A sari that broke tradition, an heirloom that defied time or boots that weren’t meant for walking, 10 stylish women of substance (in the gallery above) open up and share the stories their wardrobes tell:
Maithili Ahluwalia, Designer and entrepreneur
“My grandmother was instrumental in evolving my aesthetic. She was one of the most unselfconsciously stylish people in Bombay by a far stretch, untouched by fads and trends. In the ’60s, she ran Mumbai’s first lifestyle store, Dagina, and was a massive collector of Indian textiles and jewellery. I’d always had my eye on this kundan necklace — she lent it to me whenever I asked to borrow something for occasions like weddings, and I wore it often during my teens. She finally gave it to me on my 18th birthday. I went on to wear it regularly, in a different way, with mannish shirts, even ganjis. Many years later, when it featured in a book on contemporary jewellery in India, I realised I needed to take good care of it, but not in a way that left it smothered in cobwebs. Heirlooms are meant to be used.”
Georgette blouse, silk-linen trousers; both Bungalow 8. Diamond and gold necklace, her own.
Ira Dubey, Actor
“I have a real shopping problem (I spent my entire first pay cheque on a Gucci belt and hid it from my mother for as long as I could). When I was 17, and a first-year student at Yale, I was travelling to New York and ended up spending an obscene amount of money on these Chloé boots, completely on impulse. In the 14 years since, I’ve worn them once (the weekend after I bought them). They’ve remained carefully preserved in my closet, taken out occasionally to be packed for a wedding in Delhi or a Wedding Album [Dubey’s play] tour in America. But they’ve never gotten past the suitcase, somehow. Maybe it’s time for a winter holiday.”
Embroidered georgette dress, Vizyon. Patent leather boots, her own.
Kaneez Surka, Comedian
“The rida is a traditional garment worn by women of the Dawoodi Bohri community. (I call it a penguin suit because that’s what I look like in it.) Being from a liberal Muslim family, it did not feature in my life until I married into a conservative Bohri family at 25. I had these ridas made for occasions and I made good use of them as I was being introduced to a community that, before this, I had little affiliation with. Then I got divorced, returned to my old life and haven’t worn one again. They now remind me of a time when I was discovering something new and trying to embrace a religion that I did not believe in. I think it might be time to give them away, but who knows, I may keep one or two.”
Cotton dress, Bungalow 8. Cotton ridas (in the background); all her own
Aishwarya Nair, Food and wine consultant
“I first spotted this cropped mink coat at a vintage store in Marrakech. I was instantly struck by its beautiful caramel colour, and spent the next half hour styling it with other pieces. But when I left the store, I left without it. I knew this was an indulgence that needed to be thought over. I remember saying to my sister, “I’ll definitely be back for this.” That never happened; I ended up deciding it was too extravagant. But as we travelled on to Essaouira and Fez, I still lusted for the coat, and wondered if I could make it back to Marrakech just to buy it. To my surprise, on Christmas night, my loving sister and brother pulled out a bag, and there it was! It would prove to be a very special piece. When I wore it a month later in London, my fiancé proposed to me unexpectedly for the second time. It’s the most precious piece of clothing I own, for all its connections to my loved ones.”
Linen dress, Wendell Rodricks. Leather sandals, Ella at Koovs.com. Metal and acetate necklace, Bungalow 8. Vintage fur jacket, her own.
Tillotama Shome, Actor
“In 2010, I was invited to represent my film Gangor at the 5th International Film Festival in Rome. I was new to Bombay and oblivious to the world of fashion designers and stylists, and quickly needed two outfits to wear on the red carpet. I bumped into the generous [celeb stylist] Tanya Ghavri who pulled out an Hervé Léger dress for me. For the other, I was on my own. I got a red brocade blouse stitched for just Rs 750 and wore it with my mother’s 20-year-old black chiffon sari. When I finally walked the red carpet, I felt like a queen. Since then, I’ve been lucky to work with some wonderful stylists and designers, but I’m holding on to the blouse. It reminds me of a time of innocence.”
Cotton top, Bodice at Le Mill. Linen skirt, Ekà. Leather block heels, Clarks. Metal earrings, Eesha Zaveri, metal bangle, Isharya; both at Minerali. Brocade blouse, georgette sari; both her own.
Elsie Nanji, Entrepreneur
“When I was three and living in Assam, I remember taking a family holiday to Nagaland. On the trip, we watched a cultural performance by the tribals, of which I can only recall a blur of dancers — topless, partially covered by these vibrant shawls. My mother bought this one for herself, and I remember her telling me later that it was very expensive, even for the time. I stole it from her along the way and it’s been with me for 55 years now. I wear it all the time and even though it’s almost in shreds, I have no intention of parting with it. Maybe my daughter will inherit it. I bought a few more of these when I went to Nagaland six years ago, but they just didn’t feel the same. There’s something about this one.”
Linen dress, Ekà. Wool stole, thread bracelet, silver rings; all her own.
Madhu Purie Trehan, Journalist
“This sari is 78 years old. It survived the Partition. My mother, Leela Purie, gifted it to me along with a letter telling me that she wore it on the day she got engaged to my father. That was in 1937 in Lahore. I also wore it on my engagement in 1967. My two daughters carried on the tradition and wore it on their engagement days, too. In her letter, my mother gave her blessings to all of us for a life filled with love and happiness. This sari is now a compelling symbol of a mother’s love, spanning generations. It also symbolises the richness of endurance against all odds. I hope my granddaughter wears it too, and receives the same blessings.”
Chiffon saree, crochet blouse, pearl jewellery; all her own.
Lekha Washington, Artist and actor
“I was 16 when I first met him. He was gregarious, yet unusually shy in matters of the heart. I could tell he liked me, but never did anything about it. At the time, I knew little about romance, but it was obvious we were just two peas in a pod in every way: terrifically creative, terribly messy and perennially late. Chaitanya Rao, otherwise known as Chetan, is now a fabulous designer. Through the years, he has contributed significantly to my wardrobe, and my life. This leather LBD, for instance, appeared on my doorstep when I was panicking about what to wear to an award function. I hadn’t asked for it. It’s out of the realm of anything I would have chosen for myself — and yet, I love it. I love its edginess and the fact that it’s one of the oldest pieces I own, still holding up perfectly, but most of all, I love it because it reminds me of Chetan. We have the kind of relationship that the term ‘friendship’ is inadequate for. It’s a platonic romance. He’s my favourite date.”
Cotton dress, Shift by Nimish Shah. Leather dress (in the background), her own.
Amrita Tripathi, Author
“This dress was the first I ever bought, last year and online no less, all the while hoping it was the right size. A big deal for me. When I started out as a young broadcast journalist almost a decade ago, I wanted to be seen as serious — not frivolous, not giggly, not bouncy-haired. It took about six years, and much convincing by the channel stylist and my sister, for me to reluctantly venture into a dress on air. So voluntarily buying one last year and even deciding to wear it to the launch of my second novel (The Sibius Knot) earlier this year, was a start. I do look forward to experimenting a little more, every once in a while.”
Viscose dress, her own. Leather pumps, Anne Klein.
Karuna Nundy, Lawyer
“This sari was my mother, Mita Nundy’s. I would often borrow it from her, until one day I didn’t give it back. When she passed away eight months ago, after 28 years of illness, this is the sari I wore to conduct her last rites. My mother was deeply spiritual and because of that, we felt this was a transition, and not an ending; a return to a universal consciousness, and release from a difficult body in pain. The day was full of flowers, songs, love and celebration, also a lot of grief. It felt right to wear this maroon sari — because she loved the way I looked in it (and always had very clear views on what I should wear), also because she taught me to trust my own mind and spirit over patriarchal brahminical tradition. It was a vital time for me to be present in a full way, as a testimony to who she was and how she made me.”
Photograph: Manasi Sawant; Styling: Alisha netalkar; Make-up and Hair: Avni Rambhia and Artistry by Deejay