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“Dresses seem to have a wider vocabulary in which to express all the things that women can be, and they are exuberant in that expressiveness…These dresses also have stories—all good archetypes do, even if the details are blurred by time. By wearing these dresses, you insert yourself into the narratives they inhabit,” wrote Erin McKean in the introduction of her book The Hundred Dresses: The Most Iconic Styles of our Time. McKean of course has a thing for dresses; she also authored The Secret Lives of Dresses that told unusual stories of women through their dresses.
You can call me short sighted but that’s exactly the point: this is about sighting short dresses in Hindi films as a continuum. Film fashion buffs would immediately know what I mean about actor Deepika Padukone’s now well-defined visual image. That of a chirpy, bold and pragmatic modern girl who loves and lusts with ease and then fights long and hard enough to arrive at a happy ending. What she primarily wears in films like the most recent Tamasha and before that in Finding Fanny, Yeh Jawaani Hai Diwani, Cocktail or even before that in the 2009 movie Love Aaj Kal are short, girly dresses that reveal her long legs. Often paired with lace-up boots, flat footwear, chappals or sandals, they have a certain signature about them: stylish bohemian. While Yeh Jawaani… was styled by designer Manish Malhotra and Snigdha Wangnoo (so you also see Padukone in slinky saris) in all other films mentioned here, she was dressed by her favourite and most frequent style advisor, the well-known stylist Anaita Shroff Adajania.
I am a fan of Shroff-Adajania’s work. Not as much of actor Padukone. But as a team, the two, the former by devising a certain style and the latter by carrying it off with a blithe sophistication, have given Hindi films a “type” of short dress. Floral, printed, strappy, baby doll, ingénue dresses with delicate collars, shirt dresses cinched at the waist, polo dresses, shorts, Bohemian skirts worn with skimpy tops and knotted shrugs have made an inroad into Hindi cinema. In a visually emphatic way, they are associated with Padukone, she has the right kind of body for them.
Regardless of the brands Padukone patronizes, it’s the narrative that the actor inhabits through these dresses that interests me. That of a sexually alluring, humorous yet innocent and sensible girl, who is both infantilized and sexualized through her clothes. In fact in theory, the Ingénue dress, credited to Chanel designer Karl Lagerfeld is worn to highlight beauty, youth and freshness.
Girls wearing a dress with that short a hemline in any Indian city may have another story to tell. But in cinematic scripts where characters wrangle with contested life themes, like Padukone in Imtiaz Ali’s latest Tamasha or in Homi Adajania’s Finding Fanny and Cocktail, girls can make a point about safeguarded modernity through their clothes. That winsome female garment is not the slinky filmi sari (which stands for layered tones of sexiness) but the short dress.
Often a variation of the strappy or minimalist baby doll version paired with booties and a soft jacket thrown casually on top with messy, tinted hair and some bracelet-bangles on the arms, tiny ear studs or a not-so-attention-seeking pendant helps underline the Deepika Padukone type. It’s a combination of three factors at least—the kind of roles she essays, the exuberance with which she occupies them and the way her short dresses become her second skin.
No other actress in her filmi depiction has been able to cultivate and hold on to such a signature. Not Katrina Kaif who has equally long and slim legs and is supremely glamourous, not Kareena Kapoor either who can look fabulously stylish, not Alia Bhatt even who is a baby doll herself and not even Sonam Kapoor who is still primarily known for her clothes. Priyanka Chopra wears a lot of short dresses in her public appearances but having preferred the tight-fitted versions unlike Padukone’s conventionally pretty and girlish frocks, she remains a nose upturned, siren-in-the-making.
If Adajania-Shroff continues to invest in the personality of this “type” of dress, it will go down in film fashion history as a clothing archetype. Should an Indian chronicler of Bollywood fashion then write a McKean-like book, on its cover will be the Deepika Dress by Anaita.