Like it or not, what we wear defines us- what we do, how much we earn, what music we listen to, young, old, off to the shops or out for a night on the town. Even so called wardrobe staples come in a bemusing array and will inevitably be shunned by one group or other. There is something comforting about the discovery of an article of clothing that seems to defy this. One that is found in all levels of society, equally at place in a posh resort or sea-side shack, on the socialite or the knitting grandmother, the lawyer or the beggar, the conservative of one religion and the liberal of another. The Indian nightie is, in its own way, as much of the Indian culture as its more recognizable sari or kurtis.
It will come as little surprise to even the uninitiated that the sari is a time consuming- if nearly universally flattering- garment. Many younger people eschew it in favour of Western clothes or the considerably faster-to-wear salvas kamiz. The blouse, traditionally worn in lieu of a bra, is worn bandage tight and there are increasing reports of ‘sari cancer’- a cancer that occurs when cellular mistakes are made healing the daily abrasion of the cinched-tight petticoat. With practice, draping it becomes second nature- yet how a woman is able to confidently tie a sari in a train toilet remains one of life’s true mysteries. Even the washing, the drying, the ironing and the storing of six metres of fabric are equally an art.
Enter, then, the nightie. All soft cotton and comforting bagginess. No cinched waists, pinched arms, and stifling layers of fabric. Feminine flowers, stark and minimalist, gods and goddesses, traditional patterns and fresh-of-the-runway prints- whatever your style, there is a nightie for you. Despite the rising hemlines and backless cholis of Bollywood, the nightie has remained a modest garb- its acceptability even in the most conservative of communities adding to its appeal. For the breastfeeding mother, cunningly hidden zips enable breastfeeding to be both easy and discreet. Lounging during lazy weekends in front of the television or slaving over a hot stove are done in an effortless blend of comfort and style.
Adding to their ubiquity is their acceptability outside of the home. With a dupatta for modesty, they are happily worn to pop to the shop, or for when friends come for tea. Honestly, there’s very few among us who haven’t been tempted to pull a coat over our pajamas and dash out for milk- and the nightie is just the garment! Small children dart around in them, happily covering them with the muck that miraculously appears on children’s clothes the world over. Mothers don’t mind, the cotton washes easily and soon dries, even in the steamy damp of the monsoon.
With its little additions of feminine ruffles, puffed sleeves and bows it is, to the Western eye, very much a nanna nightie. For that reason alone, it’s wonderful. There is no pressure to dress up, hold in your stomach an extra inch to tighten the petticoat, squeeze your arms down sleeves- the nightie soothes and frees the wearer. She can relax, work, study, or play in absolute comfort.
One of travel’s many joys is the opportunity to peer into the lives of everyday people, often far more interesting than the tourist attraction on the front of the guidebook. While it may not have the glamour or the exotic appeal of India’s more noticeable garbs, the nightie is an intrinsic part of the culture. It connects the grandmother at the doorstep, the girl buying sweets from a corner side vender, the newborn nursing. And as anyone who owns one will tell you, it quickly becomes a very vital part of the wardrobe indeed.
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