It’s an otherwise uneventful weeknight so you decide to call your arty movie-loving friends to catch the latest period drama just released at the cinema.
Everyone gets there appropriately armed with bits of trivia about the time period and lots of juicy gossip about the alleged affair between the lead pair.
You all can’t wait to watch the cinematic magic unfold on the screen.
It’s a stunning portrayal of a tragic love story in the 60s and you just know that you will fall in love with everything about the feature because the 60s happen to be your favourite decade. The first scene is outside a majestic old British colonial building with vintage cars whizzing past it as the camera zooms slowly towards a young couple. You wait with baited breath to feast your eyes on the amazingly 60s wardrobe, but wait! They are both in shorts and tees looking like they’re ready to party it up at some music festival.
What is going on? Is this a spoof of some sort? An advertisement for some funky new brand of clothing? A public interest announcement against the horrors of drinking and driving or smoking? You ask your friends if you have the wrong movie and check your tickets frantically for answers for the maddening appearance of the lead pair on screen. Your alarm is going off and you wake up only to realise it was a weird and funny dream. Phew!
Imagine if movies were made with no regard to the time period, personality, and life stages of the characters, and actors just walked onto the sets without changing into appropriate costumes. The scenario above describes accurately the importance of costumes to conveying innumerable cues about the character as well as their absolute necessity towards the entire look and feel of a movie. Just as a period drama would look ridiculous without costumes appropriate to the era being depicted and a futuristic sci-fi movie in space would look totally out of place if the actors were dressed in ball gowns and tuxedos, costumes play an integral part in film making. As one of the oldest and largest movie industries in the world Indian cinema is no stranger to costumes that have dictated trends for dressing for men and women ever since its inception.
The 1950s up to the mid 1960s was when India had just gained independence from British rule but the people were still very much under the influence of colonisation. Movies about the constant strife between the affluent and the poor were very common wherein the affluent male characters were always dressed in perfectly fitted suits while the less fortunate men dressed in cotton kurtas or dhotis that were locally available. Movies like Jogan, Anari and Chori Chori mirrored Indian society during that period, as the rich were able to afford imported cloth that was considered far superior than the locally spun cheaper Indian cloth that the poor could afford.
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Movies in colour brought about more emphasis on details and costume makers started experimenting with different colours, fabrics and textures. In the 1970s and 1980s movie costumes were not just about colour but also about the freedom to choose your own personal style and express it. Indian movie costumes were very much in sync with trends that were making waves internationally.
It was the age of self-expression and everything from bell-bottom pants to funky draped saris to hippie chic sunglasses and exaggerated cat eyeliners were in vogue on screen and off it too. Dimple Kapadia became an overnight sensation with her debut movie Bobby. Her tie knot polka dotted top and mini skirt combination and red bikini cemented her position as one of the first sex symbols of the nation just as Helen became the very first seductress with her sensual dance numbers. Amitabh rose to fame as ‘The Angry Young Man’ and literally lite up the screen with his light bulb jacket.
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India was forced to declare a state of emergency and liberalise its economy to help pay off a loan taken from the International Monetary Fund against all of the country’s gold reserves. With this move came international television channels such as BBC and MTV that were until then not available to Indian viewers. The sudden wave of modern content with its slick programming also gave rise to movies with an equal measure of contemporary flavour. Yash Chopra’s chiffon clad actresses like Madhuri Dixit in Dil To Pagal Hai and Kajol in Dil Wale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge breezed onto the screen and into celluloid history forever.
While movies like Lamhe and Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam took a crack at onscreen portrayals of rural life in the most glamorous way possible as the men and women were dressed in costumes resembling Indian royalty. Conversely cult classics Kuch Kuch Hota Hai and Rangeela were the epitome of stylish dressing for modern women in the new India. Manish Malhotra created costumes for both movies and began his journey towards becoming one of Bollywood’s most celebrated and sought after designers.
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India went rapidly from a small glimpse of modernity to becoming a hot destination for foreign investment and one of the fastest growing economies in the world from 2000 to 2015. Its movie industry too grew from strength to strength as filmmakers started experimenting with more ambitious and elaborate stories. Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Devdas retold the old story with a dazzling display of creativity that was a treat to all the senses. The costumes of each character were endlessly researched and recreated down to every minute detail resulting in sublime and surreal fashion statements that made every man and woman throw away their jeans and adorn themselves in rich silks and brocades. The movie’s designer Neeta Lulla was awarded the National Award for Best Costume Design for her efforts.
While movies like Dil Chata Hai, Kal Ho Na Ho and Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham redefined everyday dressing for everyone by setting a whole new benchmark of fashion through their costumes in the early 2000s. Closer to today there is a move towards de-glamorising characters and making them more real to movie watchers by dressing them in clothes that resemble their circumstance more accurately rather than styling them solely in luxury labels even if the character in question does not demand such high end dressing. Recent movies like Student of the Year and Cocktail are just two examples of more realistic yet fashionable dressing that is still very accessible to the masses.
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