August 25, 2021
In the 1980s, Sudipta Ghosh Hazra, then in her 20s, was living with her army family in Jamshedpur, a nondescript steel city. At the time, Ghosh Hazra, the eldest of two siblings, rarely saw her mother wear anything but a sari. “She would do every household chore, from filling water from the neighborhood handpump to cooking elaborate meals for hours inside our small kitchen, wearing a sari. It must have been uncomfortable,” Ghosh Hazra, now in her 50s, told me. “But I don’t think my mother — or the women in her generation — knew that they could prioritize comfort.”
The only exception was during the summer. The brutal heat left her mother drenched in sweat. So, before sleeping at night — ensuring that her husband and her son were already fast asleep — she would close the door to the room she shared with her daughter, take off her sari, and change into a free-flowing, airy cotton garment: the nightie. The garment, a mix between a maxi dress and nightgown, wasn’t tight-fitting or elaborate. Despite the nightie’s apparent comfort, Ghosh Hazra never saw her wear it during the day. “By the time I woke up, she was already dressed in a sari. It’s as if the nightie were her nighttime self-care ritual.”
Today, both mother and daughter prefer wearing nighties — now a wardrobe staple for women across South Asia — throughout the day. They’re not alone. In 2012, the late Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) politician Sushma Swaraj, admitted on national television that the nightie was her garment of choice for a dip in the Ganges, the holiest river in India. The late author Mahasweta Devi was known to criticize West Bengal’s Mamata Banerjee government in a sleeveless nightie on television. The garment even captured Bollywood’s imagination — from Saira Banu in Padosan (1968) to Tisca Chopra in Taare Zameen Par (2007). In a culture where women’s bodies are so heavily policed, the nightie — colloquially referred to as “maxis” across South Asia — is a prime vehicle for female liberation as well as a social leveler. Even then, for a garment that didn’t originate in India, its public acceptance hasn’t been without controversy or shame.
The nighties are a descendant of the Victorian nightgown, which some believe made an appearance in India in the 19th century. “It traveled back with the Fishing Fleet, those ambitious young women from England who came out in droves to India to find husbands,” claimed fashion stylist Prasad Bidappa.