It’s a winter afternoon in Delhi and a group of ladies are chattering over lunch at 360, the Oberoi Hotel’s busy coffee shop. Raised, excited voices aren’t the only thing they have in common. There are the predictable logo bags crouching at their ankles. But even more telling are their clothes. Barring one exception of a printed silk sari, all the women are in versions of the tunic—hand-embroidered, pleated, digitally printed, A-lined or belted, long, short or mid-length. Most have paired it with black or beige trousers, others with leggings and jazzy stoles.
The tunic, which set out to challenge the kurti—the undisputed hero of the last decade of Indian fashion—won the battle and now rules women’s wardrobes. It arrived gingerly on the ramp some years back as designer Namrata Joshipura’s sequinned separate and has now taken centre stage with compelling interpretations by many designers. “As women look for more permutations of the kurta, the tunic is a winner with its suitability for all age and body types,” says Joshipura.
A majority of Spring/Summer 2013 collections in stores (including from Rina Dhaka, Anupamaa Dayal, Pankaj and Nidhi, Namrata Joshipura, Sanchita Ajjampur, Anand Kabra, Nachiket Barve, Gaurav Gupta, Urvashi Kaur and Kavita Bhartia) offer a range of tunics. Mass brand stores like Shoppers Stop, Lifestyle and Westside, which earmark separate retail areas for Indian and Western wear, now display tunics in both sections. While designer options are priced between Rs.4,000-14,000, (those with hand-worked details from couture lines of Sabyasachi, JJ Valaya, Anamika Khanna and Rohit Bal can cost even more), tunics on the high street start from Rs.399, with a majority priced around Rs.1,500.
The word tunic, which derives from the Latin “tunica”, was a basic piece of clothing in ancient Rome. Its length, width and embellishment would indicate the wearer’s status. In costume history it is also described as a derivative of Greek garments. In India, the tunic is a multicultural creation—essentially Western, with Indian concessions. “The tunic reveals how India is interpreting larger global trends,” says Mumbai-based Nachiket Barve.
A hybrid between the traditional long kurta and the short kurti, a tunic doesn’t have slits on the side. It imitates a long, relaxed top in a Western silhouette that ends above the knees (Joshipura says its ideal length is 34 inches) and can be paired with trousers or cigarette pants, salwars, churidars or slacks; with jeans or leggings, with a Pharsi pyjama or harem pants, or even worn on its own. “A tunic busts the Indian tradition of wearing a joda (a set), it is easy to wear, imbues modernity and is versatile. Its name is a clever marketing mind game too; the kurta is considered too ethnic and the kurti has lost its fashion value,” says designer Rina Dhaka.
Designers love this versatile yet eminently saleable piece. Tunics are ordered by fashion stores all over the world from West Asia to Europe. In India they are best-sellers. “The word ‘tunic’ itself sells more than the kurti. Nobody wants the behenji’s kurti any more,” comments designer Anju Modi, whose kurtas tell exciting new stories every season. “I believe in utility-oriented fashion so I created some of my new kurtas in straight men’s silhouettes, giving them pockets for women who otherwise fiddle around for cellphones, spectacles and pens,” she says.
Bangalore-based designer Sanchita Ajjampur, who has worked in different parts of Europe and Asia and instills a vibrant global-local sensibility in her garments, calls the tunic “a cultural pass partout” adding that “its versatility has urged designers to create various looks—elegant, nomadic or beach glamour, from urban to boho chic”. Designer Urvashi Kaur agrees, saying it’s a widely interpreted separate. Tunics are the mainstay of her Spring/Summer 2013 collection—in lovely ochre linens and crinkled shibori. “It’s a must-have for summer,” she says simply.
The tunic’s success underlines the importance of “aunty fashion”—that commercially sturdy customer segment comprising middle-aged women who can afford to update wardrobes frequently. “Let’s accept it, the tunic may be popular with all age groups, but it is a midlife garment for aunties and mummies,” says Dhaka, emphasizing that hip- and stomach-covering garments do well in India. Barve gives it a commercial spin. “We may laugh at BTM (Behenji turned Mod) women but that group is the catalyst behind the rise of the tunic. Like American designer Diane Von Furstenberg’s wrap dresses, the tunic flatters every shape,” he says.
His tunics have evolved tremendously from his first collection in 2007 called Couture Allure to his most recent one titled Hacienda, which includes peplums, wrap tunic pant suits, shirt dress tunics and pallu tunics.
Stylists say an innovative pairing gives the Indian tunic a distinct personality. It pins down its current avatar as different from cinema costume expert Bhanu Athaiya’s tunics for Sadhana and Sharmila Tagore in Waqt (1965) and Saira Banu in Jhuk Gaya Aasman (1968), which she described so engagingly in her book The Art of Costume Design. The 1960s favoured tunics too but only with fitted churidars.
“Fashion is a master at reworking ideas and adding new twists,” says Ajjampur. Watch this space for the next round.