Fashioning Bollywood Cover Image

Fashioning Bollywood

The Making and Meaning of Hindi Film Costume


Clare M. Wilkinson-Weber

Berg Fashion Library

Table of contents

Fashion and Spectacle

Book chapter

DOI: 10.5040/
Pages: 99–134

Fashion is not something that exists in dresses only. Fashion is in the sky, in the street, fashion has to do with ideas, the way we live, what is happening.

Coco Chanel

The Fashion of Film

Over its long history, Hindi film has been singularly associated with fashion; in fact, it has been among India’s most influential sources of fresh ways to dress and new things to dress up in. A summation of sorts of film history might be made from the long succession of its iconic costumes; to cite just a few: Raj Kapoor’s tuxedo in Shree 420 (1955), Sadhana’s churidar kameez in Waqt (1965), Dev Anand’s cravats in Jewel Thief (1967), Dimple Kapadia’s halter top and skirt in Bobby (1973), Amitabh Bachchan’s knotted shirt and jeans in Deewaar (1975), Madhuri’s Dixit’s purple lehenga choli in Hum Aapke Hain Koun…! (1994), Aamir Khan’s leather jacket in Dil Chahta Hai (2001), and Preity Zinta’s coat in Kal Ho Naa Ho (2003).

Cinema’s role as educator and marketer—producing contexts in which to make sense of modernity and using the power of compelling visual images to spur consumerism—is by now well recognized in the case of Hollywood (Dyer 2003, 5; Sassatelli 2007, 168). Indian film is no different, and throughout the industry’s history, its relationship with the apparel industry, as well as with the heady heights of exclusive fashion, has been both rich and complicated. Fashion both frames and explains the obvious interest that film has taken in urban life and urban activities (Calefato 2004, 100; Wilson 1987, 9), although the vast majority of Indian citizens continue to live and work in the countryside. The pleasures of urban life—technological, sumptuary, experiential—together comprise the escapism that the mundane film viewer is supposedly in search of when going to the cinema.

In spite of the close, some might argue even synergistic, relationships of film and fashion in many locations around the world, designers in both India and North America are unambiguous that film costume designing is never, and can never be, the same as fashion designing since its primary purpose is to construct a character. Deborah Nadoolman Landis’s dictum (2006) that “[f]ashion and costume design have opposing goals: fashion = commerce, costume = character” would receive universal agreement among dress designers of all ages and experience in Mumbai. It is not that designers deny that there is a place in film for fashionable clothes or that film costume does not influence fashion. The important distinction to make is whether fashion follows character or precedes it. Everyone I talked to was adamant that it was always the former. However, close examination of the processes and procedures of obtaining costume suggested a more complex relationship to fashion than these statements implied. This, as well as the ways in which fashion is used rhetorically to stake out rival positions in the costume world, is the subject of this chapter.

There are two meanings of fashion that need to be borne in mind before I proceed. The first is the more comprehensive definition we find in scholarly literature, where fashion refers to dress both as a set of signifiers (Barthes 1990; Bernard 2002; Calefato 2004; Sahlins 2000) and as a means of self-realization through embodiment (Craik 1994; Entwistle 2000). Fashion, in this sense, can refer to the dress habitus (sensations, dispositions, and values) across and within a range of classes, ethnicities, castes, and so forth without necessarily having to affix itself to a view of fashion that considers only its production and consumption among a rarified elite—or for that matter, mass production for the benefit of middle-class consumers. In scholarly literature, fashion is replacing many previous uses of “costume,” where costume was used to refer to so-called traditional attire. This is in part to emphasize the degree of change and adjustment in clothing in all parts of the globe as a result of colonial contact, the growth of postcolonial regimes, and the rapid transmission of new ideas and materials; in part also, it is to draw attention to the reach of consumer goods and manufactured garments that are co-opted into local sartorial systems (Hansen 2004, 372). The use of “fashion” is also intended to convey the realization that change and variation in clothing choices is a given (at least for the middle classes and upward) in almost all parts of the world, adding a degree of fluidity and uncertainty to clothing’s communicative and phenomenological dimensions where, in the past, stability and conservatism were assumed. Fashion thus refers to all the ways in which human beings perceive meaning in clothing and in which choice, obligation, and transformation are materialized through its use.

Fashion in film, in this sense, is not a mirror of the world to which it refers, but instead something that might be variously described as a sample (in that it cannot contain all dress variants) or as a pastiche (in that it contains elements of imitation with oblique—or obvious—commentary). And just as film audiences may enjoy quoting films in their own sartorial choices, so film costume quotes the dress of other films, creating in effect a system of its own. Everyone in a film is presumed to be in costume, no matter that some individuals are extras wearing their own clothes and acting only in the most cursory sense. The costumes of a film’s world (no matter how fragmented their assembly) then have to present themselves to the audience as real, based on what the viewers know of the dress conventions around them and what they have already seen on screen. As Patrizia Calefato (2004, 91–2) puts it: “[N]ot only is the clothed body on the screen credible, it is also socially ‘true’ and one can create from its image other like bodies, not only in film, but in reality, whether past or present.” The film’s world will forever revolve around its stars, but for completeness and credibility, it will include characters, both major and minor, in everything from police or military uniforms to work clothes to the dusty and bedraggled clothing of the urban and rural poor. Regional origins are broadcast via costume stereotypes, and older characters are typically outfitted in the garb of banal conservatism. There is fashion as a structured regime in such garments, but nothing of fashion as something perennially changeable and desirable, the object of choice that presents itself as a necessity.

It is in the latter sense that the term fashion is used among designers, dressmen, dresswalas, and so on, and the term pertains only to the costume of characters who have their own designers and menswear outfitters—in other words, heroes and heroines, with some of the most outré looks adopted by so-called negative characters, or villains (and, in the past, vamps). Recalling that the vast majority of designers have been (and continue to be) personally associated with a star rather than the film as a whole, it seems odd that they would disavow the role of fashion in an occupation that is dedicated to the burnishing of the star’s onscreen image. The contradiction is solved, for the most part, by acknowledging that cinema’s particular connection to modernity has meant that stars play characters who are intended to be fashionable—in other words, young, presumably affluent people—more often than just about any other kind of character.[1] And there are always the song sequences, which are wide open for bold fashion statements, since forays into imaginative worlds are fodder for costume spectacles that owe far less to realism than do a film’s other scenes.

In spite of what designers say about the primacy of character, it is hard to overlook the alignment of the most fashionable figures with distinct personal designers. At the very least, this alignment suggests that the kinds of styles these characters require can be provided only by certain kinds of people and not others. The split between the providers of costume for the general cast (the dressmen, a designer hired by the production company, the dresswala) and the personal designer echoes the division between fashion as a general sartorial order and fashion as stylistic innovation. What the personal designer does, in conjunction with the star, director, and whoever else makes interjections in the costume process, is to give imaginative form to the effects that fashion as stylistic innovation provokes when it disrupts an existing system of dress and decorum.

This, I believe, explains why films have been able to explore and celebrate new looks and styles while at the same time appearing to endorse conservative proscriptions about improper clothing. Fashion betokened global consciousness, the positive values of modernization, sophistication, and self-possession; equally, the flipside of these qualities—a paucity of Indian authenticity, indifference to tradition, arrogance, and narcissism—were harmful to social order. From the standpoint of dramatic effectiveness, infusing costume with fashionable elements added nuance and variety to the melodramas playing out onscreen. Moving the various figures around the dramatic chessboard (so to speak) could gain immeasurably from using new signifiers to refresh and complicate familiar narratives. Thus, new clothing, styles, fabrics, and so on would be placed on characters with the intention of either refocusing their place in the drama or having the dress propel them away from their anticipated positions. Having staged the collision, so to speak, of one notion of fashion with another, the film leaves the audience, ultimately, to decide how best to make sense of what has happened.

Since the advent of neo-liberalism and economic reform, designers, stars, and their colleagues are apt to point out that fashion has become regularized within film, swapping the edgy eccentricity of early styles for the more realistic ensembles that coincide with a more relaxed familiarity with Western clothing. In fact, for many persons in filmmaking and its related industries, the abstractly adversarial relationship of Western and Indian clothing has disappeared completely, and dress is more a personal choice than a political statement. Steve Derné (2005) has argued that while the upper middle classes and upper classes may have gone along with such a view of dress and morality, most Indians are relatively unmoved by the inducements of film and continue to adhere to standards of decorum that now seem old-fashioned. In the film world, it is the older designers and dressmen from all eras who are most in agreement with this more traditional view, illustrating the kind of philosophical and ethical gap that has opened up between generations and classes. These fashion skeptics belong also to those social categories, described by Leela Fernandes (2000), that covet but cannot always afford the material indulgences of the new economy and who, therefore, remain, wittingly or unwittingly, aloof from them. This differentiation—between a topmost category that is thoroughly at home with contemporary consumerism and lower groups that have limited experience of “shopping”—is very significant for the evolving occupation of costume designing, and it illustrates how a habitus cultivated to be at ease in contemporary metropolitan retail settings has come to supplant one that was adapted to cope with the stresses of material scarcity.

The Shock of Fashion

In her analysis of the role of couturiers such as Coco Chanel, Hubert de Givenchy, and Giorgio Armani in film costume design, Stella Bruzzi (1997) argues that the spectacular aspects of the designer outfit confer upon it a degree of autonomy vis-à-vis the other film components, including the star script itself. Unlike the costumes made by the film’s designated designer, the couturier garment does not seek to disappear into the narrative but rather seeks to push itself to the forefront of the scene. The scenarios Bruzzi describes do not coincide exactly with those in Bollywood, but the prevalence of personal designers and the historical frisson associated with Western clothes (both men’s and women’s) suggest to me that Bruzzi’s argument about the demonstrative possibilities of costume have some applicability in the Indian context. The key here is the connection between fashion (in its limited sense) and modernity.

Film’s association with all things modern found sartorial expression, in the industry’s early years, in Western clothes for heroes and a wide array of dress possibilities for heroines, as innovations in Indian styles took their place next to other kinds of dress. While the overall flavor of dress was distinctly Gujarati, owing to the number of Gujaratis in the film industry at that time (Bhaumik 2005; Ramamurthy 2008), the leading female stars were arrayed in a variety of striking costumes. The superstar of the 1920s and 1930s Sulochana (the renamed Ruby Myers) wore a striking variety of costumes in roles that ranged from oriental vamp, to demure naïf, to working girl, to sophisticated woman in evening gowns (Bhaumik 2005, 92–4). Similar fashion hybridity was exhibited by Patience Cooper, Jahanara Kajjan and others, merging makeup and hairstyles from the United States with a host of adventurous sari styles (Ramamurthy 2008, 147).

As the 1930s wore on, however, the possibility of women as exemplars of modernity in the Indian context ran up against an emotive and antagonistic view of Indian womanhood nurtured by the Independence movement. An assemblage of images and associations developed around the figure of the true Indian woman: demure, pious, clad in a sari that was becoming increasingly conventional and normalized. In the 1930s, as India’s independence struggle against its British occupiers became ever more intense, conventional and conservative versions of the sari began to replace the earlier eclecticism of dress in film, and virtuous women intended for marriage or already in a marriage were almost uniformly dressed in saris. The sari was solidified in the national imagination as an emotive symbol of national aspirations (Bhaumik 2005, 96; Ramamurthy 2008, 163). The value attached to the sari in life and in film gave it a certain aura that seems to transcend history and planted it, ever since, at one end of a scale along which women, and their clothing, have been positioned. In reifying the various forms of Indian dress, independence-minded Indians inevitably consigned certain kinds of clothing to the category of non-Indian, meaning that any intrusion into the realm of the Indian was, according to the logic so ably articulated by Mary Douglas (2002), polluting and dangerous.

In such a context, it was women’s Western styles, embodying modernity in their very nature, that henceforth effortlessly earned the label of “fashion,” while qualifiers such as “new,” “on-trend,” or “different” had to be added to Indian clothes to achieve the same effect. The lingering influence of this discrimination emerged clearly in my interviews with dressmen and older designers, in particular, where the word fashion was used not just to set apart the costumes of films of the 1990s and 2000s, but also to draw a line between skirts, trousers, and casual wear, on the one hand, and saris for women and formal suits for men, on the other. Fashion for women, therefore, found its gravitational center the moment one opted for elements of a Western wardrobe, while fashion for men occupied a more nuanced position within Western wear as a whole—a distinction that coincided well with the kinds of moral judgments about bodies and physicality that we saw in the previous chapter.

Dressed in Western clothes from the earliest years, heroes very rarely sought to impress male virtue through the use of Indian costume, even after Independence (Chakravarty 1993; Virdi 2003). In fact, the ubiquity and acceptability of Western clothing for men means there is no readily applicable code of Western versus Indian available to connect virtue to identity via sartorial choice, as there has conventionally been for heroines. Nationalists did include a call to men to discard their suits and trousers in favor of khadi, or homespun cotton cloth made up into kurtas, pajamas (Indian-style loose trousers), jackets, and so on of a distinctively Indian character (Bean 1989). Overall, however, efforts to keep Indian men dressed in traditional ways, whether initiated by the British or by anticolonial adherents of swadeshi (self-reliance), failed to enlist large numbers of adherents among the middle and upper classes. In sum, while women were prodded toward “signaling radical alterity” in Indian garments, men did the “mimetic labor” of wearing Western clothes (Taussig 1993). At most, a compromise was forged in which men would wear traditional clothes for various ritual occasions and swap the Western clothes they wore in the public domain with Indian styles for the home.

Because it has taken several decades for Western menswear styles to percolate through all of India’s social layers, men’s clothing communicates more readily about class (and possibly caste) than it does about any other kind of social or cultural characteristic. Films make much of this very point, emphasizing that success in life is sealed by the acquisition of Western-style trousers and shirts, while dhotis and kurtas relegate their wearers to backwardness and poverty. An early scene from Bimal Roy’s classic 1953 film Do Bigha Zamin shows this power of dress to effect a dramatic change in social status. When the protagonist, Shambo, played by Balraj Sahni, asks his fellow villager about life in the city, the man responds by summing up the wonderful clothes that urbanites wear—“people dress differently [there]; they wear belts around their middle and shoes upon their feet!”

For the most part, the nationalist, noncommunal, and modern identity of the hero has meant that Western clothes, stripped of critical marks of subcultural affiliation, contribute significantly to his effectiveness, the key being the extent to which the hero can be seen to imbibe or exude the Indian values that clothes only treacherously convey. Sumita Chakravarty (1993) points in particular to the “signifiers of dress” alongside “accent and gesture” as the materials films have used to pose questions concerning male subjectivity, questions that, at this point in the book, we should not be surprised to discover are complicated by the knowledge about actors and their personas that film audiences possess. Viewers are thereby alerted to the possibility of making intertextual links between films that, as standalone projects, have no connection (they do not take place within the same diegetic universe, in other words). As a result, actors personalize the conflicts and struggles of life in contemporary India to a striking degree.

The ideas presented above are beautifully exemplified by Raj Kapoor’s 1955 film Shree 420, named for the section of independent India’s penal code that dealt with cheats and frauds. Shree 420 is one of a number of films of the post-Independence period that articulates a dystopian vision of the city (Mazumdar 2007), and it uses clothing explicitly to give visual shape to the moral relationships it traces (Dwyer 2000b). The story follows the odyssey of everyman Raj (played by Raj Kapoor), whose trek from country to city deposits him amid the worst social parasites and leeches that urban life produces. Raj first appears dressed in a motley arrangement of clothes from countries all over the world, pulled together in a kind of bricolage that might be termed cosmopolitan were it not for the fact that the clothes are poorly fitted, worn out, and, presumably, secondhand. After some setbacks in the city, however, he begins to make good, and he replaces his old clothing accordingly.

Raj’s fortunes turn upon his getting a job in, of all places, a laundry, where he is engaged in the repeated and thus unfinished task of removing stains from clothes that is just like the job of removing corruption from the people who wear them. Soon Raj takes advantage of his proximity to the seemingly limitless numbers of suits, shirts, and trousers of the well-off to “borrow” the items he likes and wear them himself. Raj, we are told in unambiguous terms, is trying on new personas via the purloined clothes—he is a nobody trying new ways of being a somebody. In one memorable scene, Raj stands inside the laundry and imagines he sees the suits and shirts flying in a dizzying parade, one after another. Raj Kapoor’s narrative purposes, at this point, are served by clothes not just as symbols of an empty materialism to which the new nation is vulnerable, but also as the substantial form in which this materialism is made manifest.

The one beacon of integrity in Raj’s life is a woman he meets shortly after his arrival, a self-conscious, slightly awkward heroine, Vidya (a name meaning knowledge), played by Nargis. Vidya is a dependent and dutiful daughter, and she is also every inch the hegemonic, anticolonial, pro-independence feminine ideal, appearing in one scene toward the end of the film wrapped in a sari, the pallu drawn over her head and modestly across the torso, like a figure out of a Raja Ravi Varma painting.[2] Positioned opposite her, across the line that demarcates the domain of fashion, is Maya (meaning illusion), played by Nadira. Maya is the manipulative, independent associate of the main villains. Of the costume she designed for the character of Maya, designer Bhanu Athaiya has written that her brief was to “break the norm” (Athaiya 2010), attiring her, for instance, in an asymmetric dress with one shoulder bared, tight bodice, and wide flowing skirt. Maya’s norm-breaking continues throughout the film, as she displays her ostentatious jewelry, fiddles with a long cigarette holder, and reveals herself to be both a lover of fashion and a greedy reprobate. She is also extremely seductive to Raj, and her erotic appeal is showcased in two cabaret numbers, one of which sees her wearing a tight, shimmering mermaid dress that suggests all manner of psychoanalytic and symbolic possibilities.

Figure 11

From initial awkwardness at wearing the dress of a more sophisticated and richer man, Raj becomes more at ease, and in so doing, turns into Raj Kapoor (Shree 420, 1955, directed and produced by Raj Kapoor). (DVD distributor, Shemaroo Entertainment.)

The segregation of the women of the film largely follows expectations with respect to the style of clothes, the use of the body, and the preference for Indian versus Western appearances. As long as both kinds of woman (and both kinds of clothes) were present, pleasure and piety could be harnessed in a single narrative frame, satisfying aficionados of modernity and staunch traditionalists all at once. The transformation effected in Raj by his theft of clothes is, however, considerably more complex. Dressed in a black tuxedo and tie, Raj looks less like a small-time crook in a rich man’s costume than he looks like Raj Kapoor himself (Kapoor took the character name Raj repeatedly throughout his career, an unsubtle invitation to read both Kapoor’s own star text into each film and to imaginatively link character and star actor-director together). Raj betrays no discomfort in the dress of affluence; on the contrary, he looks as though he were born to it. The implications are many. The character’s loss of self comes at the moment of the star’s recognition, an intertextual interruption that depends upon audience collusion. Moreover, the emergence of a visually recognizable Raj Kapoor within the Raj character naturally blunts the disquiet concerning Raj’s falling away from the path of virtue. How can any viewer believe that Raj Kapoor, the actor and director, is a willing participant in the bankrupt materialism the film seeks to critique? In fact, aside from the obvious villains of the film, one of the enemies of the people that Kapoor singles out is the politician who wears the uniform of nationalist virtue: a khadi ensemble of pajamas, kurta, Nehru jacket, and Gandhi cap. Even as the film equivocates on the meanings of Western clothes on men, authorizing them when they appear on the right kinds of people while castigating them as the source of immoral and excessive desires in others, no such critical reflection upon whether clothes are a legitimate externalization of true goodness is applied to women.

Figure 12

Nadira as Maya wears her norm-breaking dress and smokes a cigarette to boot. Everything about Maya suggests her villainy, but her choice of dress is among the first warnings (Shree 420, 1955, directed and produced by Raj Kapoor). (DVD distributor, Shemaroo Entertainment.)

Of the female stars in Shree 420, Nadira spent much of her career playing negative roles, while Nargis overwhelmingly played heroines. Indeed, her last film, Mother India (1957), clinched her position in the national imagination as the ultimate embodiment of female sacrifice and self-abnegation. Early in her career, she appeared in Western-style dresses, including blouses and trousers, in films such as Andaz (1949) and Anhonee (1952) (playing a double role in the latter); these roles seemed to underscore the association of Western clothing with enabling narcissism and muddying moral boundaries. However, her appearance as the educated and enlightened Rita in Awaara (1951)—complete with Western clothes, including, in one daring scene, a swimsuit—inclines rather toward celebrating the commitment and energy of a thoroughly modern woman to both justice and love. This kind of ambiguity recurs throughout the history of Hindi film from mid-century onward, so that, while the normative connection of Westernization with fashion and with moral danger is never completely dissolved, there are still plenty of occasions in which heroines shift between Indian and Western styles without necessarily being pitched into the realm of the vamp.

This can, in part, be attributed to the stars’ (and other members of the privileged classes) own interest in following international consumerist trends, for which they evidently felt no particular embarrassment. In fact, to understand fashion in film means to step back and look more broadly at the media landscape in which fashion and stardom were so skillfully combined.

Media and Style

For decades, films have been the most widely accessible means of introducing audiences to new styles, ideas, and behaviors. For the literate, there have also been periodicals and magazines, as well as newspapers in which news, commentary, and images facilitated “flows” across the growing global “mediascape” (Appadurai 1990). In the 1950s, editor and publisher Baburao Patel’s wonderfully acerbic journal, Film India, featured photograph upon photograph of female actors in off-the-shoulder blouses, dirndl skirts, ankle-length slacks, and dressing gowns. Women’s magazines in the 1950s printed drawings of dresses that could be copied, as well as film stills and photographs of stars in a variety of outfits. Before she ventured into costume design, Bhanu Athaiya wrote a column for the women’s journal, Femina, including sketches of women’s clothes that drew heavily upon styles featured in foreign (particularly American) films. Later, from the 1960s onward, color magazines such as Filmfare spotlighted film costumes in stills from the latest movies, and they began to incorporate articles that were in essence fashion photo shoots featuring prominent film stars. Star and Style’s fashion spreads and advertisements in the late 1960s and early 1970s showed stars wearing trouser suits, bell-bottoms, and tunics. As the 1970s transitioned to the 1980s, Filmfare’s earlier convention of dressing a major heroine in an elegant sari for a feature or fashion story switched toward outfitting heroines in the casual styles of jeans, blouses, and T-shirts that corresponded to an increasingly informal notion of leisure and private life. In short, at the same time as films continued to roll out the statutory cautions about the dangers of Western mores, for women in particular, filmi magazines were dressing up stars in Western garments ostensibly as sources of harmless entertainment.

The media notoriously proffer stories about the “daily life” of stars that are, in fact, meticulously staged. However, ample evidence exists to suggest that stars themselves have been extremely fashion conscious, and have actively sought out novel outfits, either at home or abroad. Athaiya’s film career was launched after Kamini Kaushal and Nargis, who patronized her dressmaking business, requested that she make costumes for their film work. Athaiya’s book includes photographs of both stars in her creations, and neither one of them is wearing the kind of demure Indian style that typified the modal film heroine (Athaiya 2010).

Male stars appeared in 1950s film magazines in various kinds of suits or trouser-and-jacket combinations. Stars such as Dev Anand acquired a particular reputation for style, with a look that evolved from wide-shouldered suits (reminiscent of American star Gregory Peck, who resembled Anand) in C.I.D. (1956), to flared trousers in Guide (1965), to cravats and patterned shirts in Jewel Thief (1967). Men and women alike used the opportunity of overseas travel to fill up their wardrobes with clothes and accessories that were far too difficult to acquire at home. These forays performed a double function: not only did they allow Indian film stars to claim equality with foreign stars from a sartorial standpoint, but they also ensured a flow of materials and one-off garments that could be integrated into film. Necessity was truly the mother of invention in these instances, and we are compelled to reflect upon the inherently spectacular status of such items, no matter their precise form (or color or texture or other visual and tactile characteristics)—simply because they were, in the Indian context, utterly unique.

Excess Amid Austerity

Inside the complex symbolic economy of fashionable clothing in the era before neo-liberalism, vamps or villains often had to be set apart by being dressed in the most spectacular and even shocking clothes that a film had to offer. The vamp was always an independent figure, assertive, active, and, as a species of femme fatale, a distillation of male fear of female sexuality (Doane 1991). The fact that she almost always failed in her schemes to seduce the hero diminished her power but did very little to alter her position within the moral landscape of the film (Pinto 2006). The love of excess is what united the cabaret-dancing, cigarette-smoking vamp with the other versions of the nefarious female whose plots might be hatched within the bosom of the family. An unashamed love of spectacular clothing and jewelry, the acquisition of such novel accessories as shoulder bags, fur stoles, and cigarette holders—all spoke of a selfish enjoyment of consumption that was openly distinguished from the more measured and tasteful desires of the good Indian woman (Mazumdar 2007, 87; Wilkinson-Weber 2005). At the same time, the rival attractions of the vamp in her fashionable, outrageous clothes and bodily display posed a challenge to the heroine’s own embodiment of modernity. Heroine and vamp offered a counterpoint of sorts, but it was not one in which the heroine could merely stay put at the most conservative end of the dress spectrum. As much as the heroine’s qualified embrace of fashion seemed to push the vamp to extremes to differentiate herself, so the vamp could also be seen as pulling the heroine toward more audacious expressions of youth, beauty, and joie de vivre.

Two heroines who emerged in the 1970s, Parveen Babi and Zeenat Aman, were among the first and most important performers to play sympathetic characters spanning the bright line separating the decent from the depraved; in time, instead of the negative character having to rise to more shocking extremes to allow the heroine to occupy the domain of fashion and style, the two positions began to draw closer together (Dwyer 2000b; Kabir 2001). Designers such as Mani Rabadi and Xerxes Bhathena (for Zeenat Aman and Parveen Babi, respectively) were being called on to design with an eye to glamour, and soon a new generation of heroines was popping up, both in film and in film and fashion magazines, in costumes that ranged from the eye-catching to the frankly bizarre. Making glamour normative meant that clothes at the farthest edges of fashion teetered into self-parody. This came dramatically to my attention at the National Film Archives in Pune in 2008, as I went through copy after copy of Filmfare from the early 1980s to the early 1990s. In no time, it became almost impossible for me to write dispassionately about the clothes in the film stills and fashion spreads on offer. Among the descriptions in my notes are the following: about a feature in the June 1988 issue: “Dimple in leopard-spotted, red skirt with Lycra leggings, boots and a funny hat, and tight black top and shades”; and about a feature in June 1993: “Sridevi in some crazy mess—bodice with yellow sleeves, satin, big headgear like a stuffed bird, fringe like a bordello curtain, harem-like ghaghara.” This kind of freewheeling bricolage was, to some degree, emblematic of certain trends in 1980s costume that can be identified in other parts of the world. It was also, however, the paradoxical result of having to give material form to flamboyance and splendor in very difficult productive circumstances (a point I return to below).

A comparable attachment to the accoutrements of modernity typified villains. Like vamps, they tended to be sexually aggressive, but unlike them, no opprobrium attached to villains for this reason alone. In fact, it was far easier for a male villain to mislead the other characters as to his true nature, since he tended to favor expensive (or apparently expensive) Western clothing that was the sine qua non of achieved status. Typically played by mature, even middle-aged men, villains could take cynical advantage of signs of respectability—clothes included—in public, while displaying a lack of self-control in their proclivities for physical and sexual violence in private, indications of a fundamental immaturity. The villain’s uneven identification with both youth and age is captured in striking ensembles that are well tailored, possibly brightly colored, and steeped in the visual language of power. Villains like to revel in the fabrics, colors, and styles of contemporary fashion, but their wealth and status mean that their style is more studied than the hero’s: the suits are sharper, the accessories more expensive and ostentatious.

The villain’s tastes may also stray into the bizarre or fantastic, as though the villain neither knows social convention nor cares about it: the costumes of Amrish Puri as Mogambo in 1987’s Mr India are perhaps the best, but not the only, example of this phenomenon. The character actor Pran, when preparing for a villainous role, was wont to approach his designer and say, “Itna fantastic getup dena” (give me such a fantastic getup). Pran’s comment here alerts us as well to the implications of the splendid outfitting of the villain from an extratextual standpoint. In the fairly strict division of acting labor by which actors specialize in positive or negative roles, the aging villain comes off somewhat better than the virtuous father figure, enjoying the expertly tailored suit or the splendid, scene-stealing outfit that effaces some, if not all, of the losses associated with an older face and body.

The pleasures to be had in making these kinds of costumes come not just from the creative opportunities involved but also from the skill needed to produce the illusion of luxury. Fortunately, as far as villains were concerned, menswear stores had sunk roots deep enough that they were quite familiar with how to work with and around the material stringencies of pre-1990s India. Madhav’s Men’s Modes is a menswear store in the suburb of Bandra that brands itself (not without some humor) as a designer for both movie villains and politicians. Madhav Agasti, the proprietor, began his association with film costume at Super Tailor, a well-known costume supplier to the film industry. He started his own business in the mid-1970s, and he began working for Madan Puri in 1976 and, after that, for Madan’s brother Amrish Puri, as well as Gulshan Grover, Saeed Jaffery, and Om Puri (Patel and Dugar 2011). The public association of a store with screen villains seems, on the face of it, a detriment, but on reflection, it seems logical enough: since villains often dress very well, to clothe a villain is not just to connect oneself to a select category of Hindi film actors, but also to be able to advertise on a uniquely compelling stage. As I learned:

[For a] hero, you can take jeans, T-shirts, but in a villain’s costume, there is creation; there is a getup in the villain’s dress and different types of dress only villains use in movies. Villains are using bright colors; in public, they’re [ordinary people] not using bright colors.

Agasti perceptively noted that the villain’s look not only varies from film to film but also is the costume that is least affected by whatever anyone else is wearing. Admittedly, with several personal designers employed on a film, the degree of collaboration is always subject to chance (as I have already discussed). But Agasti’s point is well taken, for the idiosyncrasy of the villain’s costume could be regarded as itself an expression of the villain’s egoism.

By implication, the menace of villainy stalks any and all dress innovation that appears in a film, a conundrum that filmmakers were all too aware of in the decades following Independence. Stars such as Dev Anand, Shammi Kapoor, and Raaj Kumar all appeared in roles in which an uncertain moral compass coincided with a choice of fashionable clothes. When jeans started being worn by stars (long before they became acceptable for most Indians to wear), they were, as in Hollywood, “endlessly adapted to the creation of new genders and sexualities” (Rabine and Kaiser 2006, 236). Even though, in public life, jeans wearers were generally among the affluent, in film, jeans were fitting signifiers for characters testing or even transgressing social norms (Wilkinson-Weber 2011, 53). These included Dharmendra in a denim ensemble as Veeru, the petty criminal turned hero in the 1975 film Sholay, as well as the new superstar of film, Amitabh Bachchan, in several movies that showcased his “angry young man” characterization. Viewed in light of the equivocal meaning of new styles, Bachchan’s embodiment of the working-class antihero, dressed in jeans and wide-lapelled shirts (or the natty suits, bow ties, and flared trousers that went along with his character’s rise in the criminal ranks), appears less singular. Stylish clothes had always carried with them the possible taint of corruption; emotion and action were ultimately what set the hero apart. When the pendulum swung back in favor of feudal melodramas and youthful romances in the 1990s, the new forms of dress added to the hero’s repertoire in the 1970s and 1980s were not lost but were instead incorporated into an ever-wider range of dress possibilities.

For the heroine to co-opt the vamp, she needed to be elevated to a higher class of woman whose education and worldliness buffered the ill effects of “dangerous” clothing. The hero’s trajectory was a little different. On some occasions, this might mean going in the opposite direction from the heroine to appropriate the street tough or gangster with a heart of gold by wearing leather vests and jackets, boots, string vests, and motorbike caps (Mazumdar 2007). On others, the hero (often an NRI or a person of Indian heritage who lives abroad) would occupy such rarefied environments of wealth and privilege that there was scarcely any light between him and the erstwhile fabulously rich and Westernized villain.

Figure 13

A scene from the huge hit film Sholay (1975, directed by Ramesh Sippy, produced by G.P. Sippy) shows both Amitabh Bachchan and Dharmendra, the stars, wearing denim clothes. They play a pair of small-time crooks who come to the rescue of a village preyed upon by a vicious bandit. (DVD distributor, Eros International.)

What is so surprising, given the overtly spectacular forms that were developed for negative female and male characters, is that almost all had to be done in circumstances of considerable financial and material stringency. Before the 1980s, high-quality ready-made clothes were hard to come by in India, and in consequence, the majority of costumes were handmade from scratch. Undergarments had to be made to order, and fabric had to be carefully hoarded since replacements would be hard to come by—in effect, the logic of material scarcity underscored the uniqueness of certain costumes for which no true duplicate could be made. The very substance of glamour had to be constructed from small bolts of material that might never be encountered again, from the imaginative reuse of accessories and jewelry from film to film, and from the collaboration of craft specialists in dyeing, stitching, and embroidering who were scattered all over the city. That glamour teetered on the top of a very fragile infrastructure, in which time and materials were always in short supply, makes it even more striking that such extraordinary and norm-breaking outfits were ever made at all. Ironically, it is only when off-the-rack outfits and a range of fabrics and dress ideas become more readily available that glamour begins to give way to forms of realism that categorically reject everything filmi.

Meanwhile, Indian film stars were not so thoroughly immersed in the endorsement and enjoyment of Westernized modernity that they lacked familiarity with and affinity for practices that were emphatically coded Indian. Coverage of weddings showed that they wore the customary dress for such occasions, and while formal wear for men was de rigueur at industry events, women almost always appeared in public in elegant saris. In fact, heroines were more likely to drive fashion trends via a degree of play with the silhouette, fabric, and decorative features of saris, salwar kameezes, ghagharas, and the like than they were through wearing striking, but for most Indian women unwearable, Western styles. The incorporation of these forms into a fashion sensibility is the topic I turn to next.

Fashioning Tradition

One of the most interesting points of intersection between fashion as modern style and fashion as a larger system of meanings and embodiments comes in film’s experimentation with forms of women’s dress, such as the sari and the salwar kameez. Although film is not the only arena within which these kinds of ventures have been launched, its reach and influence make it the preeminent source of dress innovation as far as its viewers are concerned. Indeed, the normalization of the salwar kameez as a suitable garment for young and professional women can be attributed, in part, to film’s co-option and development of the form. Initially thought of as the dress of Muslims, Punjabi Hindus, or Sikhs, the salwar kameez began to grow in popularity in the 1960s and 1970s with the emergence of the “college girl”—an overtly modern middle-class to upper-class heroine who had a university education. The salwar kameez is essentially composed of loose pants, a tunic (which may be of varying lengths), and a dupatta, or scarf. Variations include swapping the loose salwar for churidar, or tight, gathered pants, or more recently, adopting leggings under the kameez. Its modest character and ease of wear have caused the salwar kameez to gradually outstrip the sari as acceptable dress for both younger and older women, unmarried and married, in the middle classes in North India (Dwyer and Patel 2002, 88).

A churidar worn with a kameez was almost instantly popularized by the 1965 film Waqt, whose heroines (played by Sadhana and Sharmila Tagore) appeared in every scene in either a new sari or a new salwar or churidar suit, close-fitting around the upper torso and streamlined from the hip to the knee. The film’s strong visual aesthetic, with its almost fetishistic regard for cars, clothes, and the very latest word in household commodities (circular beds, trendy rotary phones, glossy magazines), helped reinforce the idea that Indian styles, skillfully adapted, could fit comfortably in a modern lifestyle. Subsequently, designers experimented further with the cut and color of the different parts of the suit, or with the interplay of the dupatta and other elements of the ensemble. Examples include Rekha’s churidar and kurta outfits in Silsila (1981), Sridevi’s white-accented salwar kameez in Chandni (1989), and Dimple Kapadia’s “ethnic-chic” churidar kurtas and salwar kameez with dupattas in Dil Chahta Hai (2001).

Figure 14

The dresses worn by Sadhana (with her famous hairstyle) and Sharmila Tagore in Waqt (1965, directed by Yash Chopra, produced by B.R. Chopra) revolutionized the use of salwars and churidars, which thereafter became far more popular as respectable, neutral dress for unmarried women. Pictured with Sadhana here are Raaj Kumar and Sunil Dutt, both playing men with a distinct sense of style (in both clothing and American cars). (DVD distributor, Moserbaer Entertainment.)

With respect to the sari, variation came from using new fabrics, adopting unusual regional styles, or making dramatic modifications to the body of the sari fabric itself—such as cutting away existing borders and replacing them with new ones or dyeing the sari length a new color. Several older designers alluded to the unmatched capacity of chiffon to fall flatteringly and confer a lightness and linearity to the body; in the blunt terms of Shila, a woman who had happened upon costume design by chance and worked on a several films in the early 1990s:

Figure 15

Both Sharmila Tagore and Sadhana wear a different sari or salwar kameez in every scene in Waqt (1965, directed by Yash Chopra, produced by B.R. Chopra), a foreshadowing of continuous costume changing in later films from the 1970s and 1980s. (DVD distributor, Moserbaer Entertainment.)

I used to give the chiffon more to the ladies, because they always look fat, no? Everybody wants to look slim, so I won’t give much cotton or silk; silk will make you fat, cotton will make you more fat. If you give chiffon, it will be very different. Chiffon, a nice border, border on neck or sleeve, it makes a different look.

Designers generally took on the task of designing clothes for both onscreen and offscreen appearances by their stars, in effect facilitating the fashionable images that stars were keen to cultivate.

Men’s clothing presented far fewer difficulties, but the skewing of fashion toward more youthful, casual forms in the 1970s was not without its challenges for the Indian film costume supplier. By the mid-1970s, young urban male characters, no matter their class position, dressed in the casual clothing that came to the fore in the West with the various style upheavals of the 1960s. The urban, working-class antiheroes of the high-water mark of Amitabh Bachchan’s career (in films such as Sholay [1975], Deewaar [1975], and Coolie [1983]) were dressed in slacks or jeans, a shirt, and a denim jacket, not in a dhoti or pajamas and a kurta. Denim—in jackets, but mostly in the form of jeans—was by far the foremost winner in the realignment of fashion after the 1960s, displacing other fabrics as the quintessential marker of contemporary style. Since India was then, and remains, a major manufacturer and global supplier of denim, there was no obvious obstacle to mainstreaming denim jeans for both film stars and film viewers. Conservatism in public life played a role in slowing the appropriation of jeans as fashion, as did opinions that elevated foreign brands over local ones. In fact, the studied fascination of recent years with well-established global brands originates with these early concerns, since jeans were almost never given out to a tailor to make from scratch but were bought ready-made (Wilkinson-Weber 2011).

Neo-Liberalism and After

Commodity Capitalism, Realism, and Altered Sartorial Forms

The arrival of foreign goods, including brand-label clothing, and media and advertising industries ready to show and promote them destabilized the system of film fashion (in its broader sense) more profoundly than any previous event or process. Contemporary designers, journalists, and other film professionals currently active were united in locating the beginnings of change in the 1980s with the diversification of the media environment—the availability of cable television, the growth in the advertising and publishing businesses. This diversification, they felt, gave middle-class and upper-class Indians an exposure to global trends in fashion and lifestyle that primed them to accept the new trends in dress and design that grew apace in the 1990s.

There is nothing new in Bollywood critics blaming films for their lack of realism, as though realism were the only standard by which cinematic quality ought to be measured. However, the particular spin on realism that the new crop of designers shares doesn’t simply request that directors and actors put less stress on overacting or that films have fewer songs; instead, it attempts to plant characters inside worlds that are imaginable within postliberalization India, advocates greater attention to continuity, and seeks to create the impression of a film character as a person who does not wear a new dress every day but rewears, recombines, and revitalizes clothing items in each succeeding scene. This kind of realism demands, as a prerequisite, a more careful accounting of what costumes have been made, what has been worn, and when costumes will be needed again. Permeating all is a discourse of characterization and realism that justifies a rebalance of workloads and responsibilities as a sign of maturity in the industry, the long-awaited professionalization whose absence afflicted all films until the present.

Farhan Akhtar’s 2001 film Dil Chahta Hai exemplifies the sort of realism that has now become an index of “quality” in the industry. The film came up repeatedly in my interviews with contemporary designers, ADs, costume assistants, and others as one in which the actors wore “real” clothes. Significantly, it was among the first of recent films aimed narrowly toward a metropolitan, upper-middle-class audience. Dil Chahta Hai is a ruminative, loosely structured film about three well-educated, affluent friends in Mumbai; the film does not draw on the connective threads of kin or community to either unite or divide them. The elements of stock Bollywood plotting are not entirely abandoned; Akash (Aamir Khan) and Shalini (Preity Zinta) overcome obstacles on the path to love, and tormented divorcée Tara Jaiswal (Dimple Kapadia), as the older lover of Siddharth (Akshaye Khanna), is doomed to die. The realism of Dil Chahta Hai relates less to certain narrative points than it does to the naturalistic style of acting, the thematic focus on the personal and psychological struggles of three upper-middle-class men, and above all, the determined attachment of all three men to the conventions of global fashion. Designer Arjun Bhasin, who has gone on to be the sole designer for many films, including those of Mira Nair, was reported to be determined “to get away from the big disaster of film styling till then—the matching look” (Gahlaut 2004, 60)—in other words, the singular combination of a set of garments into one outfit with jewelry and accessories. Keeping on top of continuity had meant previously that all the elements of a costume for a particular scene were stored together, with no piece being broken out to appear with another element, even though ordinary people regularly put certain accessories and ornaments with different combinations of clothing. However, “now, the same pair of trousers will be seen in different scenes, only put together with different elements” (Gahlaut 2004, 60).

Later in the 2000s, a shift back toward subaltern characters in at least some films allowed the experimentation with realism to develop further. Films depicting urban criminal gangs or political corruption in small towns and rural areas cracked open a space for costume design that directs itself to the minutely observed life of the ordinary person, rather than spectacular fantasy. This is costume realism in its sincerest form, and it returns heroines to salwar kameezes and saris (for example, Mahie Gill as Parminder in Dev D [2009] or Priyanka Chopra as Sweety in Kaminey [2009]), in recognition of the reality in India that the vast majority of women have not taken on the dress conventions of the well to do and very rich. The same stipulations of female beauty apply, but now actors can anticipate being asked to wear a wider variety of costumes over their careers than ever before. Vituperative comments about the poor state of film costuming from present-day designers are aimed squarely (if not consciously) at the outfits that were put on actors in the 1980s, the era that directly preceded neo-liberalism and that filmmakers today are most concerned with distancing themselves from. The general sentiment is summed up in this statement from designer Laila, and who has worked on prestigious projects for decades: “I find that there’s too much escapism. I do understand that you need to have a certain element of glamour, but I sometimes find that over the top.” It is only fair to repeat, however, that by present-day standards, costumes of the 1980s from almost any film industry look overstated and gaudy, and Bollywood costumes just pushed to an extreme trends that were very plain elsewhere.

Returning for a moment to Dil Chahta Hai, the impression of constant costume change borrowed from earlier films remains to some extent, in keeping with the effortlessly easy access to money and commodities the characters all share; in other respects, however, the clothes are generally understated and extremely casual, except for when Akash is shown wearing suits at his office. The result is that the self-consciously filmi costumes in the film’s song sequences are even more striking than they would be otherwise. From this point onward, more and more instances of parody and irony crop up in the song sequences of other films, leavening the realism of the rest of the film with a distinct set of occasions in which fantasy and excess can be expressed. Spectacle, in other words, complete with disruptive and demonstrative costume, is increasingly diverted exclusively into the song sequences, where high-fashion outfits, fantasy costumes, and imagined spaces can be compiled. Self-reflective devices such as these have allowed designers in the 2000s to have their cake and eat it too, since they can indulge in filmi excess while investing it with a deep sense of irony and still have their realist costumes that function identically with costumes as professionally (and ideally) conceived in American and European cinema.

Taming Western Clothing

As in the past, stars have been critical to mediating the new consumerism, through their own engagement with clothes, cars, interior decor, and so on. In particular, the connection between the film and fashion worlds has become tighter, as more entrants to the film industry emerge from modeling or beauty pageant backgrounds and, in turn, stars attach themselves to up-and-coming designers and take on high-value brand endorsements. For some, fashion was so significant a component of their professional activities that they were transforming from mere film stars into media celebrities. Nurturing a professional relationship with a film designer who has fashion training and experience, as well as ongoing projects in the apparel business, presented obvious advantages to a new generation of stars, particularly given the relaxation of standards for dress propriety in films. So important does the designer become as image consultant, adviser, beautifier, and moral supporter that actors may insist on the services of their favorite designer as forcefully as they have argued in the past for a particular tailor. Organizationally speaking, this is where conflict can arise between the drive toward realism via hiring a single costume designer and the personal and commercial interests of a star. When Karisma Kapoor returned to the screen in Dangerous Ishhq (2012), she insisted that Manish Malhotra, who had done her costumes for countless films and helped direct a makeover earlier in her career, would design her clothes for the film. Asked to explain this, the director Vikram Bhatt said that, “Nidhi Yasha [the film’s designated dress designer] would now be researching Karisma’s clothes. Manish would actually be designing them” (Jha 2011). This attempt at a diplomatic statement revealed that the solution was to break apart what are typically fused claims to knowledge based on research, on the one hand, and design based on aesthetic refinement, on the other. The expectation that a star’s dress designer would do his or her clothes, whether or not the other actors have their own designer, has been so entrenched in the industry previously that it did not even seem worth noting. That a director would feel the need to speak out about it hints at a growing unease at prevailing custom in the industry, even though it by no means suggests that the practice is likely to go away soon.

Uncompromising commitment to fashion that passes muster on a global stage has gone hand in hand with marked change in the ways in which heroines are evaluated for wearing it. The mainstreaming of Western clothes that Aman and Babi initiated had, by the turn of the twenty-first century, led to a situation in which there was little the heroine could wear (or not wear, as the case may be) that compromised her position as a moral actor within the film—or jeopardized her right to wear the emblem of virtuous Indian womanhood, a sari. The increasingly matter-of-fact inclusion of jeans, T-shirts, blouses, and Western dresses in films since the 1990s differs substantially from earlier films. Shifts in the standards of what is considered appropriate dress among young upper-middle-class and upper-class women in India’s metropolises are apparent to anyone who pays attention to such things, and altered conventions have both fed and feed upon the sartorial conventions that Bollywood seems now to identify with.


Locating designer expertise in the fashion industry, specifically knowledge of brands and a sense of the pulse of global fashion, marks a departure from opting for an arts-educated personal designer and, for male stars, the menswear store. Sourcing overseas apparel has evolved from ad hoc trawling of boutiques and marketplaces as opportunity arose to well-planned and purposive shopping trips to the United States, Europe, Dubai, and Bangkok, where one can also easily pick up high street labels such as Zara and Topshop, as well as jeans and other casual clothes. Alongside the appearance of designers with active fashion and film careers has come increasing use of the term “styling.” There are three distinct meanings of styling that I can identify. The first is a narrative and aesthetic sensibility that informs a character’s look throughout the film. A second meaning, closely related to the first, is a sense of style, in that costumes associated with styling are fashionable as judged by the standards of the global industry. The final meaning of styling is that it involves buying off-the-rack clothes (whether brand-label or not) and combining them to make a series of outfits, as opposed to crafting a costume from scratch and having it stitched. Whichever definition one chooses, styling effectively connects film to larger global flows of fashion and commodity goods.

Designer Manish Malhotra says of styling that he brought it into play with the film Rangeela (1995) by working out a look for star Urmila Matondkar that was consistent with her character throughout the film, rather than designing ad hoc creations that spoke only (and sometimes bizarrely) to the scene in question (Team MissMalini 2013). Matondkar’s appearance as Mili in Rangeela, a story of a young woman’s dream to become a film star, transformed her career. Her character was shown juggling bohemian ensembles of hats, blouses, and pants with dramatic, off-the-shoulder dresses, leotards and leggings, and cleavage-baring bikinis tops and slit skirts. Opposite her, Aamir Khan played a tapori (a streetwise tough) character whose efforts to impress Mili—in, for instance, a loud and frankly filmi yellow suit—were played entirely for laughs.

It is not entirely clear that thinking about characters in terms of styling is as new as designers make it out to be, if we take styling to mean the assignment of visual and audible motifs to characters or the cultivation of a certain sustained appearance. But we can tell that the reason for stressing styling is that it implies a preproduction process and a degree of thinking through an entire film that seems far more organized and deliberative than common practices in films of old. And as for styling as the use of already finished items combined to make film costumes, this is by no means unusual from a comparative perspective. American and European productions regularly involve a “build” (the making of costume from scratch) alongside both shopping and “pulling” (the use of costumes from costume shops). The use of ready-made, off-the-rack items within styling is now a standard element in the design briefs of young designers and costume assistants, and it requires a knowledge of “how to shop” that calls especially upon the kinds of knowledge and expertise that young, upper-middle-class men and women are likely to have (Wilkinson-Weber 2010a).

Figure 16

Urmila Matondkar as Mili and Aamir Khan as Munna in Rangeela (1995, directed and produced by Ram Gopal Varma). Mili is a free spirit and wears a variety of offbeat clothes, including these pajamas. (DVD distributor, Pathfinder Home Entertainment.)

The term styling has come into wide use alongside the rise of a figure specifically designated a stylist. Articles in the media sometimes use stylist and designer interchangeably (Screen Weekly 2007), but actual designers and stylists are fairly clear about how they differ. Unlike a stylist in Europe or North America, whose job it is to dress stars for various industry events, the Hindi film stylist is, in essence, a costume specialist who primarily makes up a film wardrobe from shopping rather than from conceiving a new set of clothes entirely. Some designers farm out styling jobs to their employees. Designer Krishna, whose fashion and film career began in the 1990s, explains:

I’m not looking to chase the pants and the jeans and do that kind of a movie, like you notice there is this kind of requirement which is very basic, so my assistant is working on it, and he gets his commission. I just kind of sit here and supervise it: “No, this isn’t correct, this is correct. Go.” So he gets his commission, he’s happy, he’s learning work, and yet I’m putting in my little two bits to it. I won’t even go for the meeting, I won’t go for the shoot, but it’s happening, it’s happening under my name. Because there is nothing for me to do in it, na? What am I supposed to do when they want like two leather jackets, and two denim shirts, and two straight jeans. All the boy has to do is fit them together. I just tell him what to wear with what.

That anyone would call this something other than designing (when it commonly is considered designing in other film industries) can reflect only the newness of such practices in India. I met several stylists toward the end of my fieldwork, when the role was beginning to become more common. They were very similar in background to costume assistants: English-speaking, middle class, but tending to have in mind a future in production rather than designing. Lisa, a stylist since 2005, explained that “I do accessories, go to a jewelry designer to get accessories, or get bags, scarves, but I do not create my own clothes.” She also noted that “as stylists, we have an advantage over designers; we can shop, we can tailor, even designer items, we can do those,” implying that conceding a degree of authorship over the design conferred upon stylists a flexibility that made them a better fit for certain films.

A certain skepticism prevailed among older designers about stylists, however; these designers felt there was nothing special about “people who just go and pick up a lot of stuff” or “go and pick up branded clothes all over the place, and they put the actors in them.” Designers, their assistants, and stylists were adept at identifying and sorting through various labels, from luxury brands all the way to mass-market examples, whose significance evaded older designers and lower status costume specialists without the requisite consumer experience to know about these kinds of products. Film professionals everywhere are prone to feel abandoned or neglected as they age and retire (this may be the case in other industries as well). However, the rhetoric that surrounds the shifts in design purposes and strategies in the Indian context casts particular light on changes in both the film industry and its surrounding commercial and cultural environment.

Fashion Critiques

Older designers need little encouragement to dismiss new designers as superficial arrivistes, and new designers need no more encouragement to castigate older designers as uninformed vulgarians. These are categorical rather than individual charges, involving grossly simplistic notions of how the other group designs. Thus, they are not to be taken as entirely factual statements about how film costume and fashion have evolved in the past twenty years or so. The intrinsic philosophies of design, as well as of what films are or should be, are valuable in the extreme, however. New designers pointed a finger at over-the-top costume mélanges they took to be ill-judged attempts at doing fashion on the part of amateurish designers with no idea at all about fashion. Their own role, as new designers see it, is to remake film fashion from the standpoint of professionals who wish to correct and improve what passed for fashion in older films. One important change is that contemporary stars have become more informed about dress and look. As a result, as one new designer put it, they can “relate to the clothes we are giving them.” “Relatableness” also stems from the close connection of many stars to designers as people from the same social group and with many of the same tastes and interests. It is not at all uncommon for film costume designers to also have their own fashion retail and couture businesses; examples include Neeta Lulla, Abu-Sandeep (Abu Jani and Sandeep Khosla), Vikram Phadnis, and Manish Malhotra. Their film work is featured on their websites alongside seasonal collections and ready-to-wear lines.

In the North American industry, the integration of brands has become so standard in the provision of costumes that costume designers get a star’s brand preferences along with his or her measurements when they are signed to a film. In India, personal designers already know the brands their stars prefer, and so, it is not necessary to formalize their use. However, when a star becomes a brand ambassador, the expectation is that the star will wear that brand’s clothes whenever he or she can. For the appropriate credit, the company will provide clothes for a film; in turn, stars will expect that the brand will used in the costuming whenever possible, even if the brand is so costly that the characters wearing the clothing could never afford it. This is one way in which the ever-narrowing distance between the high-class brand and the cheap imitation can be superseded and a distinction asserted in the environs of the set and within the industry generally, particularly if the favored brands for a Bollywood star are still hard to obtain within India. As for the latest crop of designers, none denied that there is a distinct dissonance in a lower-middle-class character wearing Armani, for example, but with the renewed stress on the values of realism, the task then is to get the designer garment to submit to the overall characterization and not assert itself on screen autonomously, as couture can do (Bruzzi 1997).

These observations notwithstanding, older designers refuse to acknowledge that film costume design could legitimately use items already stitched and finished, arguing instead for the superior value of clothes made especially for a film—and for its stars. The arrival of ready-made and label clothing has led those who remember working before there were as many retail resources are there are now to grumble that design today is little more than throwing together a few articles of clothing, and “what’s the design in that?” What older designers may not know is that contemporary designers do not necessarily shop for a garment and put it “as is” on the star. Like the Hollywood designers interviewed by Miranda Banks (2009) in Los Angeles, several said they liked to play with the costume, adding patches or appliqué and, in general, modifying the original in distinct ways, as well as altering the garment to give a snugger and more flattering fit. For these purposes, ready-mades work particularly well. Lisa, the self-professed stylist explained:

Figure 17

Inside the Infiniti Mall in suburban Mumbai, Indian chain stores cluster next to boutiques and global brand outlets. (Image courtesy of Clare Wilkinson-Weber.)

If I want a white shirt, I know it’s readily available, and I won’t get it stitched. Casual wear, T-shirts, maybe if after buying it I want to do something on it, to make it different, I will cut it or add sequins to it, do some patchwork. Stuff that is readily available, I would rather buy it than get it stitched. Stitching would cost me more.

The need to adapt and modify the clothes in order to become costume is, in the case of the American designers, intrinsic to the argument that costume is not fashion. It is also a way by which the designer asserts his or her own authorship against that of the designer of the purchased garment.

Old designers in Bollywood are unmoved by these arguments, mostly, I suspect, because of the close connection of ready-mades to Western and casual fashion that was common when these designers were in their heyday. In the present day, older designers’ disdain for ready-mades could readily be channeled into a quasi-nationalist debate about the abandonment of Indian styles for now-ubiquitous Western clothes. New designers I interviewed, on the other hand, were concerned to bring themselves (and stars and audiences) into alignment with what they considered to be global norms of taste and behavior, elevating India from a position of unreflective mediocrity to one of equality and sophistication. Without being fully aware of it, both old and new designers are debating what it means to be Indian, with the kind of approach forged by the independence struggle being challenged by a new one that embraces corporatism, business, globalization, and the diminution of the state.

What the Dressman Knows

Another probative area of differentiation and divergence is that between designer, stylist, or costume assistant and dressman. Previously, when dressmen were given more responsibility for sourcing costumes, it was a simple matter for them to engage tailors or visit menswear shops to get the suits, shirts, and trousers stars desired. However, when it comes to the delicate business of tracking down the brands with the most cultural capital or fashioning the most up-to-date look—complete with hairstyle and all necessary accessories—the dressman is at a distinct disadvantage. Few designers or their assistants would trust a dressman to exercise his own judgment in buying fashionable clothes in the marketplace; on the contrary, they regard dressmen as reluctant to change and irrationally devoted to old norms. To designers, dressmen are too inclined to render service to stars over doing what is best for the film, they lack imagination and willingness to change, and they spend too much time ironing. This last point is one on which designers and dressmen are unknowingly in complete agreement. In general, however, dressmen see their problem being not that they fail to understand the professional obligations of film costume; far from it. Instead, they are upset at their experience and knowledge being summarily dismissed.

The beginnings of this de-skilling of the dressman were apparent in 2002, but by 2010, several dressmen spoke in strikingly similar tones about what they saw going on around them. First, here is Dev, a dressman since 1985 on many top-tier film productions:

Dressmen also had authority of designing and giving his viewpoints, also directors used to listen. They had creativity in their hands. Today, we can also do [such things], but now, every movie has a designer, and we are under them. We just have to follow their instructions. We can do this [the things that designers do] but we don’t have the authority. We get to earn under them.

Ravi, who entered the field 15 years before Dev, echoed the same sentiments:

We used to have meetings with the director, and they used to tell us about the script. In Indian style, our dresses are fixed—for example, the village girl or boy or sarpanch [head] of the village or the city girl. Now everything is handled by designers. The scope of dressmen has [been] reduced a lot.

For productions big and small, engaging a designer (with or without significant experience) has become practically a norm, leaving the dressman in an uncertain position. Since there has been no effort to create a costume department, as discussed in Chapter 1, no formal efforts seem to have been made anywhere in the industry to formalize a professional job description for dressmen. As a result, they are relegated to lower-status maintenance tasks, such as mending clothes, aging clothes, washing clothes, and so on, as opposed to the higher-status work of creation.

A class and linguistic divide prevents dressmen from finding ready ways to enhance and extend their position and responsibilities. Few dressmen speak English, and even fewer speak it well. The importance of speaking English had become clear to dressmen by 2010; as Ravi stated:

We don’t have education, and so we are left behind. When we get our [association] card and come out to work in the industry, we are not able to talk properly to them [directors, actors], we’re not able to convince [them] about our ideas, we can’t speak English. All the fashion designers come in to the business after they finish their education and can speak very good English, and so they directly go close to the hero and heroine and can talk with them very nicely. Our dressmen are uneducated, and so they don’t get ahead. They get scared to go and talk to big people on the sets. Not [being] educated is their weakness even if they know their work.

It is not only in limited educational qualifications and ignorance of English that dressmen fail to impress themselves upon the “creative” members of the film industry. I have argued elsewhere that the dressman’s main disadvantage comes not from any deficiency as a worker, but rather from his deficiency as a consumer: the dressman does not participate in the practices of learning about brands, buying brands, and so on that are part and parcel of the dress designer’s and the costume assistant’s daily lives (Wilkinson-Weber 2010a). It is not that dressmen have failed to change at all: like other working men in the city, dressmen have moved away from a preference for neatly pressed, synthetic pants and a kurta top in favor of jeans and either a shirt or T-shirt. But subtle matters of fit and glaring matters of brand combine to mark the dressman’s tastes as symptomatic of his class, and in an industry where design is predicated upon enlightened consumption, these tastes present themselves as a defect.

Informally, even covertly, however, dressmen continue to exert an influence on certain kinds of costuming. First, they still take the lead in dressing junior artists and actors in small character parts—actors and roles that the designer is not paid to envision and is often uninterested in, in any case. Dev explained that “only us dressmen know which trunk has which patialas (a variety of salwar) or skirts and so on, and also because it is old clothes and now neither the designer nor the star are interested in them, so we decide about what to do with them.” Second, the dressman’s reputation as a miracle worker who can fix problems at the last minute remains a source of considerable pride, and in speaking about these eventualities, dressmen emerge as figures full of subterfuge and trickery, quick thinking, and a certain disdain for those costume specialists who presume to know more than they do. Finally, opportunities still arise for dressmen to upstage their social superiors on the set and in exposing the vacuity of brand attachments. What dressmen have come to realize—or perhaps it is just that they are unconcerned to keep up a conceit they feel is hollow—is that a high-status brand can be called upon to pass as the dress of a street tough when a star demands it. Conversely, an article obtained from a street market or a local tailor can sometimes be used to do duty as a brand item. Dressmen use this knowledge (often in collusion with a producer) to make duplicates or replace costumes without having to pay designer-label prices. The entire scheme might unfold as follows, according to Dev:

The producer is in charge of payment. He’ll give 10,000 rupees and will say that you get ten T-shirts, two to three [should] come from the designer, but we need ten. If he [the actor] wants to wear all ten, let him. Then, we go to the market. We say to them that we might make an exchange later [taking items now and taking them back if both unwanted and unspoiled]. We show it to artist. We don’t tell them that we’ve bought it [from the market] We tell them that the designer sent it. They look over the shirts; they say, give this back, give that back…. Some go back to the designer, others go back to the market. But some he keeps—and those will be designer and marketplace T-shirts, all in together.

In these stories, the dressman and producer are painted as the truly perceptive agents in the whole process, affording the dressman a connection to the upper levels of the filmmaking operation that circumvents the designer and actor altogether, as seen in this exchange, also with Dev:

Q— The big brands, T-shirts or shirts like a Versace shirt and an ordinary shirt have no difference so do you interchange them?

A— Yes (laughs).

Q— The designers do that?

A— Even some of the designers don’t get to know. We worked for one producer, there was one particular shirt, for 3,000 rupees; it was a big star’s, 3,500 to 4,000 rupees it was; he chose it…. Then, they sent word back to Gabbana’s—what they needed they got from there, three to four of them. After that, the producer said to us, [if] you buy any more of that shirt, who would know if it was Gabbana’s or someone else’s? So we bought it in the market for 800 rupees.

The dressman and producer find common cause in a commitment to frugality and a respect for the ability to make do with whatever is available—qualities endorsed by dressmen (and older designers) time and again. While designers are busy bringing costume in line with the realities of a global fashion marketplace, which may mean incorporating real labels and designer outfits into their costuming, dressmen are essentially arguing for the continued validity of inscribing status on screen theatrically—that is, through performative sleight of hand.

Dressmen also have some acute observations about the ironies of branded clothing. A dressman on location in London described going to buy, at his wife’s request, an umbrella to bring home with him. He found one for £4.50, but “it was marked ‘Made in India.’ Here, I could give you five umbrellas for that; there, it was four and a half pounds for just one.” And following on from that observation, he continued, “A Christian Dior T-shirt, the people who have sewn this, they live in China. The T-shirt you get in the bazaar was made by people in India. If you get it here, the work stays in India.”

Designers are not oblivious to these arguments, with many of them agreeing about the absurdity of demanding a foreign label or a particular item of clothing with a brand name on it when a perfectly good alternative can be purchased at home. Arguing along similar lines as the dressman, a young designer/stylist grumbled to me:

If you go to London, there is H&M; the clothes say Made in India, but this star will say, I want clothes from H&M. But you are paying four times the price just because it is from H&M. But most stuff is made here!

Let us suppose that an illicit swap is to be done that must be concealed from the actor. It is usually the dressman who does it. After he visits a tailor or a cheap ready-made store, he then does some clever “faking” of a label (even going so far as to sew in a designer “tag”), he launches into an accomplished piece of verbal persuasion, and the garment finds its way on to the actor’s body. By this stage, the costume is, if we take the notion of extended personhood seriously, busy pretending to be a brand pretending to be an ordinary garment. Whether this is a harder trick to pull off than a designer shirt pretending to be one bought off the street at a bargain price cannot be decided separately from the ability of the actor to make the clothed character convincing.

Who knows or does not know about costume swaps, and what difference it makes whether they know or not, may be hard to determine. In the end, it is entirely possible that the actor is the only one kept purposely in the dark about illicit swaps in which a low-status manufactured garment takes the place of a more-vaunted one. This makes perfect sense, since a star’s desire for labels is not simply a frivolous excuse to spend money, but, as I noted before, a sensitive measure of the star’s prestige vis-à-vis other actors and other film personnel. If a small “con job” of persuasion is all one needs to keep the actors on an even keel, then filmmakers will reason that it is entirely worth it.

Figure 18

Western global brands, both refined and comparatively mundane, have found a niche since the economic liberalization of the 1990s. Here is a Wrangler denim outlet in Bandra, Mumbai. (Image courtesy of Clare Wilkinson-Weber.)

Restyling the Traditional

Finally, dressmen confide that they are often approached by designers for advice on how to dress certain kinds of regional, historical, or working-class characters—what kind of kurta might they wear or how would their pagdis and dhotis be tied?—the very clothes for men that fashion in the form of Western menswear pushed to the margins. Filmmakers could go as well to dresswalas for their input on these questions, but the dressman is nearer to hand and tends to have some of the same knowledge. Ravi’s complaint stands in well for others of this type:

When they [designers] face problems, they come to us. They have no knowledge about mythological dresses, so they come to us for such a thing. They cannot make ready-to-wear dhotis, and we know how to wear around ten types of dhoti, so for such things they come to us. Even tying pagdis they are not having any knowledge of it.

The history of Hindi filmmaking, with its perennial interest in urbanism and fashion, would suggest that there may not be much of a future for films about the rural or urban working classes. At the same time, the arguments for realism mean that dramas are more likely to pay attention to a wider range of social groups represented in the cast, rather than dismissing working-class characters to be costumed from something out of a trunk. I was presented with an example of just this kind of thing in 2012, in an account of the costuming of lower-class, Muslim male characters in the recent film Agneepath. The film was set in the recent past, and, with this requirement in mind, the dressman found himself in his element, since this was a population and a time period he knew intimately. The designer was delighted to take advantage of his expertise, and the costuming was a great success. What this story reflects, in part, is that dressmen are probably more strongly associated with traditional costuming now than ever before, conforming once again to the perennial division of Western and Indian that still has the capacity to divide modernity from tradition and certain kinds of Indians from others. At the same time, it shows the particular benefits dressmen can bring to the realization of the new goal of realism in costuming, if only a dressman can get the attention of a motivated designer to use his expertise.

And so, after a detour into the construction of fashion in its narrower sense of style, change, and taste, we return again to fashion writ large, or fashion as the total sartorial expressions and engagements that we see in a community or society—the kind of fashion that is most completely realized with a single dress designer and a team of assistants working under him or her, whereas fashion as style or as spectacle has been relatively well served all these years by personal designers and favorite menswear shops. Notwithstanding that spectacle lives on in Hindi film in the self-consciously filmi song sequences, as well as via the use of CGI (computer-generated imagery), perhaps the most relentless use of spectacle comes in historical or period films, into which the rich material and commercial environment of metropolitan India is retrospectively projected. I turn to these concerns next, before concluding with a discussion of how costume filters out into the worlds of film viewers.