Anu Moulee, a scientist and IIT-Bombay alum, loved researching vintage clothing as a hobby. She started a blog that documented the sartorial choices of Indian women, with films, illustrations and photos serving as her sources.
Vintage Indian Clothing — Moulee's blog —has amassed quite the fan following since the time she set it up in 2014. The blog doesn't just chronicle women's fashion from different eras; it also analyses their socio-economic status and the way they see themselves.
In a chat with Firstpost this week, Moulee talked about vintage clothing, and what it signified. Excerpts:
What prompted you to start the blog?
Well I was wasting time on Tumblr and I used to see a few vintage blogs around. As I often write on my blog, I have a mad love for vintage sari blouses — in fact the initial name of my blog was Vintage Sari Blouse. So I thought I'd use the blog to document blouse styles for my future reference... so I could get them tailored. The first posts are in fact pretty simple and focused on sari blouses. And it stayed that way for a bit.
How the blog expanded from there on might be of interest: At some point, I started posting stuff that interested me when I was searching for blouses — (the styles favoured by) women like Gauhar Jaan, Sarla Thakral etc. So it was kind of this down-the-rabbit hole moment for me at this point; like wow, so many kickass women and their clothes aren't bad too!
But it was all pretty much for myself until I did a post on the suffragists which got a lot of notes. I still don't blog for notes but the blog got a lot of followers (it's about 8,000+ now on Tumblr) and I also realised that there was no extensive documentation of the history of Indian fashion online — unlike say for Western and Japanese fashion history. From then on, I took the blog quite seriously — to serve as a reference document for myself as well as for readers.
Is this blog an extension of your fascination with clothes?
Yes, and yes. I have a full blown love affair with clothes! It's not just from a buying and wearing point of view — though I do have way too many clothes and can never resist a new piece! But all of it fascinates me, from their history to their beauty to how people wear them. My greatest love is for saris but I enjoy all aspects of fashion from minimalism to romantic to mori girl fashion to the thrift shop aesthetic.
I trained as a scientist and worked with both textiles and dyes. This doesn't make its way into my blog but the technical aspects of fashion — new fabrics, for instance — also interests me.
Your recent blog post on Premchand gives a fascinating insight into what might be going on in his mind. How do you infer your deductions?
I am not terribly methodical, every post is kind of organic. But I have a research background so I do try and impose order and logic on a post. And of course my own interests — Indian literature, women's history, regional fashion styles, Indian and Asian textiles — do predominate.
The two things I feel very strongly about are: one, the idea that Indian fashion is timeless and traditional. In a way it is but it is also wonderfully inventive and constantly changing and I try and document that in my blog. Two, the idea that fashion is a frivolous and girly topic. My blog is a tiny piece of work in the scheme of things but through it, I try to show that fashion is a feast for the heart and the intellect. The table is spread and we can partake in it and enjoy it.
In the research you have done for your blog, does it help trace the history of how women see themselves and others see them? Does sartorial sense help trace the historical portrayal of women?
Yes, very much so. Since the blog is about clothing I don't often put in a lot of stuff that I find interesting. While the colonial and post-colonial portraits are also through the eyes of women and there is a bit of identity construction in the period, miniature paintings for example are very much a male portrayal of women at times: kind of languorous and passive women, a mood of romance etc. So it is very much a male gaze. But even there as I mentioned with Chand Bibi you see much else. Another example is the yoginis who appear in miniature paintings — it kind of makes you wonder what kind of women they were, given they always have their own abode, are in a forest, are visited by royalty etc.
Do you think documenting the history of fabric/clothes helps trace the socio-economic history of our times? The blog is almost anthropological in that way, right?
Most definitely. I did History up until my finished my BSc but I think my proper understanding of it only came about after I did the blog. For instance, I might be looking at Chandi Bibi's clothes and Deccani styles but then you find her whole story, her ableness as a ruler and the way her portraits (are) seem to suggest her relative freedom since she is always hawking and her clothing style is so relaxed.
You can also take into account the older styles of Chimnabai and Jnadanandini as the beginning of the modernisation of the sari but they adhere to regional specifics and are indicative of the way educated women of status dressed.
Then by the end of the '30s you have the city sophisticate and glamorous style disseminated by both royals like Gayatri Devi as well as actresses like Devika Rani and Renuka Devi.
In the '50s you have the beginnings of the working girl style like the journalist in Kala Pani and by the '70s and 80s you have a definite urban, working woman style for saris often exemplified by actresses like Shabana, Smita or Deepti Naval. I won't go into the evolution of the churidar kameez here as it might be a bit much.
So in summary, the dress reform movement that started as a way to make existing clothing 'respectable' for the 'bahar' (as opposed to the domestic interior) in the late 19th century moved on to the high glamour style rooted in 'Indian-ness' as well as a style the fused a number of elements to form a practical and aesthetic garment for middle class women.
Each decade kind of tells you the predominant mode of the sari from the sleek glamour of the '30s to structured Indian elegance in the '60s (exemplified by air hostess saris) to the ethnic chic that drew on the country's handloom traditions for the '80s working woman's wardrobe.
In our times for example, it is no longer a day garment — suggesting that urban Indian women's working wardrobe has moved on.
But for drama and opulence it remains the garment of choice even for young women, a change that I think dates from the '90s.