our times – tumblr for e.g. can be a veritable celebration of the world’s clothing history – this immediately makes it what Anne Hollander sweepingly and inaccurately calls the “non-fashion” of the “rest of the world” (one gets the impression she had neither the interest nor the wherewithal to engage in anything outside the Western world). That is Indian clothing is seen as something wholly static whereas the word fashion itself is associated with constantly changing forms of dress and urban culture which are necessarily understood as Western. Needless to add I found this not to be the case at all. Neither was it – as I had initially thought might be the case – that the change in each decade was merely a question of adapting a Hollywood ruffle to a saree blouse or twirling a Japanese parasol.
The changes in our fashions over a period of 140+ years are in fact many and they mirror a society where many forces come into play in determining what we wear. The many images I looked at while doing the posts only reinforced this for me while also raising many questions. The nature of blogging has meant that I haven’t provided an indepth analysis. Some day!
What we as Indians wear, what we deem fashionable, the changes with each decade are all defined by us. It is unique to us of the subcontinent. Our clothing and fashion history is rich and wonderful and of our own making. May that never change.
This is what I learnt this year and I remain eternally curious about the sensibilities that shape our clothing.
*present day Patna in Bihar.