The shape of velvet


The shape of velvet

Anushka Sharma’s emerald-green gown in the promotional photos of Anurag Kashyap’s forthcoming film Bombay Velvet conveys two things immediately. The sinewy tautness of her back revealed through the gown’s scoop cut and the “muchness” of the garment. Some would argue that the weight of Sharma’s dress (35kg), dipped in a sea of dazzling sequins, is less about material, cut and length and more about generating publicity. The actor plays Rosie, a jazz singer from Bombay.

But that’s not all, feels Niharika Bhasin Khan, the film’s costume director. She draws attention to its construction; the rationale behind its costume-y heaviness, and why a period costume is about foundation garments underneath that help a body hold such dresses better. Khan says the garment’s weight is closer to 33kg and explains that she used quilted, gold-embroidered fabric before sequin-sheeting the whole piece in emerald with flame-like patterns as embellishments.

So while the muscular ripple on Sharma’s back certainly tells us that she has been working out like a maniac, it also displays how painstakingly detailed and heavy couture changes the way a woman walks and holds her posture. It alters how she moves her neck, looks back, stretches her arms or arches her back.

“That effect of an old world, period piece is what I wanted the garment to convey to the actor,” says Khan, adding that she has designed 12-15 period gowns for Sharma; eight-nine are constructed like corseted dresses.

“An authentic garment tells the actor what she is up there for and what she has to achieve,” she adds. Sharma did need help with the garment, but because it has a long train. “Two of us had to hold it as she walked, but only so that the sequinned fabric didn’t get trampled,” says Khan recalling how the hot and humid weather in Sri Lanka, where the film was shot, made it difficult. “Period costumes,” adds Khan, “are heavier in wear because unlike modern couture, stretch fabrics were not used in those days.” Stretch fabrics make a piece comfortable, they give it shape, wiggle room and are not as hot. But to keep the authenticity, she used corsetry to enhance the fit of Rosie’s gowns and avoid sagging. Scarlett O’Hara’s gowns in the 1939 film Gone With The Wind are on top of Khan’s mind as we speak.

Her arguments on getting foundation garments right, why they determine how a person carries off top garments and the use of the corset in contemporary times is like Spanx shapewear turned out to be the most interesting. Opposed to the Victorian fetish of turning the feminine body into a claustrophobic cage so that it could mimic the ideal but torturous shape of an hourglass, the corset in contemporary couture is about definition, not constriction.

In an engaging film titled Underwear: From Corsets To Bullet-Bras And Back, shot in a dressed-up storeroom at the Victoria And Albert Museum in London, UK, Eleri Lynn takes viewers on a tour of shapewear from Victorian corsets to the Lycra bodysuits of the 1960s, via the breast-flattening bandeau bras of the 1920s and the New Look underwear (that celebrated feminine curves) by Christian Dior in the 1950s. Till femininity resurged after World War II, breasts were best flattened.

I keenly follow fashion’s interpretations of the corset to trace the shape of the female body in popular culture. Designers from Thierry Mugler who gave it a sci-fi, armour-like glamour for the Alpha Female, to Vivienne Westwood, who went back to the historical Victorian corset to recreate a kind of punk sexuality, have been particularly engaging. As a similar exercise (mostly undocumented at the moment), I study Indian sari blouses.

What remains with me is a thought by Lynn, also the author of Underwear: Fashion In Detail. “It’s now very difficult to trace the fashionable body shape through underwear as historians would have done previously. Of course, we now have Spanx which is a form of corsetry using Lycra instead of whalebone but today you are supposed to be the shape through diet and exercise,” she writes.