In England, the ruffled collars and fringes inspired by the fashion sense of Queen Victoria, who had enjoyed the title Empress of India, had disappeared long before the World Wars when women’s fashion changed drastically. Clothing that afforded flexibility was a must for women who were called upon to work, not just as nurses, but on farms and in offices. In Great Britain, they called this entrance of women into the workforce, ‘dilution,’ a travesty that, men were assured, would be reversed at the end of the war. But the Second World War left England with other things to worry about.
Here, that was an exciting time. That World War II had crippled Europe’s finances worked in our favour. The wheels of decolonisation were set in motion and the raw textile Khadi emerged as a hero fabric, having been integral to the Swadeshi movement. In France, fashion which had suffered severe blows during the war was now being resuscitated. On February 12, 1947, around the same time, Lord Mountbatten — who, in his subsequent role as the first Governor-General of the independent Union of India, would press for the partition of our country — was appointed the last viceroy here. A new dictator was born in Paris. Or so, Time magazine would dub him a decade later. But his only weapon was pure talent, his ammunition yards of fabric.
In love with excess
Christian Dior presented his very first fashion show on that day. He was an unknown entity then, but the well-heeled braved the bitter cold to attend the event at 30, Avenue Montaigne, and rose to its feet. Hot debates about who had behaved in what manner during the German occupation, gave way to discussions about the shocking excessiveness of the designs models paraded, in the post-war world where rationing was paramount. With his romantically cut Bar jacket, whose pinched waist flowed into a glorious peplum, Dior boldly presented a promise of luxury. Women, bored with their masculine suits and drab skirts, fell instantly in love.
Merchandisers lined up to place their orders. The response was startling. “My God, what have I done?” Dior is reported to have exclaimed after the show, as women rushed to kiss him. British Vogue called it one of those moments that changed fashion fundamentally.
Now, at the risk of sounding like it was stolen off the plot of a Hindi movie, when Europe, and the whole world, is once again mired in financial troubles, the Peplum has been reborn. Designer Amit GT confirms it. “The peplum was widely used by a lot of international designers in their Spring 2013 fashion shows. The design element has made appearances on the catwalks of Milan, New York, Paris, London and even India,” says the designer whose peplum trimmed creations have recently graced the forms of Hollywood actors Laura Benanti and Holland Roden who wore a shimmery Amit GT design for the premiere of her movie, Teen World at the Paley Centre, in May this year.
In June, in a resort collection that marked the final season of designer Bill Gaytten for Dior, Gaytten too returned to the very element that had launched the brand. This collection that was replete with peplums, essentially emphasised the waist, with looks that were clearly inspired by the Bar jacket from Dior’s 1947 New Look. Gaytten even included pleated peplums in his subsequent Fall collection for John Galliano.
The Oxford dictionary defines peplum as, “a short, gathered strip of fabric attached at the waist of a woman’s jacket, dress or blouse to create a hanging frill or flounce”, but Neha Kudalkar, product strategy and visual communications of multi-brand boutique Aza on Altamount Road draws a distinction between the peplum and ruffles or gathers. “There is a small section of fashion evolved people, a very niche clientele for the peplum,” she says. “The drama and volume ruffles infuse in a garment, on the other hand, work very well in general, even in Indian wear.” Offering examples of designers Gauri and Nainika’s gorgeous dresses, Kudalkar says the exaggerated ruffles ooze femininity and add a touch of romance to the outfits. “Designers Dinesh Malkani and Pallavi Mohan have embellished heavy, tiered Indian Anarkalis with beautiful ruffles too,” she adds, stressing that ruffles never really go out, “they’re simply manipulated differently from time to time.”
Sangita Kathiwada of multi-brand store Melange isn’t a fan. “Ruffles have a very costume-like effect...a bit over the top.” But she makes an exception for designer Rajesh Pratap Singh’s creations. “He creates ruffles in Chanderi and Maheshwari fabrics, but he cuts garments in such a way as to make them flattering,” she says.
Not for Indian clothing
The peplum, on the other hand, is more than just a trimming for Kathiwada. It’s a reminder of her days at Sophia College on Peddar Road. It’s well past sundown when she calls, her tone bursting with the vitality of dawn. “I’m so excited someone’s doing a story about peplums,” she laughs, “because I have to tell you I think they’re horrid!” She used to wear a fuschia-pink peplum to college, she remembers, “with drainpipe trousers.” Dubbing the look that was revived in the ’80s, “frumpy old English fashion of the ’40s,” the designer says, “I was a slim girl in college and it looked cute, but unlike a shift tunic, I don’t think the peplum’s for every age and every frame.”
This is an opinion supported by designer Shilpa Khandelwal of brand Shilpa K, who describes it as “a transient trend and a definite no-no for Indian clothing.” “The peplum works, in my opinion,” she says over email, “but only for a certain body type and a western silhouette.” She offers, “A peplum can be incorporated on a sleeveless or shoulderless top with a pencil skirt. It should be kept basic and minimal. It can complement a fairly endowed upper body and small waistline, because a peplum adds bulk.” Amit GT concurs. “The hourglass silhouette is best enhanced by a peplum.”
You can eat in it
Kathiawad, on the other hand, feels, “The frill of a peplum can hide a little bulge on the tummy.” Moroccan-born Israeli fashion designer Alber Elbaz has also been quoted as saying, “I created the peplum so you can eat in it. You can have a dessert, you can have another sandwich.” Actor Aishwarya Rai took it a notch further by using the fashion trimming to conceal her baby bump at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2011.
But, Kathiawad stresses, “It has to be chosen very carefully. If it’s too bouncy, or the flares aren’t positioned right, it can get crushed at the back when you stand up.”
“The key is to work the trend to suit your body type,” says Victoria Louise Sharma, editor in chief, www.rock.in, a multi-brand ecommerce fashion portal. “If you have broad shoulders it can even out your figure, if you are heavy on the hips it balances things out by drawing the waist in.” Sharma suggests, “A peplum top or a peplum jacket that sits slightly above the hip would complement a pear-shaped figure immensely.”
You have your choice of ruffle and peplum trimmed garments too with just about every brand around the world — Alexander McQueen, Celine, Marchesa, Jason Wu and Vera Wang, to name a few — offering their variations of the fashion element. North Philadelphia designer Michael Thomas has even christened his version of the garment (from his Fall 2012 collection), “Michelle,” after the graceful first lady of the nation that had emerged as the richest at the end of the Second World War. With America’s financial issues likely to remain ruffled for a while, perhaps, for now, this honour must suffice.