This month two actresses -- retro screen siren Rekha and fashionista au courant Deepika Padukone -- gave us their own interpretations of the vintage white sari at film director Sanjay Leela Bhansali's 50th birthday party in Mumbai.
Rekha has the red carpet monopoly on traditional South Indian silks, but this evening dressed to a slightly different beat in an embellishment-free eggshell silk with an all-over embroidered white blouse, edged with romantic ruffles that reached all the way down to her waist and prominent gold jewellery.
Padukone channeled a more classic royal Indian vibe, compared to Rekha’s vintage Bollywood feel. Her sheer net Anamika Khanna sari, featuring an intricate lace border edged with pearls, was balanced with a solid pearlescent high necked blouse, finished with a matte red lippie and a high-set chignon.
The white sari entered India’s fashion repertoire during British rule when widowed provincial queens resigned to a sedate all-white wardrobe in a perpetual state of widowed-ness, hidden away in their homes. The ways of the British necessitated more interaction in the open and the plain sari of a Hindu widow slowly transformed into a richly embellished sheer chiffon, although still all-white according to tradition.
The transformation of the sari in general was led by the example of royals like the Maharani Indira Devi of Cooch Behar, who had saris created in France to match her specifications, and later by the Maharani Sita Devi Sahib of Baroda, often called India's Wallis Simpson.
Maharani Gayatri Devi also wore vintage chiffons in whites and pastels. The Rajmata’s sari style was so iconic it inspired a limited edition line by Sabyasachi earlier this year.
Bollywood gave the white sari a pop culture persona of its own. It became the standard uniform for all female apparitions on film and a symbol of sensuality with decades of leading ladies dancing in waterfalls and rain showers wearing see-through white saris and nothing else. Did you know Kareena Kapoor was recently asked to recreate actress Mandakini's famous 1985 waterfall-white-sari scene for the film Once Upon a Time in Mumbai, but then didn't?.
Whichever version you like more -- maharani, Bollywood siren, Rekha's silver screen style or Padukone’s imperial elegance -- there’s enough vintage white sari inspiration out there to fill a book (or blog).
-Jerusha Ratnam Chande
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