It’s all too often that any talk of fashion icons revolves around names like Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe, John F Kennedy and the likes. Without taking away from their greatness as the original fashion influencers, we wondered if perhaps any Indian historical figures made a major impact on fashion in their day and age. Sure enough, there are countless articles on Bollywood actresses right from the 60s until present day whose reel and real styles have inspired many a fashion trend. However it’s always interesting to delve deeper and uncover some unlikely fashion icons that need to be given more credit for their bold style statements.
Some of these names are relatively unknown and totally alien to a younger audience but it’s undoubtedly accurate to call them revolutionaries, not only in their chosen career paths but also for their contribution to the evolution of Indian fashion. Read on to find out about these forgotten stars, their truly exceptional lives and most importantly their keen sense of style.
The original multicultural actress Nadira was a Baghdadi Jew who lived in South Bombay. As is still customary in Bollywood, Nadira was the screen name of Farhat (also known as Florence) Ezekiel Nadira. Her European features like porcelain skin, angular face and short curly hair made her the debutant of choice in reigning superstar Dilip Kumar’s movie Aan. Ironically it was her non-Indian roots and looks that earned her the big break as the movie was also to be dubbed in English for international audiences.
Nadira portrayed varied characters in her movies at a time when most Bollywood actresses were typecast as either wives or vamps. The feisty and boisterous actress didn’t shy away from dressing the part. She was probably the only actress of her time to don strapless gowns, cape dresses, one-shoulder sarees and even riding gear. Wardrobe choices that may not stand out as extraordinary today but were truly trend setting and eyebrow raising in those times.
Another strong willed and fiercely independent woman, Zubeida Begum defied convention and the restrictions of her Muslim faith to act in silent movies. She also went on to divorce her first husband after having his son and then married the Rajput Maharaja Hanwant Singh of Jodhpur. As the second wife to the Maharaja the people often labelled her a home-wrecker who stole the Maharaja from his rightful and well-loved first wife Rajmata Krishna Kumari.
Despite her tumultuous personal life Zubeida Begum was a free spirit who lived her life by her own rules. Her bold costume choices from her movies were proof that she wasn’t bothered about people’s perception of her as long as she did justice to her craft. Pictures showing her dressed in bridal finery are probably the most tame and most descriptive of what women in Indian cinema were wearing in those days. But Zubeida Begum was quite the risk-taker in her short-fringed sequin dresses and one-shoulder animal printed shifts paired with gladiator sandals. The length of the dresses and the absence of sleeves made for an extremely risqué style statement but also paved the way for more western dressing in Indian movies. Memories of her charm and charisma have survived till today as Shyam Benegal immortalized her life on screen in the movie Zubeida starring Manoj Bajpai, Rekha and Karishma Kapoor.
A still from the movie on Zubeida Begum's life
Moving from women who broke the chains of tradition to one who expertly wielded those same chains and created her own signature style. Rajamata Gayatri Devi can be credited with putting the ubiquitous saree on the international fashion map. The Maharani of Jaipur embraced her Indian roots with much pride and brought the incredible craftsmanship of Indian artisans to the forefront. Her position as part of a royal Indian household required her to hobnob with dignitaries, celebrities and ambassadors from all over the world but it was her classic beauty and effortless style that made fashion bible Vogue describe her as one of the most beautiful women in the world.
Unlike Bollywood actresses who thrived on shock value, Rajmata Gayatri Devi was a beacon of grace and poise. She always wore French chiffon sarees with delicate floral prints, discreet bandhanis or dainty leheriyas paired with slightly puffed sleeve blouses and a bindi. She even went as far as teaming her sarees with neutral trench coats and woollen overcoats to suit colder weather but also created a seamless trend combining western and Indian elements. With age the prints and colours she chose to wear grew subtler and her string of pearls were replaced with solitaires yet her favourite piece of jewellery remained the navratna necklace presented to her by the Maharaja.
Rajmata Gayatri Devi
Rajmata Gayatri Devi
It might seem odd to find the first Prime Minister of India featured on a post for stylish Indian figures but Jawaharlal Nehru can be credited with unknowingly starting a menswear trend. As with most gentlemen from that era, Nehra also wore a suit in British-India before the struggle for independence called for the ban of British made goods. It seems almost logical that a man like Nehra, who was accustomed to wearing fitted suits would gravitate towards the tailored and structured fit of bandhgala jackets.
Often photographed wearing his favourite style of long and short jackets the same silhouettes have become famous as Nehru Jackets. He also expertly paired a sleeveless version of the Nehru jacket with white cotton kurta-pajamas for those scorching hot Indian summer months. The rest as they say is history as the style remains an ever-present fixture in the formal wardrobe of many Indian men and is especially favoured for occasions like weddings.
The first blue-eyed boy of Bollywood, Raj Kapoor oozed sex appeal making women go weak in the knees with his milky white complexion and light eyes. The British hangover in post independence India caused a bit of an identity crisis within the population as they tried to redefine their Indianness and with it their way of dressing. Higher class Indians with the monetary means often dressed like the British as a way of indicating their raised social status. Fair skin, light eyes and a general tendency towards more western looks are still considered more desirable so it seems totally plausible that a Bollywood superstar in India would fit those criteria.
Raj Kapoor almost always wore suits for all his movie characters even if it didn’t make sense to the plot sometimes. However his suits had a worn out quality to them with his high-waisted stunted pants and washed out coats. At a time when everyone was looking up to American macho men, Raj Kapoor’s inspiration came from Charlie Chaplin and so he came to be known as a street hero. His look created the perfect combination of sticking it to India’s imperialist masters and making him look very real. The suits became almost like a uniform meant to instill faith in his words and to add to his aura of an otherworldly god. Tattered or not, suits remained a rather common style statement for Indian men during his time.
Sources: Once-upon-a-time-in-bollywood.tumblr.com, Youtube.com, Upperstall.com, Filmygeek.com, Moviediva.com, Identity-films.com, Scroll.in, Bombaymann2blogspot.in, Pinterest.com, Kiagia.com, Dailymail.co.uk, Scoopwhoop.com, Royalsplendour.blogspot.com, Celebrityphotosnews.wordpress.com, Mid-day.com, Rediff.com, Thaitribune.org, Mrporter.com, Indiatimes.com, Thehindubusinessline.com, Indiaonlinepages.com, Btown.co.in