Is the mini skirt as western or un-Indian as we think?

Bared The history of the much maligned skirtDimple Kapadia, Egyptian fresco - Screenshots; Ghagra choli - Wikimedia Commons
Features Fashion/history Monday, August 29, 2016 - 18:00

It is not uncommon for women in India to hear from 'well-meaning' elders, that they shouldn't be wearing short dresses, skirts and skimpy clothing, especially in the night.

While India’s love-hate relationship with the skirt and mini-skirt (and us telling women they are asking for it) is not new, is the mini skirt as western or un-Indian as we think?

Historically, skirts have always been a part of Indian culture, dating as far back as the Indus Valley civilization. Illustrations of men and women from the era portray scantily clad women, with bare waists and a piece of cloth barely covering their hips and buttocks; but the length of this ‘skirt’ could go down to their knees.

Women continued to wear a variation of skirts– like the ghaghra, lehnga with a choli (blouse) and a dupatta, which evolved from the sari that came around the Vedic period. Even then, wrapping a cloth around the midriff, paired with a blouse having strings at the back or the front, was quite popular.

So then why exactly is the modern skirt so problematic in India? Before we go into that, here’s a brief history of how the mini-skirt was more of a political piece of clothing in the west before it became commonly accepted.

The Western history of the miniskirt

Like the Indus Valley civilization in the Indian subcontinent, the mini-skirt-like attire can be traced back to 5000 BC, where illustrations of the hunter-gatherers depict men, women in such garments. According to a CBS News feature from 2006, the skirt is the second oldest garment in history, says Valerie Steel, the then director of the museum at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology.

Image source: University of Calgary library, Wikimedia Commons

And while miniskirts were worn by actresses in science-fiction shows (and there wasn’t a big fuss about it), it was only in the 1960s when the miniskirt underwent a “feminist revolution”, according to this Mic’s ‘feminist history of the miniskirt’. This coincided with an awareness about gender inequality and the second wave of feminism, with women reclaiming their right to wear what they pleased.

But the term “mini-skirt” is credited to Mary Quant - designer and owner of the iconic ‘Bazaar’ boutique in London - who raised the hemline of the skirt in 1964, and named it after her favourite car, ‘Mini’. “They (mini-skirts) celebrated youth and life and tremendous opportunity. They had a kind of ‘Look at me’ quality. They said, ‘Life is great.’” Quant told Vogue in the 1995 interview.

Through the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s, women embraced the mini, albeit with some tongue-wagging from others calling it ‘indecent’ (obviously). It became a symbol of women taking ownership of their bodies, femininity as well as sexiness, without a woman’s worth being reduced. By the 2000s however, it became less of a big deal and more of the fashion must-have.

The (modern?) Indian context

While it’s tough to find a comprehensive history of the modern skirt in India, the more obvious connection that turns up is the one with films as they often end up being trendsetters. While accounts vary, it appears that the skirt came into films in late 1960s and early 1970s where women ditched the saree and lehanga, for the mini.

One of the most iconic images from Bollywood is that of Dimple Kapadia in her polka-dotted knotted crop top, paired with a black short skirt in ‘Bobby’, which instantly catapulted her to the status of a sex siren at the time. However, for the most part, women in sarees and suits were the ‘heroines’ whereas jeans and skirt donning women would be the overtly seductive vamps through the ‘70s and ‘80s.

Contrary to this trend, film critic Baradwaj Rangan told madaboutmoviez (a digital native movie website) that till the 1960s, there was no bikini or boa in Tamil cinema and the films were “family dramas with strong family-oriented cores”. Here too, the heroine was “sari-clad, demure and sexy in a girl-next-door way”.

So it was when the heroine began wearing skirts that it became accessible to the masses. In Kollywood, actress Jayanthi became the first woman to wear a skirt and a swimsuit in 1960s. “What’s wrong in wearing a swimsuit, if it is required for the film story? It's not the dress which you wear that counts, but your character and attitude,” she told Ronald Anil Fernandes of Deccan Herald in 2003.

What’s more, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa is said to be the first Tamil actress to wear skirts.

Post liberalization in 1991 though, Indian heroines’ attire began to change more towards dresses, skirts and even trousers. Now of course, actresses wearing skirts and ‘western’ clothing has become common to a large extent, but outside the reel world, the war on the ‘immodest’ skirt is still quite real.  

The war on the ‘un-Indian’ skirt

There is no dearth of politicians’ statements condemning western clothing, especially skirts and shorts. Referred to by some as “coloured clothing”, the miniskirt was almost banned in Chandigarh in April this year for the fear of it being “seditious” and being likely to incite “political discontent”. And while the logic is that girls showing skin is against Indian sensibilities, our “traditional” clothing has always been revealing too.

Take the saree for example, which exposes the midriff and a part of the back. The lehenga choli – which does the same. Working women from rural areas often lift up their sarees over their legs for convenience. But somehow, these transgressions do not matter to self-proclaimed guardians of Indian ‘culture’.

This is not to say that revealing clothes – whether Indian or western – determine a woman’s “purity” or worth. But the hypocrisy is a little too obvious, though often ignored.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi had said in June that skirts have been a part of Indian culture, referring to sculptures at Konark Sun Temple from the 13th century, which depicted the “modern fashionable girl” who carried a purse.

But he was factually incorrect, and this reaction from a Twitter user, just about sums it up.

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