Meet The Trendsetting Costume Designer Who Shaped Vintage Indian Fashion Through Cinema

Bhanu Athaiya with her Academy Award, Shammi Kapoor and Mumtaz in Brahmachari
Bhanu Athaiya with her Academy Award, Shammi Kapoor and Mumtaz in BrahmachariAD

The grandeur of Bollywood is credited to its songs, dance numbers and the dramatic flair of its costumes. From the iconic Mughal-e-Azam to Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Ramleela, costumes have played a major part in Hindi cinema's production design to establish a visual language of an era, region and the thematic tone of a film. Yet it has usually taken a backseat as a storytelling device, often overshadowed by the song and dance elements of Bollywood which it's known for around the world.

The first time it was recognized globally was when Bhanu Athaiya won India its first Oscar in 1983 at the 55th Academy Awards. She received the Best Costume Design prize for her work in the 1982 film Gandhi directed by Richard Attenborough. Bhanu became the first Indian Oscar winner in history sharing the costume design trophy with British designer, John Mollo.

In her distinguished career, Bhanu worked on more than 100 movies since the 1950s with noted filmmakers such as Guru Dutt, Yash Chopra and Raj Kapoor. Apart from Gandhi, Bhanu designed epochal costumes for Satyam Shivam Sundaram, Lagaan, Ganga Jamuna, Swades, Waqt, Teesri Manzil, Guide, Anamika, The Burning Train, Brahmachari, Karz, and many more.

Helen in Teesri Manzil, Mumtaz in Brahmachari
Helen in Teesri Manzil, Mumtaz in BrahmachariPinterest

Whether it was Mumtaz’s flame orange sari from Brahmachari, or Sadhana’s tight-fitted kurta and salwar from Waqt, that became every college girl’s new outfit of choice in the 60s or Dev Anand's iconic scarf from Guide and Helen’s pink flamenco-style sequinned gown in Teesri Manzil, she defined the trends of the day.

Vyjayanthimala in Amrapali, Zeenat Aman in Satyam Shivam Sundaram
Vyjayanthimala in Amrapali, Zeenat Aman in Satyam Shivam SundaramPinterest

In a heavily censored cinematic world where flowers were used to represent sex and even kissing, Bhanu Athaiya gave rise to a new world order in film history with her costumes in the 1978 film, Satyam Shivam Sundaram. Raj Kapoor's directorial film stirred up a lot of controversies at the time for its 'obscenity'. Lead actress Zeenat Aman even had a case filed against her for ‘moral depravity and shocking erosion of public decency’.

In a pivotal moment, despite the initial resistance, the film created space for women's sexuality in Hindi cinema from which stemmed an entire genre of 'item numbers' that would later become the USPs and marketing strategies for Bollywood films.

45 years later Zeenat Aman shared a picture of Rupa (her character) defending the agency of women on their bodies and reiterating the difference between objectification and exploration of sensuality in its truth in art.

Vintage fashion is ruling the world right now. To be honest it never really left; just kept returning year after year as 'trends' since its origin. And most of the vintages styles that dominated Indian fashion were created by one woman alone, Bhanu Athaiya. I think more than anywhere else in the world, cinema is revered in India dictating culture in its own image. It would then be fair to say that Bhanu single-handedly crafted the aesthetics of an entire nation informed in cultural identity, representation and femininity. To grasp the impact of Bhanu Athaiya's legacy is to understand how her vision shaped a path into the future in Indian society by playing with the interlinking forces of visual storytelling, fashion, feminism and sexuality.

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