In a land where clothing represents class, caste and culture, and where conservative dressing is often brutally enforced, nothing speaks of India’s schizophrenic nature more brazenly than the backless choli.
From dry Rajasthani villages to spotlight-flooded fashion ramps to high-society weddings, this is one aspect of Indian apparel that sashays about with complete assurance. Like the chiffon sari – epitomized to sensual perfection by the late Yash Raj in his films – the backless choli is sexy in a socially acceptable way, revealing without scandalizing, titillating imaginations without offending any. Its strings contain as much as they display – a silent, coy declaration of feminine confidence.
So ubiquitous are these creations at the time of wedding season, especially in cities like New Delhi, Chandigarh, and Mumbai, that a Whatsapp joke doing the rounds goes, “What is the only mammal besides the polar bear that can withstand great cold? Girls in tiny cholis at winter weddings in Delhi. Brrr.”
Catering to this very species, fashion designers like Manish Malhotra and Sabyasachi Mukherjee invest much time and technology in developing cholis, kurtas and blouses that can cater to the plunging aspirations of women in the bloom of youth (after a certain age and girth, women graduate from Mandira-Bedi noodle straps to the Madhuri-Dixit low-cut to the Sonia-Gandhi high-cut). For girls with blemish-free, hairless backs, cholis come with padded fronts – soft cups are sewn between the lining and the embroidered outer fabric in strategic spots so that nipples are modestly encased, leaving backs and cleavage gloriously free.
Several designers such as Gaurav Gupta and Shantanu & Nikhil also now include choli-style cups in ensembles and gowns with plunging backs and bare sides. Going by the demands of young women in mall corridors and sartorial studios, the more skin on display, the better – these are bra-burning feminists of a different kind.
However, there are limits to these risqué inclinations as well. Designer Niki Mahajan, whose Spring-Summer 2014 line includes summery cotton lehengas and gowns with supremely low-cut fronts, netted see-through backs, and cut-out sides, laughs as she shares, “A typical bride to-be comes in and selects a bold design; then her fiancé adds something to close up the front; then the mother-in-law adds something to cover the back; and finally the grandmother-in-law wants to cover up the bare arms.” When it comes to a girl’s wedding ensemble, the entire family has a say – she is after all representing the clan, and every cut and curve of her appearance has vital social ramifications. Most families would err on the side of modest.
But all her friends, sisters and cousins – single and married – need not worry about such weighty details. For them, bare backs and abundant cleavages continue to set the tone when it comes to occasion wear.
First published on India Today blogs