At Elie Saab's showroom on Avenue Franklin Roosevelt in Paris last weekend, I found a blouse in white silk, cropped at the bust, embellished with silver needlework around the Nehru collar. Next to it was an Edwardian dress with a sari-like stole over a shoulder. "As if an Englishwoman from the 19th century is dressed for her trip to India," explained a hostess, raising her shoulders and lower arms, as her upward facing palms pointed to Elie Saab's Spring 2016 collection named 'Enter India', hung on satin hangers ahead of us.
It was the British who brought the blouse to the sari in India, along with their own ideas of European propriety.
What blouse? In the 19th century, many women did not cover their torso in southern India, while some went bare-breasted under their saris in Bengal. Even a hundred years later from then, Jnanadanandini Debi, the wife of Satyendranath Tagore, was refused entry to clubs run by the British in India, for covering her breasts with her sari alone.
During that same time, European ladies laced themselves tight in corsets and dresses that covered them neck to toe. Only the silhouette, strangled into an hourglass shape, marked their femininity.
Much later, the button-front fitted blouse was created after the World War I in Europe. This was an era when women embraced leisure sports, education and jobs for the first time in history, and so the bustle of the heavy dresses of the previous century just wouldn't do. The sewing machine became more popular and women began to sew their clothes at home, negotiating for their relief and style.
The layers of their gowns were dropped. Mobile and flexible garment styles were invented, including the blouse, to provide fashion and comfort for women who had moved into the workforce in unprecedented numbers.
This blouse, though, still covered up the torso neck to nail, with frills and lace -- abortion was still condemned as immoral by the church, women were expected to assume their child-bearing role and the puritans dominated with the view that exposure of skin would lead to promiscuity.
But any which way, the blouse had not only replaced centuries of corsets and full-length dresses but it also brought the frills and embroidery preserved for underwear right to the top. It was a revolutionary garment.
Later, the blouse worn with trousers -- as epitomized by Katherine Hepburn -- became the staple look of the 1940s and early 1950s. Yet the high-neckline Edwardian blouse was not easy to let go of. It played up the prim all through the 1970s. Just a brief vogue for a blouse with a V-neck was vociferously denounced as indecent and condemned as a risk to the wearer's health. Even Chanel and Valentino spruced up the stern Edwardian look with lace-edging and leg-of-mutton sleeves, creating grand designer versions of it. Thanks to the puritans in Europe, the blouse remained resolutely laced and buttoned up right until the 1980s.
With its different sleeve structures and necklines, the blouse under the sari made colonial British and Indian fashions even resemble each other at some point.
Only gradually did the erogenous neck area chance more exposure with the entry of softer collars on the blouse and a limp bow at the neck. Showing so much neck was considered utterly scandalizing. And it finally took the guts of Britain's Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to fashion this style and make it acceptable.
Essentially, the blouse, especially in Europe, has been the symbol of women going to work, thus stripping the garment of any qualities that would evoke desire or emphasize sensuality. As women stepped into workplaces that were dominated by men, the blouse too became more streamlined, fitted, appearing like the business attire of their male counterparts. To the extent that the blouse metamorphosed into a statement of intent for female business executives. At its sexiest best, the blouse became an attempt to be feminine yet fit into a man's world.
No wonder the British were aghast at the indecorum of Indian women roaming bare-chested. It was the British who brought the blouse to the sari in India, along with their own ideas of European propriety. The blouse has easily been Britain's most powerful export to India, one that has outlived the influence of the crown. With its different sleeve structures and necklines, the blouse under the sari made colonial British and Indian fashions even resemble each other at some point. Contemporary designer Sanjay Garg in Delhi has transformed the role of the blouse in a sari ensemble, bringing these styles from history now back in vogue.
"Now, why is this collection crafted in Beirut, Milan and Paris so influenced by India?" I asked my hostess at Elie Saab politely in French.
Once chided by the British for her impudence on being blouse-less, Jnanadanandini Debi later became the greatest style icon for blouses and chemises worn under the sari in India. She is a great metaphor for the spectacular influence of the British on garments in India in those times. And so, "Now, why is this collection crafted in Beirut, Milan and Paris so influenced by India?" I asked my hostess at Elie Saab politely in French.