The History of Blouse
Boat neck or backless, knotted or polka dotted – a sari’s blouse stitches together many diverse designs. What are the stories that lie hidden beneath it?
The blouse is something you would find tucked away in most Indian wardrobes – may be a hardy, simple one for everyday wear, or something fancy for special occasions. It could be readymade or stitched from scratch after that awkward bust measuring session at the tailor’s. This ubiquitous garment has come a long way before becoming this popular.
In Victorian England, where it first became a thing, the blouse was a signifier of social change. It allowed women to ditch tight bodices and heavy skirts for more comfortable clothing, thus becoming a wardrobe essential for socially active women across different classes. But unlike in the West, what we know about the blouse in India varies across regions and time periods.
In some parts of the country, we have evidence of various precursors to the blouse. In ancient Sanskrit texts, there are mentions of the ‘stanapatta’, or breast-bands. In the medieval Chola Dynasty, women made the choli (blouse) by wrapping an unstitched cloth tightly around their breasts to flatten them. And in the 14th century Vijayanagara Empire, women used to wear the ‘kanchuka’ or a tightly fitted bodice, which would be stitched by specialised tailors.
But in other parts of the country, the blouse was an alien concept. Well into the 1800, in Bengal in the East, and Travancore and Malabar in the South, it was common for women to wear Saris with nothing underneath. And this practice still continues for many indigenous tribes like the Halakki in Karnataka and Kunduli in Orissa, to name a few.
Overall, wearing or not wearing the blouse depended on many factors – like available cloth, climate conditions, and most importantly, on community based dress codes. For instance, elders forbade Hindu women in pre-modern Kerala from wearing blouses, because they were associated more with Muslim and Christian women for whom wearing blouses was mandatory. On the other hand, in ‘seduction manuals’ from this region, aspiring courtesans were advised to cover their chests so as to excite the imagination of their clients.
The sheer variety in historical accounts shows that the blouse carried different connotations for different groups, and covering the torso was not necessarily seen as a mark of modesty. That is, until British notions of morality took over in the late 19th century. As per biblical moral codes, nudity was a sign of sin. And so the British considered draping the sari without the blouse as ‘vulgar’. In the 1860s, Jnanadanandini Devi, an elite Bengali woman was reportedly forbidden from entering British clubs without a blouse.
This led to her wearing the sari with a jacket style blouse. Other elite Indian women followed suit, and this even led to the invention of a new way of draping the sari which is ubiquitous today. From then on, sari-blouse embellished with frills and ruffles inspired by Victorian dresses, grew in popularity. And by the 1930s, going bare breasted with a sari began to be widely condemned.
During the Independence Movement, blouse designs changed, as freedom fighters began to sport loose khadi blouses – their white colour signifying protest and also a purity of mind. Since then, many prominent women have relied on this imagery of a plain sari with white blouse to evoke the same sense of resilience and simplicity – be it politicians, social activists or actors playing the matriarch in Bollywood films.
In the post-Independence era, the entertainment industry played the biggest role in shaping the fate of the blouse by giving audiences a range of iconic designs to copy. Nadira’s off-shoulder in Shree 420, Sharmila Tagore’s butterfly knot blouse, Mumtaz in that crop-top and double-wrap sari were just the beginning. Cue Rekha and that scoop necked blouse, Sridevi in her chiffons. Then came the like of Madhuri Dixit with the bare-back, Komolika’s ‘vamp special’ blouse style, and Priyanka Chopra as a globalised ‘desi girl’.
Over the decades, the onscreen blouse has invariably pushed boundaries of what the Indian women can and cannot expose. Going from the arms and midriff to back, shoulders and much more. On occasion, a ‘mistakenly’ dropped pallu (loose end of a sari) or low-cut back – all of which are fair game with the blouse, allow for a playfulness and sensuality that are often hard to show in other traditional Indian attire.
For many, especially young saree-wearers, this freedom to experiment with the blouse has played a big role in ensuring its popularity. Innovations like crop tops, blazers and denim blouses have helped different groups reimagine the sari and make it their own.
But, this is not to say that the older versions of blouse have gone out of style. The fact that these many variations coexist, in fact, adds to the versatile beauty of this piece of clothing. What began decades ago as a debate on modesty, has now come to take on entirely new dimensions when it comes to culture, fashion and freedom. Hence, the blouse is such a versatile concept, so tied in with both sexuality and modesty. And so, no matter where the blouse goes from here, this rich legacy will remain a part of its fabric.
[images from Pinterest, Heading : IndiaMart]
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