When one thinks of some of the most memorable costumes from Hindi films, Madhuri Dixit Nene’s royal purple sari from Hum Aapke Hain Koun..! instantly springs to mind. Such was its appeal that not only did it become a staple costume for young girls at family functions but Mattel also decided to launch a Barbie doll dressed similarly. From a more recent crop of films, the one costume that has caught public imagination like no other is Kareena Kapoor Khan’s combo of a long T-shirt worn over Patiala salwars in Jab We Met. For several years now, it has been the attire of choice for college girls.
Several such styles are part of 100 Iconic Bollywood Costumes (Roli Books), in which author Sujata Assomull and illustrator Aparna Ram trace the relationship between fashion and Hindi films between 1950-2018. The idea is to showcase reel moments that have had an impact on real fashion. For instance, it elaborates on the costumes in the 2010 movie Aisha, which influenced the way girls dress in plush pockets of urban India—straddling a traditional Anamika Khanna and a Dior dress with equal ease.
The book features a foreword by fashion designer Manish Malhotra, who has created designs for some landmark films, such as Rangeela and Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna. He writes: “I generally believe that films have always influenced fashion in India…. People have always looked to movies for style inspiration."
Many of the featured outfits are set against songs that linger in memory even today, like Pyar Kiya Toh Darna Kya from Mughal-e-Azam and Chaiyya Chaiyya from Dil Se. “From the days of Chhaya Geet to MTV India, it is the songs that have received maximum attention, often featuring some of the most iconic moments from a film. It is no wonder then that costumes from these tend to have the highest recall," explains Assomull.
The idea of working on a book on Bollywood fashion occurred to Ram when she came across a similar book chronicling 100 iconic dresses.
She wanted to create a platform for Indian fashion sensibilities for a global audience. So, Ram started putting together illustrations of some of the most loved costumes from Hindi cinema in a notebook—and bit by bit, the book started taking shape.
A similar idea, of doing a coffee-table book on the evolution of Indian fashion, had been on Assomull’s mind—and she had talked about it to Priya Kapoor of Roli Books several times. Little did she know that it would transform into a comprehensive tome one day.
The book’s journey started with a call from Kapoor during which she mentioned Ram’s drawings of key fashion moments in Hindi cinema. “Priya asked me if I would like to write the text and I readily agreed," she says. There were logistical challenges in putting together the book, with Ram based in London, Assomull in Dubai and Roli Books in Delhi.
The book was 18 months in the making, from research to interviews with film directors, costume and fashion designers, and film critics. One of the key challenges for Ram was to reproduce illustrations as close to the original as possible so that readers would immediately recognize the scene from the film. “Some of the most challenging illustrations were the ones with a lot of detailing, such as those worn by Madhuri and Aishwarya (Rai Bachchan) in Devdas or by Raveena (Tandon) in Bombay Velvet," says Ram.
100 Iconic Bollywood Costumes doesn’t just chronicle significant style changes in cinema and mass fashion over the years but also sheds light on how costumes have served as visual markers for the sociocultural ethos of the time. For instance, Zeenat Aman’s kurta and skirt in the song Dum Maro Dum instantly evoke the hippie culture of the 1970s.
The featured costumes don’t just stand out for their aesthetic value but also as critical contributors to the storyline and the character profile. “For example, in Seeta Aur Geeta, if you look at the scene in which Seeta is meeting a prospective groom, she wears this very short pink dress—and is obviously uncomfortable. To me, this speaks of how many Indian girls of the time were not comfortable in Western clothes but wore them to seem ‘cool’ and ‘modern’," says Assomull.
The book also touches on how film costumes have helped revive an interest in traditional fabrics and techniques—whether it is the resham-embroidered mulmul cottons in Jodhaa Akbar or the Phulkari work in Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi, to name a few.
Though Hindi films have always remained a point of reference for style, there was also a period, in the 1980s for instance, when “filmy fashion" wasn’t always considered up to par. “But a lot has changed since then," says Assomull.
One factor that ushered in change was the arrival of multiplexes in the late 1990s. This gave a platform to independent film-makers to portray films and characters that resonated with middle-class audiences.
Perhaps the biggest endorsement of the importance of fashion in films is the allocation of a budget and dedicated departments for costumes. Indian and international designers have realized that with the right project, films are an effective way of reaching a wider audience.
Fehmida Zakeer is a Coimbatore-based writer