150 years of Bengali Fashion: Everything You Need to Know From Renaissance to Revolution
Bangladesh and West Bengal are like sisters. The two regions share many similarities including language, music, art and literature. But they also share a history of fashion that has evolved from the time of the Bengali Renaissance to the Liberation War of 1971.
For many Bengalis, fashion is a crucial part of Bengali culture and pride. From the intellectual drape of Bengali Brahmins to the silky, chiffon saris of ‘60s film stars, 150 years of Bengali fashion tells us a fascinating story of reform, resistance, revolution and, ultimately, redirection.
1870s:The Bengali Renaissance
Have you ever binged Bulbbul and fell in love with her 19th Renaissance aesthetic? Ever wonder how the unique Bengali drape came about?
The 1870s was the hey-day of the Bengal Renaissance. The Bengal Presidency was the center of arts, literature and scientific discovery, renowned for innovators and polymaths like the beloved Rabindranath Tagore.
Jnanadanandini Tagore, Rabindranath’s sister-in-law, pioneered the unique Brahmika drape we see in movies like Parineeta and Devdas. She wrapped the sari around the body and brought it over the left shoulder, showcasing regality and elegance. Over time, the Brahmika style became the quintessential Bengal drape of upper-class Brahmin women.
1890s: The Turn of the Century
Like many parts of the subcontinent, West Bengal and Bangladesh were also colonized by the Portuguese. Their influence ot only left lasting imprints on Bengali language (janala which means window is derived the Portugeuse janela), but also on Bengali fashion.
In the 1890s, women wore lace mantillas over their heads, inspired by the headwear donned by Spanish upper-class women. These were often worn in adjunct to the sari. Men would wear a white cotton dhoti with a white cotton kurta and leather sandals.
1900s -1910s: The Edwardian Era
In 1901, King Edward succeeded his imperial mother, Queen Victoria of England. English culture and reform have impacted Benagli fashion since the Renaissance and the effect of Edwardian trends were no different.
In the early 20th century, saris were delicate muslin or chiffon, beaded and embroidered lightly along the borders. Blouses were tailored in Edwardian style with lapels on the front and embroidered details on slightly puffed sleeves. This was the start of Bengali fusion-wear.
Women started donning short hair and would drape the sari around and over the left shoulder, pinning it with a jeweled brooch. Duality of culture was not uncommon. Men would wear Edwardian style suits when interacting with the British and the kurta-dhoti when lounging at their ancestral havelis.
1920s: the Roaring 20s
Imagine short cropped hair, straight lines, dark lips, and lots of gold. The Roaring 20s in was a time of daring fashion choices.
The gorgeous Indira Devi promoted the provocative flapper aesthetic to the Bengal region.
Upper-class young women started donning sleeveless blouses and bobbed hair. They would wear gorgeous chiffon sari with gold/silver zari borders or drape rich chanderi silks over their shoulders.
1930s: When Devdas met Paro
We all know the movie Devdas where Shah Rukh Khan, Madhuri and Aishwariya are entangled in a passionate, alcohol-fueled love triangle. But did you know that the 1936 version was one the earliest adaptations?
Devdas (1936) guided most the fashion choices of the 1930s. Blouses came to particular prominence and were fashioned to be half sleeved and to gently contour the upper body. Kundan Lal Saigal, the eponymous Devdas, became one of the earliest icons of Indian cinema. Men across Bengal would copy his style by donning a shirt kameez with airy dhotis or lungi. They would also wear a wide-bottomed pajama-salwar with shoes or morjis.
1940s-1950s: The Partition Era
The 40s were a historical decade for the Bengal Region due the 1947 Partition. East Bengal became East Pakistan. West Bengal became a state of India. Religion became a dividing factor and further influenced many fashion choices in both regions.
As the 1950s came about, Nargis became the 'it' girl of Bollywood. Hailing from Kolkata, her classic, timeless style became iconic for West Bengali women. Women wore high-neck blouses, chiffon saris and white saris to celebrate her aesthetics and sensuality.
1960s: Beehives and BodyCon
The 60s were a time of exploration and experimentation. Modernism paved the way for couture innovation.
Sharmila Tagore, one of the most versatile actresses and dancers of the1960s and ‘70s, paved the way for voluminous puffy hair, intricate French braids and teased beehives with soft curls decorating at the temples.
Sleeveless blouses and tight chiffon saris were all the rage, adorned with golden trim. Body-fitted salwars and kurtas added both practicality and celebrated the womanly form.
1970s: Bangladesh Liberation War
The 1970s was the most important decade for East Bengal. After years of fighting for their own language, East Bengal liberated themselves in 1971, becoming the Bangladesh we know today.
The joy of liberation and self-actualization was soon reflected in the fashion. Vibrant polyester and glossy materials were all the rage. Tight fitting salwar kameez, platform shoes and the signature bell-bottom pants defined the feminist undertones of this era. Women idolized the eclectic styles of Bengali icons like Bobita, Kabori Sarwar and Runa Laila.
1980s: Polka Dot Mania
The subdued, earthy tones of the late 70s bled into the early 80s with browns, oranges and tan hues becoming commonplace. Polka dot salwar kameez with velvet jackets became a much loved combination. Hair was puffed up with full-blown frontal bangs. Fashion flowed with energy and eccentricity. Saris became more and more occasional from everyday wear.
1990s: Sweater Weather and Anarkalis
The 1990s surprisingly witnessed a modern revival of Mughal fashion. Anarkali-style salway kameez became a mainstay. And who can forget the quintessential 90s item, the iconic turtleneck sweater, which became a stronghold among men. Both men and women also loved loose/oversized denim jeans.
2000s-2010s: The Turn of the Millenium
In the turn of the millennium, we notice an increase in denim, western-style tops and shirts. Fusion-wear brought an explicit duality to Bengali culture. Kurtas became shorter and were paired with jeans by college students. As the world globalized and became more fast-paced, saris almost exclusively became occasional wear.
By the 2010s, sari blouses became a prominent co-garment to the sari. Unique sleeveless combinations, collared necklines and gorgeous zari handiwork placed significant prominence on the versatility of the blouse.
2020 & Beyond
It's 2020, and we are currently witnessing an increased appreciation of Bengali craftsmanship.
The 2020 coronavirus pandemic brought attention to the atrocities of faced by garment workers. As sustainability and ethics are becoming major drivers for change, we are observing a revival in Bengal's finest artisan fabrics like the ethereal jamdani, the resolute kotha cotton and the renowned muslin.
Through 150 years, the threads of Bengali fashion weave the story of 2 sisters who are intertwined so deeply yet separated by borders. It reminds us of the parallel evolution of both regions and how colonialism, consumerism, war and globalization have shaped the way we present ourselves to the world.
In many ways, we celebrate our joys, share our sorrows , exemplify our wonder and amplify our actions through our clothing. A border may divide us, but we are permanently connected through our parallel experiences, our instrinsic, artistic values and a unique, shared Bengali heritage that celebrates innovation, liberation and appreciation.