Lehengas have been a bridal favourite for many decades for their versatility of style and their ability to make any woman feel like she’s living a fairy-tale. In fact lehengas are preferred by women for any traditional Indian occasion especially by those who are younger as they aren’t as cumbersome as sarees and don’t require much in the way of draping. The awe-inspiring appeal of sarees meant that anthropologists and historians of fashion often overlooked lehengas but the modern lehenga as we know it today has been through its own evolutionary journey.
The lehenga choli, which is also known as ghagra choli in some parts of India, has its roots in a type of three-piece attire worn by women in ancient times. The ensemble consisted of a draped lower garment called Antriya, which was a white or colourful cotton strip of fabric that was passed through the legs and tucked in at the back.
The Antriya was worn by both men and women and was also the origin of the dhoti and lungi. Stone sculptures from the 1st century AD clearly portray the antriya as part of the regular wardrobe of ancient Indians.
Lehenga during the Gupta Empire
The Antriya, was paired with the Uttariya, which was like a veil worn over the head or shoulders and the Stanapatta or chest band. From these early descriptions it’s fairly simple to deduce that the Antriya went on to become the stitched lehenga, the Uttariya became the dupatta and the Stanapatta developed into the choli or blouse. The lehenga was worn in its rudimentary form until the reign of the Mughals, who brought with them tremendous advancements for early Indian fashion.
Mughal women initially stuck with the three piece suits reminiscent of their Persian heritage featuring a peshwaj, paijama and patka or dupatta. The combination was similar to the modern day kurta-chudidar. Further integration with the indigenous Indian population brought about the silhouette of the modern lehenga. Early 17th century depictions of Rajput or mythological themes showed the dupatta as extremely translucent probably fashioned out of muslin. The images also curiously show the addition of a fourth piece that is the white cloth, attached to the lehenga.
This white cloth was also called patka and was believed to have been added to hide the joining of the two ends of the antriya (lehenga) or to control the volume. It can be assumed that the terms patka, odhni, dupatta and uttariya were used interchangeably based on one’s religion at the time. The style of wearing the lehenga with a patka was prevalent until the early 19th century that also featured the dupatta draped like a modern saree. The Mughals also initiated the still pre-dominant trend of lehengas made from opulent fabrics such as silk and brocade.
19th Century Lehenga
Even after the decline of the Mughal empire in the early 20th century women mostly wore flared umbrella style lehengas that were clumsily stitched and held together with a girdle. The style was more popular in North India as it was a Mughal strong hold meaning that the royals largely influenced fashion. Irrespective of their social standing, women wore the same style of lehengas albeit with different fabrics more suited to their class.
Higher-class women made lehengas from richer more expensive materials while lower class women wore lehengas in cotton or khadi. The lehengas were also ankle length as bejewelled toes were indicative of the woman’s marital status since those parts of India expected women to cover their faces with a veil or ghoonghat. In some other parts of India, tribal women wore shorter lehengas ranging from their knees upto their ankles for ease of movement while working outdoors.
1970s Pahari Painting
The practice of embroidering lehengas was developed between the 19th and 20th centuries and was customary only for special occasions like festivals and weddings. Indian states developed and specialised in their own style of embroidery. Rajasthan was popular for embroideries like Gota, Kundan and Zardosi, Gujurat and Kutch exceled at Shisha and nomadic patchwork embroideries while Punjab’s expertise was in Phulkari, Chikankari and Nakshi. Just like embroidery, the women also developed their own variations of the dupatta drape to suit their particular lifestyles and cultures.
Lehenga Draping Styles
Lehengas saw a dip in popularity when the Indian women of the Independence Movement romanticised the saree by making it the uniform for female freedom fighters. Lehengas became largely relegated to rural women who remained secluded from the larger cities and unaffected by the impact of the freedom struggle. Even after India’s independence from the British Empire, women preferred to wear sarees as most Bollywood actresses, television stars and female politicians like Prime Minister Indira Gandhi chose to wear sarees over lehengas.
It was in the 1990s when lehengas saw a resurgence as Indian fashion designers started to reinvent the garment for movies. It was the image of stunning movie stars glowing as brides in their wedding lehengas that had Indian women everywhere ditching the dated saree. Indian fashion weeks became the norm and every fashionsta wanted to experiment with the newest silhouette. Lehengas went from standard umbrella styles to Straight lehengas, A-line lehengas, Panelled lehengas, Mermaid or Fish Tail Style lehengas and much more.
A Lehenga from the 1990's
Lehengas saw another style revolution around the 2010s when women no longer wanted to bother with draping a dupatta because they craved for the freedom of movement of western clothing. This ushered in the age of fusions as lehenga-sarees, gown-lehengas, anarkali-lehengas and half-half lehengas made an appearance followed by the currently trendy high-waisted flared lehengas with crop tops and cold shoulder tops.
Modern Lehengas from the 2000's
Inspired by the legacy of the lehenga and can't wait to embrace the style at your next big soiree? We have some fabulous finds at Strand Of Silk inpired by the ones worn by the celebrities sporting modern lehengas. Confused between a saree and a lehenga? There is no need to choose with Mandira Wirk's Pink Ombre Saree. Capes and jackets are all the rage this season and something that works as separates like the Alluring Embroidered Lehenga by Siddartha Tytler is ideal for spring-summer weddings that run the risk of getting a bit nippy. For those who aren't concerned about the weather and just can't get enough of crop tops and cold shoulders Siddartha Tytler's Ornate Maroon Lehenga is definitely one made for see-and-be-seen sort of occasions. If that's a bit too much skin for your liking then Anju Agarwal's Pastel Green Jacket Lehenga Set and Anushree Agarwal's Peach Pink Lehenga Set are the key to keeping it demure, classy yet extremely chic.
Strand Of Silk Lehengas
Sources: Wikipedia.com, Pinterest.com, Vintageindianclothing.tumblr.com, Looksgud.in, Fashionfatka.com, Vanitynoapologies.com