Published: The Voice of Fashion, October 31, 2018.
Is the dupatta today relegated to being an emblem of archaic femininity and an ornamental accessory?
The dupatta, an iconic part of the Indian fashion lexicon, has lost its original raison d’être and has seen a transformation in urban India, to become a modern fashion accessory. The soft fabric worn flowing over the shoulders may have been often picturised romantically, as billowing gently—and occasionally coyly—in the breeze, but is, in reality, an exaggerated symbol of captive femininity and more importantly, female modesty. An integral part of the fabric of Indian society, conventionally, it forms a ‘ghoonghat’ or veil as a mark of respect in front of elders and at a place of worship, or protection from the unwanted male gaze.
The Creative Destruction
Connected to traditional garments of the Indian subcontinent like the lehenga-choli and the salwar kameez, the origin of the dupatta has been traced to the Indus Valley civilization. As the garment celebrates local embroidery and craftsmanship, for someone working in the handloom industry, the evolution of the dupatta is worrisome. Ritu Sethi, chairperson of the Crafts Revival Trust, addresses the change: “I delight in the fact that the original function of covering one’s head and bosom is no longer required, yet paradoxically, as a purist, I moan its passing.” She explains, “The lighter, airier weave of a dupatta is different from the rest of the suit length—reflecting in the elegance of its fall and drape, and its border and two-sided pallus. The yarn is produced specifically for the dupatta. What are the weavers shifting to if the demand wanes? Not to mention, a textile directory is vanishing before our eyes—a classic example of creative destruction.”
Designer Payal Khandwala may not see it as a dead end though. “With the printed dupatta in synthetic fabrics replacing its hand-woven counterpart, the weaving community was already struggling. With more attention to hand-woven textiles and slow fashion in general—whether it is for scarves, garments or even home furnishings—we can certainly compensate for this shift and the subsequent loss of revenue from the traditional dupatta.”
And yet, Deepshikha Khanna, head of apparel at Good Earth Sustain shares that the traditional dupatta forms their highest selling category. She says, “Its use has definitely not dwindled. For as long as we continue to wear our traditional clothes the existence of the dupatta will remain relevant.” Tina Tahliani-Parikh, executive director of multi-brand boutique Ensemble, finds the dupatta remains an intrinsic part of the Indian outfit. She says, “It is a very feminine element, so I don’t see it getting replaced. Younger girls may wear a lehenga choli without the dupatta, but with the older, more mature customers, there is no question of the dupatta not being there. A Mughal-style Anarkali would be incomplete without the dupatta.
Khandwala, whose garments keep the dupatta optional, stresses on expressing individuality versus conforming. “The difference is we have the choice now to wear the dupatta simply for the romance of it or for its drama, rather than as a symbol of modesty.” She finds that the change may have taken place for multiple reasons—including the need to push boundaries creatively, to make the fashion landscape less homogenous, attention to comfort and practicality and a need to redefine what is handed down in the name of tradition.
The dupatta has most definitely evolved—from two-and-a-half to two-metre variants that flow on both shoulders; to the shorter stole which falls on one shoulder only, and to an even shorter square scarf that may be worn on the neck, on the head as a bandana, or tied to a handbag as a visual accessory. Lifestyle brand Nicobar, that looks to establish a modern Indian voice, has a range of diaphanous Chanderi overlays and jackets that alternatively dress up or bring traditional texture to a Western outfit. It may not be wrong to assume that in this case, the dupatta has been entirely eliminated and replaced by an overlay.
Khanna points out that as style evolves so does the use of clothing. “A kurta which was once conservative is now worn over a swimsuit to a beach. Similarly, a dupatta, which is very versatile, is now a scarf, a sarong or a halter top. Globally, traditional weaves like Ikat or Mughal motifs are seen on dupattas that have been adopted as scarves and have become a part of Western ensembles. It is an iteration of the dupatta seen in a different context. While its early reasons for existence needed an update as the women wearing it have evolved, one finds that Indian women continue to stay attached to their traditions but adapt them to suit a more global lifestyle.”
Clothing, in the manner of art and music, reflects socio-cultural changes—which is marked in how we choose to present ourselves with the new-found freedom to express. In that sense, the dupatta’s transformation is a sign of the times, where women are no longer required to be ‘modest’. And as for its evolution, as Khandwala puts it, “To simply repackage old ideas makes fashion stagnant and predictable. It is just as important to suggest alternatives that define the future.” And the dupatta today remains, free-flowing, open to interpretation and boundless in its versatility as it floats away from patriarchal tradition.