Films and fashion


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CAST an eye over the fashion reportage of any fashion week and what comes across is the flurry of film stars grabbing centrestage as show stoppers for every second designer. A film star walking the ramp pretty much assures you media coverage (overshadowed only by a wardrobe malfunction!). Is it just a promotional tool capitalizing on the public’s obsession with films and film stars, or is it that fashion in India is defined by films? Was it always so or has it only just become the fashion?

Films are a ‘cultural mirror’. As much as they are a mirror to society, so too are they an important influence on society. While many elements of their intended communication may not get subsumed into the psyche of the audience, there is no doubt about their wide-reaching impact on the sartorial styles of the times.

The walk, the talk, the look and, most visibly, the clothes and coiffure of the matinee idols have been emulated by generations of adoring fans. Flip through the old family albums and you will see the fashions of the times reflected in the photographs of parents, aunts and uncles. Geeta Bali’s loose salwars and puff-sleeved, frock kurtas and Dev Anand’s westernized Gregory Peck hairstyle were the hot winners of the ’50s. Fashion for an entire generation of youth growing up in the ’60s and ’70s was determined by what a Sadhana, Dev Anand, Shammi Kapoor, Rajesh Khanna, Zeenat Aman, Pravin Babi or Rakhee wore in their films.

In Indian cinema the song and dance routine or dream sequence is the perfect showcase for fashion. As the narrative deviates from the immediate storyline into a flight of fantasy, it is a no holds barred run of the imagination, a whirlwind tour of exotic locales entirely unconnected with the plot that are accompanied by chameleon like, inexplicable changes of attire that are a virtual fashion show. While films remained the stuff that dreams were made of, the clothes that the film stars wore were within reach. The walls of every self-respecting tailor’s shop were liberally adorned with photos, posters and film magazine covers of the stars, for those were the hot styles of the day!


The churidaar and fitted skintight kurta with a back slit was a wave that swept across northern India and was matched by the navel-baring, low-waisted, body hugging, mermaid sari draping style, popularized by Mumtaz’s curvy success in Brahmchari and Do Raaste. Rajesh Khanna’s round-necked guru kurta’s have survived the passage of time. Nepali caps did brisk business post Aradhana. Rakhee’s sarees, Sharmila Tagore’s spring curl tendrils and puffed-sleeve blouses, as Pushpa in Amar Prem all found a faithful fan following in the prevailing styles of the times. The changing storylines and the slow disappearance of the archetypical vamp soon saw the emergence of a new kind of heroine with a more westernized wardrobe hitherto reserved for the vamp. Praveen Babi and Zeenat Aman soon seduced young India with their glamorous and westernized style. Zeenat Aman’s flower power, Haight Ashbury look of Hare Rama Hare Krishna was iconic and swept the college campuses. That was a time when thick eyeliner and frosted lipstick unified the young women of India!

Imagine the power of a trend wherein hair salons across the country would simply be asked for a Shammi Kapoor hair style (his trademark mop), a Sadhana cut (the fringe or bangs across the forehead that she popularized with her films) or the bird’s nest bouffant and the pasted-to-the cheeks sideburn ‘commas’ sported by Sharmila Tagore.


Today, when a designer rues the fact that stores are selling copies of their designs, you can almost sense a tinge of satisfaction underlying their outrage, for actually it is an acknowledgement that ‘they have arrived’. The trends and fads were driven by the popularity and personality of the star and the creator of the style was more often than not an anonymous somebody, who was lost as one of the many names in the credit roll.

How many people except those who have made the effort to research behind the scenes know the name of designers like Mani Rabadi, Leena Daru and Bhanu Athaiya? Bhanu Athaiya is recognized for winning the Oscar for costume design for Attenborough’s Gandhi in 1982, but how many know that the youthful checked frocks of Bobby are also her designs? One of the oldest and most respected names in the industry, she has been costuming films since 1953 – from Raj Kapoor and Guru Dutt to Ashutosh Gowarikar, she has been going from strength to strength.


There were obviously scores of designers churning out hundreds of costumes for the thousands of films being made. Anna Singh, Neeta Lulla, and Xerxes Bhathena each had their patron stars. Anna Singh’s star clients included Jackie Shroff and Pooja Bhatt. She oversaw every wardrobe and styling detail for Jackie Shroff – from his films to photo shoots. For a while both the actors in question and their designer elicited a reasonable amount of column inches in film journals, but neither left a significant impact. Her creations for Madhuri Dixit in Hum Apke Hain Kaun (the purple sari and the white and green ghagra choli) may have become the must have wardrobe across the country, but chances are that few will be able to name the designer.

Neeta Lulla, another extremely successful designer for films, has a string of popular films and stars in her portfolio. Starting with Kimmi Katkar, her draped, embellished, creations have clothed countless heroines, from gyrating gypsies to smouldering seductress’s in over 300 films. The fact of the matter was that designing for films was not a mainstream designer aspiration. Both director Karan Johar and fashion designer Manish Malhotra have gone on record to say that fashion designers in the past saw film fashion as ‘cheap’ and ‘lowbrow’.


Fashion and films underwent a dramatic change in the ’90s. On the fashion front, the late ’80s saw the emergence of the ‘fashion designer’ in India. Rohit Khosla, Abu Jani and Sandeep Khosla and Hemant Trivedi began to enjoy celebrity status in society magazines, till then reserved for movie stars. Ensemble, the first multi-designer fashion store, had opened in Mumbai. The National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT) had opened in Delhi and was the coveted destination for all aspiring designers.

Liberalization opened the gates for the entry of foreign companies into India. World cosmetic giants focused their attention on tapping the huge buying potential of the Indian market. The stage had been set with the double whammy of Sushmita Sen and Aishwarya Rai winning the Miss Universe and Miss World titles and India was the flavour of the day.

The arrival of cable television in India in the 1990s changed the face of films. Cable transformed ‘two channel state run television into a forty five to sixty channel system… Television had always been driven by advertising, but the cable boom, expanded the advertising industry.’1

Hollywood films, sitcoms, MTV, Santa Barbara, The Bold and Beautiful, soon had the bold and beautiful of urban India altering social engagements so as not to miss their daily dose of glamour.

‘Threatened by the stark reality of empty cinema halls’, the film industry was left with no choice but to reinvent itself and soon geared itself to become one of the major suppliers of content for television.’2 The arrival of new electronic forms of communication introduced significant innovations in screen narratives, according to Ranjani Mazumdar in her book on Bombay cinema. This saw the emergence of a new genre of films, film stars and film designers. What was true for 1930 Hollywood and the fashion industry seemed to become the blueprint for Bollywood and the fashion industry here in India.


Recognizing ‘the huge potential buying power of women, both as purchasers of goods for the entire family and as filmgoers, and the subsequent boom in star endorsements and merchandising, fashion publicity for upcoming films, and movie tie-ins of clothes and accessories, wide-ranging changes accompanied the popularization of fashion, including the growing acceptance of cosmetic use and women’s appropriation of pants.’3

‘Cinema became the window for (virtual) global travel, urban exploration and commodity display. In the 1990s, film songs emerged as one of the most important spaces for an aggressive and sophisticated form of fashion display. These sequences appear like mini fashion shows offering female spectators the freedom to virtually experience the world of fashion.’4 This can be seen at its best in most of the song picturizations of Karan Johar’s films costumed by Manish Malhotra. Both Johar and Malhotra have commented on contemporary cinema’s ability to function as a ‘department store’.5

If one man were to be credited with changing the perception of costuming for films, from being the ‘dresswallah’ of old to the star designer status of today, it would be Manish Malhotra. The boy who failed to get admission into NIFT, decided to marry his flair for design with his love for movies and became a designer for movies in the halcyon years of the Indian fashion industry when being a filmi designer was distinctly ‘uncool’. His super sexy, stylish make-over of Urmila Matondkar in Rangeela in 1995, made people sit up and take note of the man behind it. Manish introduced a realness to the character.

It was no longer just about creating the ‘costumes’ but equal attention was paid to hair, make-up and the total look. Manish ensured that his heroines’ hair length and make-up did not undergo logic defying changes from frame to frame and ‘continuity of look’ was introduced into mainstream commercial Hindi cinema. That soon became the Manish mantra.


Today, he not only sits in on the script reading sessions but actually influences the fleshing out of the character from clothes to content. His filmography and star clients is a veritable top of the charts rundown. There are others whose entry into mainstream design has been via the film route, Rocky S., Vikram Phadnis, Surily Goel. Their body hugging, fitted, flared, plunging styles were perfect for the new gym-toned dare-to-bear generation of new stars. Their designs bring to their customer a whiff of the glamour and grease paint of Bollywood and their shows have the front rows liberally sprinkled with their star clients. Commercial cinema in India today no longer only sells dreams, and contemporary storylines and realistic characterizations have led to a new playing field. Today the clothes and styling of the film are treated as important if not crucial aspects of the film.


The protagonists in films today are contemporary and urbanized, with atypical professions that allow for costuming that is trendy and in sync with prevailing fashion trends. Sharukh, Salman, Hritik, John, Saif, Kareena, Katrina, Bipasha, Priyanka – have all provided numerous opportunities to be perfect clothes horses for contemporary fashion. A new crop of designers are fulfilling this need. Arjun Bhasin, with training in film from NYU and fashion from FIT brings his experience to films from Monsoon Wedding, Dil Chahta Hai, Lakshya and Rang de Basanti.


So while on the one hand films like Swades, Lagaan and Jodha Akbar still depend on the detailing and research that Bhanu Athaiya and Neeta Lulla bring, there has emerged the demand for a designer/stylist who ‘sources’ appropriate clothes in order to create the ‘look’ that the role requires. There is skepticism, however, as to whether they should be called designers for movies at all, as the vanguard feel that, ‘Today’s generation does not know the difference between costume and fashion designing. Most of them design clothes for the lead actors. They work according to the actors’ requirements and not the needs of the movies. That is not costume designing. Costume and fashion designing are two separate activities – designers take empty suitcases and go shopping for the actors’ clothes in New York. To me this is bankruptcy of imagination.’6


A far cry from the days when films and film stars were ‘uncool’ for the fashion fraternity, designing for films today is an aspirational feather in the cap for many designers. So whether it is Sabyasachi Mukherjee for Black or Akki Narula who introduced a breezy street style with Dil Chahta Hai and Bunty aur Babli, Abu Jani and Sandeep Khosla, Tarun Tahiliani, Shantanu and Nikhil, or even the conservative classic Rajesh Pratap Singh, the 70mm glamour of the silver screen has spared few! The film and fashion connect is not restricted to reel life, the lifestyle increase in public appearances (awards, television appearances and high profile page 3 parties) all demand a vast wardrobe. The actors have their preferred designers.

Today there is a comfortable coexistence and crossover between films and fashion. Models from the runway like Bipasha Basu and John Abraham are superstars. Film superstars from Amitabh Bachchan, Sharukh, Shabana Azmi, Deepika Padukone and Sonam Kapoor walk the ramp for designers.

FIT and NIFT trained designers clothe film stars and ‘filmy designers’ do grand finale shows at fashion weeks where fashion has become a ‘serious business’.

Bollywood and Hollywood, vamps, villains, gangsters and molls all continue to be inspirations for fashion designers, while Fashion was the subject of Madhur Bhandarkar’s film that won Priyanka Chopra a national award for her portrayal of a catwalk model.

Together, fashion and films drive their fan following to new levels of sartorial spend. They seem to have found the perfect fit that recognizes the undeniable chemistry that binds them together.



1. Ranjani Mazumdar, Bombay Cinema: An Archive of the City. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2007.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid.

6. Bhanu Athaiya in an interview with Patsy N.,