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.