July 5, 2022
“Tell me. Which one should I buy?” Gangubai, the 1960s sex worker-turned-politician, and subject of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s biopic Gangubai Kathiawadi, asks the young tailor before her. When the tailor (Shantanu Maheshwari) smiles, noting that any choice will do because all the saris are white, she educates him. Is it white like the moon or clouds, like paper or a rose, like snow or salt, like milk or seashells, like sand or smoke? And which of those whites would suit her best?
“Hans wala safed,” he responds, holding up the sari he considers “as white as a swan.” The scene is a reminder of the power and influence of clothing and style. Fans around the world have since replicated the white sari-gold sunglasses-and red bindi uniform Gangubai (Alia Bhatt) adopts once she becomes a brothel madam in droves.
“I’ve been getting DMs for weeks, from people…asking where I got the purse, the shoes, the sunglasses,” said Sheetal Iqbal Sharma, the costume designer for Gangubai Kathiawadi. “I’ve also been tagged in a lot of Instagram Reels where people are wearing white at Indian weddings. It’s weird because white in our culture is not an auspicious color. It’s associated with mourning, politics, and old age.”
Bollywood has influenced the way South Asians everywhere dress for generations — from Mumtaz’s orange sari in Brahmachari (1968) to Amitabh Bachchan and Dharmendra’s denim turn in Sholay (1975) to Shah Rukh Khan’s leather jacket in Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995). But costume departments in Bollywood, unlike in Hollywood, are a relatively new phenomenon, starting in the 1990s. Today, stylists exert more influence than ever before. On-screen, they lend authenticity to the look of Hindi cinema’s most memorable characters. And off-screen, they dress Bollywood’s biggest stars — from Deepika Padukone on the Cannes red carpet in a gold-and-black Sabyasachi sari to Ranveer Singh in a