Q: How many aloo parathas can one woman make before she puts on a sari to catch the 7:45am school bus?
Probably explains why large groups of mothers can be found flocking around schools in pastel coloured nighties.
From the swimming pools of three-star hotels to PTA meetings, the nightie has invaded every realm of existence. Worn with a protective towel or dupatta around the shoulders and a thick cotton petticoat under it, the outfit has been repurposed to meet India's standards of "decency." And so, what is hidden away in bedrooms in the West is proudly worn as an emblem of moral values in Kandivali East.
Porn might try and objectify it, but the nightie is in fact an outfit of empowerment.
Research shows that nighties, or maxis, came to India in the '70s. I can't help but wonder about the first rebellious Mrs. Sharma/Padmanabhan who stepped out in her nightie to haggle with the sabji waala. I'd like to congratulate her for being as important to women's empowerment as the first woman to wear pants. Unknowingly, that Mrs. Sharma/Padmanabhan created a sartorial trend that has overcome class barriers and social stigma. I have seen my cook in a nightie just as I have seen my neighbour aunty in one. (Incidentally both nighties were baby pink with a delicate floral pattern, covered by a dupatta and accessorized with a grocery bag.)
Personally, I love the nightie. If you were to leave your conditioning aside and reimagine the nightie with its loose comfortable design, pretty pastel patterns and thoughtful pockets, it isn't too different from a European summer dress or a minimalist Japanese designer piece. Moreover, its functional design makes it perfect for Indian weather and housework (who doesn't love pockets?). We may not like it but the nightie has become an unacknowledged fashion trend in India, one paisley pattern at a time.
This newfound interest in nightwear made me go looking for nighties on Hill Road. The variety was astounding. Appliqué work and lace detailing aside, the nightie industry has exploded with options. There are denim nighties, embroidered ones with smocking, kaftans, seductive satin numbers and my personal favourite—dupatta nighties (ones with pre-attached dupattas because there's always time to save).
My recent travels on the internet tell me that the "night gown" as it was once known came about in Victorian times. It was prudishly worn in the dark of bedrooms but when coupled with a chiffon peignoir and matching house coat, it became acceptable home wear. My travels on the internet also tell me that today, the nightie has its own dedicated section of porn. In India, this section is filed under "decent ladies in nightie." This was enough to make me understand the nightie's flowery power. It was also enough to make me understand that some fetishes will never be understood by me.
Porn might try and objectify it, but the nightie is in fact an outfit of empowerment. In the West, busy mothers jump hastily into track pants to save time but back home this isn't an option. Which is why I feel that the nightie is a subtle statement of rebellion. A woman saddled with work, family and responsibility chooses comfort over modesty. Hence, the easy-to-slip-into nightie makes much more sense than a tedious 10-minute drape or a three-piece salwar kameez. And let's face it, we live in a very hot country. Most "appropriate" female clothing isn't appropriate at all. A quote from old Archie in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is perhaps the best argument for the nightie so far. When ridiculed for choosing a flowery nightie over a pair of trousers, Archie defends the nightie saying, "I like a healthy breeze 'round my privates, thanks."
The patron saint of middle-class aspiration, Karan Johar may not have made a "Knightie" yet, but recent developments indicate that the garment is here to stay. Controversy being one of the indicators. A few busybodies in Navi Mumbai called for a ban on what they feel is an "indecent" garment. Elsewhere in Bangalore, a school requested mothers to stop coming out in nighties for their own "safety". Three temples banned nighties from their premises for being impure with the scent of recently cooked non-vegetarian food. But despite earning the wrath of traditionalists and misogynists, the nightie persists.
Nighties are contagious and a revolution is upon us... as long as there are tiffin boxes full of aloo paratha there will have to be bus stops full of nighties.
It made me wonder, what does the real Indian nightie lover really feel about her sartorial choices? Online discussion forums feature heated debates between Indian women. Some claim to be embarrassed by the nightie, others agree that although it isn't appropriate day wear, they're unable to give it up. One lady in particular compares her nighties to drugs, arguing that although she has tried, she is unable to kick the habit. And as the nightie ventures into foreign terrain, becoming casual garb for Indian women in Singapore and Abu Dhabi, I realize that we are addicted to the outfit. It would seem that the courage of one nightie lover fuels the nightie wearing aspirations of another. An excerpt from a famous Kerala-based website, N'style nightwear, accurately describes the situation, "...N'Style nighties is contagious and renowned famous in field of night wears fabrics," (sic). The point being, nighties are contagious and a revolution is upon us. Because, as long as there are tiffin boxes full of aloo paratha there will have to be bus stops full of nighties.
By: Meera Ganapathi
Photography: Vijit Gupta
Model: Arshia Ahuja
This post was first published on Soup.