As we step into the new millennium, let’s indulge in little bit of retrospection, the key moments in fashion, triggered by various socioeconomic movements during the twentieth century. For what we know of the history of fashion until the end of the 19th century, it was mostly a fascinating footnote to the history of art.
Much has changed and evolved in the history of fashion in the 1900’s. It’s a stirring, exotic trip with detours aplenty-from the Fallper girls of the ’20s in their Channel dress to the sheer elegance of Maharani Gayatri Devi’s pastel chiffon sarees, to the innocent candy-colored can dresses of the ’50s Americana to the dark, stylish paired down dressing of the ’90.
When the century dawned, fashion was an exclusive enterprise, the pursuit of the wealth. The lower tiers of the society settled for garments that were more often than not entirely family hand-made-downs or stitched at home. With time, however, networks of neighborhood tailors began to evolve into a retail history and the boom followed by boutique selling. Today, garments are laser cut by computers and sourced from all over the world and can easily be bought sitting in the comfort of one’s home via the internet.
Each decade of this century ushered greater progress. During the ’20s, one of the greatest influences on dress code was the movement towards equal status for women. Hence, a new breed of business-like women emerged and made corresponding demands on their dress, says A.K.G Nair, Director, Pearl Academy of Fashion. “The obvious choice for silhouette veered towards drop-waist or box and the choice of color was black and grey and the fabrics preferred were silk and georgettes, “he says.
“In India, the fashion scenario was in confusion as it was a turbulent period of conflicting ideologies when the consciousness of an Indian national identity was beginning to find political expression and the struggle for Indian independence was getting momentum, “says fashion Divya Ritu Kumar. Thus the fashion trends within high society, read the loyalty, was strongly influenced by the British with the result that western clothes became a status symbol.
The ’30s heralded the idea of socialism, communism, and fascism and women’s fashion became more and more feminine in keeping with conservative ideas. “However this period also saw the emergence of the vamp and the culture of cabaret, “says Nair, noting that hence the dresses became more body-hugging and the colors deep and dark in tune with such themes.
The establishment of the Indian cinema also proved to be the strongest influence on the fashion in the decade. Due to the western influence, the use of angarkhas, choghas, and jamas diminished considerably by this time, although the ceremonial pagri, safe and topi were widespread as ever. “They had been replaced by the chapkan, achkan, and sherwani, which are still standard items of formal dress for Indian men today, “says Kumar.
“The women even though were accepting change, continued to wear their peshwaz, kurtas, ghaghras and odhnis at religious and ceremonial festivities, sometimes using imported fabrics but using mostly traditional handwoven fabrics, “says Asha Baxi, Director, Fashion Design. National Institute of Fashion Technology(NIFT).
In the ’40s, it was Christian Dior who turned fashion upside down with a new shape, with the bosom pushed up and out, a pinched waist and hips emphasized with short fluted jackets. “It was also a decade marked by the Second World War and the ensuing independence for India with the result that women’s clothing was simple and functional, “says Nair.
The ’50s saw the dawn of art colleges and schools, which became places of a rebel, and hence in silhouette, narrow waist and balloon skirts with bouncing patterns were in vogue. Also due to the freedom struggle and the espousal of khadi by Gandhiji, khadi garments became a rage giving a boost to the sagging handloom industry, according to Asha Baxi.
The ’60s one of the most shock-filled decades of the century saw sweeping fashion and lifestyle changes that reflected the mercurial passions of the times. “This decade was full of defiance and celebration in arts and music and cinema, marked by a liberation from constraints and new types of materials such as plastic film and coated polyester fabric got popular, “says Nair. Besides, adds Bax” Tight kurtas and churidars and high coiffers competed with the mini-skirts abroad and at the same time, designers understood the need of the moment to launch cheaper ready-to-wear lines.
“One of the most “revisited” and “retro” periods in the fashion, the ’70s is often called the ‘me decade’. “It saw the beginning of “anything goes” culture with the result that fashion became another form of self-expression and bold colors with flower prints were adapted in tunics, with shirts and bell-bottoms, “says designer Manav Gangwani. As drug culture became a mass phenomenon, psychedelic colors were garish, the shoes were tall and hazardous and silhouettes were extreme and the dressing of the ’50s was definitely out.
“The 70s also saw the export of traditional material with the result that export surplus was sold within the country itself and hence, international fashion came to India much before the MTV culture,” says Baxi. Synthetics became popular and the disco culture had a profound influence on fashion and the clothes became as flashy as the mirrored ball that spins over the dancers.
In the ’80s the big money ruled. It was the era of self-consciousness and American designers like Calvin Klein became household names. In India too, silhouettes became more masculine and the salwar kameez was made with shoulder pads. Says Baxi, “Power dressing and corporate look became dominant dress code. “The influence of cable TV became more prominent and the teenage market boomed with youngsters going in for the trendy look, which in turn influenced the elders.
The ’90s the last decade of the millennium was one of the extremes. The excess of the early decade gave way to the drastic pairing down and stripping away in the hands of German designers like Helmut Lang and Jil Sander. “Perhaps the biggest fashion news of the ’90s has been the ascendancy of the younger generation of designers into the mainstream. The decade also looked for independent women with comforts, poise, and confidence as key features,” says Nair.
But the decade also saw the revival of ethnicity with films too becoming more discreet and launching a “back to ethnic” look. While on the one hand, the new drive for information technology popularised the corporate look, an ethnocultural revival made people again go back to the traditional forms of art and crafts. States Baxi, “As it is Indian fashion is extremely alive and whatever the decade or the century, it is here to stay. For not only it is comfortable, practical and aesthetically beautiful but has changed with time with the result that it has, in the past century, and will in the coming one, remain contemporary,” she sums up.
Which is why the start of the new century tempts us to dream and remember the past.