The clock has barely hit lunch-hour on a Saturday, but the billing counters at the Fabindia Experience Centre, a five-storied conceptual retail space in Delhi’s Vasant Kunj neighbourhood, are crowded with customers. It is the weekend before Diwali, and not even the advent of winter’s dreaded smog in the Capital will stop people from shopping. Manager Rumna Das is expecting approximately 500 customers through the day. A bulk of footfall is concentrated in the womenswear section, where sales executives guide customers—from a couple of college students to women in their 60s shopping with their families, and even a few expats—looking for an assortment of items, from a bandhgala-stye kameez to palazzos (flared pants), all neatly arranged in sections segregated by style, occasion and sizes.

ALSO READ | How the salwar kameez has evolved over the decades

The inventory, in keeping with the festive season, is visibly more elaborate, but takers for the conventional salwar-kameez ensemble are few and far between. Instead women browse the kurta section—the largest spread on the floors with two wall-to-wall displays resembling a Pantone shade card—before moving on to the bottomwear section to coordinate the separates. “Essentially palazzo or even pants are in these days, and they are being worn across ages. I also have really elderly ladies who are on the lookout for trousers to wear with their kurtas," Das says. The dupattas and stoles constitute a small section of the floor, and see the least number of customers for the better part of the hour. “The dupatta is something we actually have to market on the (shop) floor," says Das. “There’s one lot that of course goes for it, especially during the festive season, but by and large, we have to make an effort to get others to buy it."

The last decade has seen sweeping changes in the way Indian women are navigating Indian clothing, reflected most prominently in the changing silhouettes of the salwar-kameez. The three-piece garment, traditional to certain Muslim communities and the states of Punjab, Haryana, Kashmir and parts of Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh, is now worn across the country, and has undergone numerous design modifications. “The salwar is more or less obsolete, and has evolved into various other options like slim fit trousers, palazzos and other variations," observes Ruby Kashyap Sood, associate professor and chairperson (department of fashion and textiles—textile design) at the National Institute of Fashion Technology, New Delhi. “The kameez too has changed: from short, fitted kameez to ankle-length and loose-fit garments."

Shilpa Sharma, co-founder of the digitally-driven fashion and lifestyle brand Jaypore, echoes Sood. “The salwar-kameez has become a classic term for different kinds of garments that come with a topwear and bottom," she says. “Some years ago, department stores had clearly demarcated Western wear and ethnic sections. Now you walk into stores and see dresses that could be kurtas and pants that double up as salwars." Sharma’s e-commerce store follows a similar format—the dresses and kurtas look remarkably similar, the salwars section is replaced by palazzo pants and scarves and stoles take the place of dupattas.

Anita Dongre’s Autumn/Winter 2018 collection, Odyssey, includes relaxed printed ‘kurtas’ paired with slightly-cropped pants.
Anita Dongre’s Autumn/Winter 2018 collection, Odyssey, includes relaxed printed ‘kurtas’ paired with slightly-cropped pants.

The new salwar-kameez is ubiquitous, from retail shelves and runways to workplaces and the streets. During the Lakmé Fashion Week’s (LFW) Winter/Festive 2018 edition, held in Mumbai in August, Rajesh Pratap Singh showcased his line Welcome to the Jungle, sending models down the runway wearing zipped angrakhas with pants and statement jackets over salwar-kurtas. Eka showcased handloom dresses and trench coats layered over loose bottoms while emerging labels such as Indigene, Amrich: and THREE Clothing Studio showcased anti-fit kurtas paired with pants and overlayers of varying lengths. “The salwar-kameez is regaining its respect, and Indian designers are not afraid to show it on the ramp," says Priyanka Modi, designer and co-founder of the label AM: PM, which also showcased at the event. “It is what the consumer wants, and their job is to restyle it."

A look from péro’s Spring/Summer 2018.
A look from péro’s Spring/Summer 2018.

An ensemble of its times

Unlike the sari, which is rooted in India, the salwar-kameez is a Central Asian import. Though there is some indication that stitched clothing has been part of Indian dress codes before the arrival of the Slave Dynasty (the first Muslim dynasty to rule India) in the 13th century, Sood contends that its use was not very prevalent among women. “It is believed that 13th century onwards, Muslim immigrants brought in the traditional Central Asian attire which was adopted by Indians," she says. “Mughal and Pahari miniatures from the 17th and 18th centuries depict women in ankle-length garments, like a gown called peshwaz (long fitted sleeves and fitted bodice attached to a long flared skirt that had a front opening) teamed with straight fitted pyjama."

Between the 17th and 20th centuries, other silhouettes emerged, broadening the ensemble’s range—for instance women in the Muslim courts of Awadh took to wearing their kurtas with farshis, which gets its name from its floor-sweeping hemline, while the 19th and 20th centuries saw women favour the gharara, another wide-legged pyjamas marked by its gathered ruches at the knee. The dupatta was a sign of modesty, and essential to the garments.

An ensemble from Shantanu & Nikhil’s modern Indian showcase at Satchi Gallery during London Fashion Week in September.
An ensemble from Shantanu & Nikhil’s modern Indian showcase at Satchi Gallery during London Fashion Week in September.

The salwar-kameez wasn’t just limited to Muslim courts and communities. Designer Aneeth Arora, who launched her first Indianwear collection under her label péro this July, sheds light on its varying forms across north India. “Being a sardarni myself... the picture I have in mind was of my nani and dadi who would dress in a short kameez with Patiala salwars, all in the same colour, and chiffon dupattas," says Arora. She also researched the garment as worn by other communities and in other states—Jat women in the Kutch region wear anarkalis with a salwar, while in Haryana, women’s kurtas, with button-down front placket and rounded hemlines, resemble men’s shirts. In Jammu, the pheran—a wool overdress—is paired with suthans, loose draped bottoms structurally similar to a Patiala salwar.

It wasn’t until post-independence that the salwar-kameez became part of a pan-Indian consciousness. As more women stepped out of their homes to study and work, they adopted new garments propelled by the influence of cinema, Western fashion trends and industrialization in the clothing industry. “As women were exposed to Western fashion through magazines (such as Eve’s Weekly and Femina) and fashion information trickled through cinema, the sleeker form of the salwar-kameez—a fitted kameez with slits stitched up and churidar became popular in the 1960s, (supposedly) inspired by Jacqueline Kennedy’s attire," says Sood. The silhouette was worn by actresses like Sadhana, Saira Banu, Asha Parekh, Sharmila Tagore in their movies, influencing women to adopt the style. Bhanu Athaiya, the Oscar-winning costume designer of Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi (1982), is the woman behind this it-suit of the 1960s. Athaiya, encouraged by Yash Chopra, designed the iconic form-fitted churidar-kameez worn by Sadhana in Waqt (1965), using French fabrics and tailoring techniques. The ensemble was such a rage that it is still associated with the actor. While the sari was timeless and elegant, the churidar-kameez was easier to wear. The dupatta, so far draped neatly and demurely across the chest, morphed into a fashion statement when wrapped closely around the neck like a scarf.

Industrialization played a significant role. Mass production made it easier to replicate costumes from the movies and new textiles began to appear in the market. The forerunners of today’s viscose churidar/leggings were the nylon stretchable slacks of the late 1960s that often substituted the churidar.

It was really the 1990s, however, that marked a watershed period. The economic liberalization deeply influenced fashion trends, as independent women had access to both domestic and international brands. The period also marked the rise of Indian fashion designers who reinterpreted the garment in contemporary ways—the decade’s influencers included Ritu Kumar whose block-print kurtas gained such repute that Princess Diana ordered a few sets for her visit to Pakistan in 1996; Abu Jani-Sandeep Khosla, who reworked the traditional kalidar kurtas into anarkalis and Monisha Jaising who marketed embellished kurtis as beach cover ups (minus dupattas and salwars). The ensemble was considered to be modern while also retaining the Indian identity.

Payal Khandwala’s AW ‘18 Festive collection.
Payal Khandwala’s AW ‘18 Festive collection.

The mix-and-match generation

Starting from 2000, the year India hosted its first fashion week in Delhi with 33 designers, the fashion industry began to emerge as an influential force in the country. The salwar-kameez in the early 2000s was still heavily influenced by cinema, often culminating in unfortunate trends—Ameesha Patel made her debut in Kaho Naa...Pyaar Hai (2000), creating a market for flared kurtas with uncomfortably snug bodices. Kareena Kapoor did a string of movies, most prominently Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham... (2001), in short embellished kurtis paired with flared pants, a silhouette that turned out to be highly unflattering in real life. But what was more important is that the hyper-feminine costumes began to gradually make way for minimal ensembles that emphasized on convenience and new lifestyle choices. Sood cites the example of Kareena Kapoor’s patialas paired with T-shirts in Jab We Met (2007) which sparked off new trends among young women in the country. Collaborations between fashion and films were on the rise, as designers turned costume stylists for movies and Bollywood actors began to appear on runway shows, red carpets and in magazines wearing designer ensembles.

On the other hand, the growing market for fashion created an eco-system for innovation. Sanjay Garg, founder of the sari label Raw Mango, started creating stitched garments under his eponymous label in 2013, with brocade kurtas paired with slim pants. Couturiers Shantanu and Nikhil now execute their modern Indian aesthetic with draped kurtas and churidars while Payal Khandwala’s signature designs include geometric and asymmetric silhouettes. The early designs of Anita Dongre—a market leader in Indianwear and wedding ensembles—were in tune with traditional cuts, but today her eponymous label includes printed kurtas with overlayers and pockets, paired with loose pants. Global Desi, Dongre’s boho-chic high street brand goes as far as to reinvent the silhouette with asymmetrical hemlines, frock-like cuts and cropped pants.

By the early 2000s, stores like Shoppers Stop, Westside and Fabindia had already begun to offer the salwar, kameez and dupattas in mix-and-match sections, motivating women to make their own choices. This ushered the unfortunate trend of street cotton-and-lycra churidars. While it eliminated the excess fabric and drawstring detail of the traditional churidar, the skin-tight tailoring was low on aesthetic appeal. Fortunately, the trend has once again taken a turn towards loose pyjamas and cropped pants. And the infusion of new-age fabrics has helped the kurta, be it viscose and lycra or Liva and Tencel, making room for greater fluidity in the silhouettes. Even Fabindia, once synonymous with handlooms, is experimenting with silk-viscose kurtas.

A ‘salwar-kameez’ inspired ensemble from Eka’s Autumn/Winter 2018 collection.
A ‘salwar-kameez’ inspired ensemble from Eka’s Autumn/Winter 2018 collection.

Dropping the veil

The most visible sign of the changing salwar-kameez, however, is the conspicuously absent dupatta. Sharma, who worked at Fabindia before launching Jaypore, speaks about how she observed customers eschewing the dupatta as early as 2010, leaning towards scarves and stoles. “Big jackets may be replacing the dupatta," David Abraham, one half of the duo Abraham & Thakore told Lounge in an interview earlier this year. “(We’re) seeing a lot of women wearing them at all price points."

Overall, the last five years has seen retail brands make a visible attempt at newer silhouettes, in tandem with runway trends. In 2016, womenswear label W for Woman launched its Unethnicals collection, with marked similarity to runway styles—palazzo pants and trousers in lieu of the salwar, kurtas in varying lengths, layers and asymmetric hemlines and overlayers to complete the ensemble. The key ensemble in the new festive collection from Biba, another label known for Indianwear, is the multi-layered toga kurta—the brand’s Instagram page calls the garment “a classic style with a trendy soul." Online brands like Jaypore (which has now expanded to brick-and-mortar stores), Ajio and others too have approached Indianwear with a similar East-meets-West lens, mainstreaming many trends earlier seen only on the ramp or actors. The glocal aesthetic is pervasive in the fashion industry, across segments. Koovs, an e-commerce store that specializes in Western wear with an eye on global influences, has a new collaborative capsule with menswear designer Kunal Rawal that showcases this mix. “The collection combines Koovs’ western street style with Kunal’s impeccable and unique twist on the traditional shapes," says Mary Turner, CEO of the brand. “Long-line shirts and baggy breech trousers, that challenge the boundaries between heritage and young western fashion."

A ‘salwar-kameez’ tunic and pants paired with an overlayer from Amrich: Spring/Summer 2019.
A ‘salwar-kameez’ tunic and pants paired with an overlayer from Amrich: Spring/Summer 2019.

Even as trends evolve, new-age takes on the outfit continue to draw from historical silhouettes. Palazzo and straight-cut pants draw from the old-school dheela (loose) pyjamas. Kalidar kurtas and angrakhas are reinvented in new styles and the trend of layering jackets atop the kurta bears a resemblance to the choga. When Good Earth launched its clothing line, Sustain, in 2010, the brand’s founder Anita Lal aimed to popularize Indianwear but in a contemporary manner. “Growing up in Punjab, I have worn the salwar-kameez often. When we started Sustain, I wanted the clothes to be rooted in cultural tradition but with a contemporary design," she says. The brand’s design team found its inspiration in the Awadhi farshis. “We added embroidery and lace to the farshi and combined it with different kinds of kurtas. It looked very different but it caught the imagination of women," Lal adds.

Rina Singh, the Gurugram-based founder of Eka, credits her aesthetic to various influences: childhood years spent in Uttar Pradesh, a great-aunt in Jhabua with a liking for mulmul angrakhas, Muslim weddings in her maternal village of Sahranpur, which saw a profusion of farshi and sharara-clad women, and a bua (paternal aunt) in the 1980s who swore by khadi salwar-suits. “I was always somewhere in between when it came to dressing up—I neither wore the traditional salwar-kameez nor took the high-street clothing route," Singh says over the phone, on her way to Paris for a pop-up show of her label. “When I started designing, I wanted to create a new vocabulary for women who don’t really wear a traditional salwar-kameez anymore."

The salwar-kameez is a product of cultural confluences, the meeting of craft and costume traditions with the contemporary desire for functionality and style. It is the outfit of choice for women who aren’t comfortable draping a sari everyday and don’t wish to opt for the Western trouser-top and dress choices for daily wear either. As Indian fashion takes steps towards a global sensibility, the salwar-kameez is poised to be our sartorial emblem—an ensemble of androgynous, gender-neutral origins, a uniform for corporate leaders, politicians, celebrities and working women, from baby boomers to millennials—lending effortlessly to shifting patterns yet remaining timeless. Singh says of the new and constantly changing iterations of the salwar-kameez, “It’s not about giving women an identity, but giving them options. A piece of clothing can’t define you, but its essence can transcend generations."

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