Happy Birthday Manish Malhotra! In Your Honor, a Post About Costumes!

I was debating what, if anything, to do for Manish.  And then Filmilibrarian started a conversation on my Monday Questions post about costumes, and I have decided to ruthlessly re-purpose it for a post about costumes in honor of Manish.  Sorry Filmilibrarian!  Your question was just too good to resist!

In honor of Manish’s birthday, a little background about costumes.  Mostly pulled from a great journal article I read called “The Dressman’s Line: Transforming the Work of Costumers in Popular Hindi Film” (jstor link here).  The writer is a scholar who spent months on film sets talking with “dressman” and getting the history of their craft.

“Traditionally”, the dressman was in charge of sourcing the clothes, buying the fabric and having it made up by a cheap tailor, keeping them in shape during filming, and tracking their storage and organization during the many many gaps in filming.  It was a low class/caste job, handled through a kind of unofficial trade organization.  Dressman had training that lasted decades, building relationships in the clothing markets and with the outside tailor shops, learning the ropes from those who came before them, it was kind of a process of passing on traditional knowledge.

For example, notice the similarities between Bhaagyashree’s dress from Maine Pyar Kiya and Kajol’s from Baazigar.  Same cut of the bodice, same kind of lace, just a slightly different color and trim.  I am guessing both films used the same Dressman, or perhaps the apprentice of the MPK Dressman ended up on Baazigar.  This is a “traditional” kind of costuming, the Dressman would pick up the lace he knew he could get cheap, and have the tailor make a simple bodice/skirt combination based on the director’s direction of “I want a fancy Western style dress in Pink/White”.


And there’s nothing wrong with this kind of dressing!  It did the job, it kept costs down, and who cares if two actresses in two different movies 5 years apart wore a really similar dress?  But it is distinctly different from the kind of costuming we get now.

For one thing, there is a greater concern with continuity and consistency.  Not in, like, the side of the dress that the bow is on, but in repeating elements of the costumes to make it look like they are real people re-using clothes, or having distinctive looks for each character.  In that “Dressman’s Line” article, she talks about how these costumes were made so cheaply, and there would be such gaps in filming, that occasionally it was cheaper to just get a new dress made than try to dig out from storage something the character had worn before.  Which I hadn’t thought about, but she’s right!  To the point where it even seems odd to me in those older films when a character DOES re-wear an outfit!

For instance, it really threw me when Madhuri repeated her little Swiss looking dress from the opening of this song in Dil:


In the closing of this song:


This isn’t to say that all films in this era were thoughtlessly thrown together costume-wise.  There were some films, and some directors, who required a cohesive look and worked closely with the Dressman, or brought in outsiders, to help.  For instance, in Sholay Ramesh Sippy knew he wanted a certain cool Western look for his hero.  So, rather than rely on some Indian-tailor’s interpretation of a Western look, he asked Amitabh on his honeymoon in London to pick up a jean outfit.  And then had him wear it for the entire film.

Image result for amitabh sholay

(I can’t remember if Amitabh also picked up Dharmendra’s jeans, or if Dharmendra provided them himself.)

There are other examples of styles created by the director, for instance Yash Chopra insisting on the tight Churidar for Sadhana in Waqt.  Or maybe that was Sadhana herself?

Image result for waqt churidar

She also gets credit for the “Sadhana bangs” from Waqt and other films.

Image result for sadhana bangs


That’s the hidden collaborator with these “Dressman”, the actresses.  Sometimes the actors too, but almost always the actresses.  Rekha, for instance, always did her own make-up, costumes, and choreography (at least, so interviews claim).  If you wanted a distinctive and flattering look in the film, it was up to you to invent it and carry it out.  Otherwise, you threw yourself on the mercy of the “dressman” who were happy to dress every heroine and every character in whatever way was most practical.

(This is an extreme example, but notice the difference between the styles of Parveen Babi and Rekha here)

Very occasionally, you also had a director who clearly cared deeply and put a lot of thought into the costumes.  The ultimate example of this is Silsila.  Actually, it’s really the ultimate costume film in all of Indian film.  You’ve got Jaya’s simpler mostly cotton saris contrasted with Rekha’s chiffon.  Rekha’s more western look pre-marriage.  And, of course, the matching color tones of Amitabh and Rekha’s clothing tracking the rise and fall of their love affair.  I suspect the costuming for this film was a melange of all the various techniques listed above.  The heroines having input in their own costuming, but Yashji requesting a certain color and style for various scenes, Amitabh or others going out and purchasing ready-made Western stuff for his cosmopolitan look, and the gaps being filled in by Dressman who were told to make up a specific kind of suit, or dress, in just the right color.

(Put in one shot without any costumes at all, just to make sure you were awake)

In this old school combination of costumers, from Dressman to Director’s, Manish slots in most easily next to the heroines.  He tends most often to be brought on to design a particular look for a heroine, one that will both flatter her and match her established star persona, and fit reasonably well with the character she is portraying.

Image result for dilwale kajol

(For instance, in Dilwale, he ONLY dressed Kajol, not even the other heroine)

Manish first landed in this position because he was working with the one actress who had the least interest in or patience for maintaining her own look, Kajol.  Manish was a college friend of Karan Johar, who Karan brought in to help out on DDLJ (he’d done some small stuff on other films, but just for fun, hadn’t really made a name for himself yet).  Aditya trusted their cool hip sense of style and sent them out to buy clothes in the high end shops, along with other tasks.  But Manish really fell in love with the styling, especially of Kajol, figuring out her hair, her make-up, every detail of her look for certain shots.  Which Kajol was completely uninterested in, and so let him do whatever he wanted.

Image result for ddlj dontcallitbollywood

(This outfit, for instance, is all Manish straightening her hair and putting on a kicky cap and a chain belt and red lipstick and coat.  This is why she still insists that he style her 20 years later)

Manish sort of made a place for himself where there had never been a place before.  And really, where there isn’t a place now either.  Manish is really the only fit in the “costumes by” arena.  Or at least the only real professional of that group.  There are still some people who get that credit, but usually they are part of the team surrounding the star, just an extension of the Star brand, like when Gauri or Karan does Shahrukh’s costumes, or Salman’s sister getting credit for his costumes in Sultan.  But Manish is different, he has certain friends that he works with regularly (including Kajol), but he is also a stylist for hire.  Any producer can bring him in to help style any actress.

(For instance, in Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna, he styled everyone up to and including Amitabh Bachchan, who he would never have worked with in “real” life)

And he has his own fashion line!  This is very different, the blurring of the line between high fashion and film and personal stylist, all in one man.  I know there were some people similar to this back in the golden days of Hollywood, when a studio designer might have their own line in department stores, and dress an actress in a film, and be hired by the studio to put together their outfits for promotional appearances.  But it was somewhat rare even then, and usually controlled by the studio.  In this case, it’s just Manish, designing wedding dresses and premiere outfits for his friends, putting on fashion shows, and also styling for movies.

(Adrian!  Started as a studio hand, migrated to opening his own fashion house, but continued to occasional dress his industry friends outside of the studio system for the occasional film scene and for public appearances)

Manish is the only person that works like this, because the industry has changed and doesn’t really need anyone else.  Now “costumes” is a recognized professional career.  That’s what the awesome “Dressman’s Line” article really focused on, this shift from a “traditional knowledge” based profession, to a “professionally trained” profession.  College grads with degrees from overseas are coming in and making sketches and doing “looks” for a film and keeping design books and all sorts of things.  This is a shift that is going on in all sorts of areas in Indian film.  For instance, cinematography!  Alia’s career in Dear Zindagi is not something that existed in the same way as recently as 10 years ago.  On the one hand, this means the jobs are much more open to “outsiders” who don’t have a relative to bring them in and give them the one on one training.  And it means women in particular have a much easier time breaking in.  But on the other hand, it means the lower class/caste workers are getting squeezed out of the industry.

(For instance, the same person is listed as “Costume Designer” for all these films, Niharika Bhasin, who has degree in public relations from the US, very different kind of background than the lowerclass “Dressman” in the past)

Bringing it back to Manish, he kind of straddles the divide there.  If you look at Manish’s designs, they are cutting edge and western influenced.  And he pals around with the upperclass college educated types, I doubt he would have much in common with a traditional “dressman”.  On the other hand, he doesn’t do the kind of cohesive look for a film and historical research and continuity checks and blah blah blah that the “westernized” costume design people do (Niharika Bhasin mentioned above got a National Film Award for her work on the period costumes in The Dirty Picture).  No, Manish comes in, gives you a bunch of clothes for particular situations described to him by the director and then waltzes out again.  Or comes in and does a personal consultation with his actress friend and just makes sure she looks good, who cares about the rest of the film.

And he is great at it!  Thank goodness he doesn’t do the “look” thing, because Manish Malhotra designs are stunning, and distinctly “Manish Malhotra” Indo-Western glam, and I would hate to lose that because he is trying to match a director’s vision.

(This is just a sampling of everything he has done.  Basically, if you’ve seen a hit movie from after 1995, good chance at least one of the heroine’s was styled by Manish)


9 thoughts on “Happy Birthday Manish Malhotra! In Your Honor, a Post About Costumes!

  1. Salman’s costumer is Ashley Rebelleo. Alvira only gets co-credit with him in all films; I always believed it was either a tax dodge for Salman, or a way of providing for his sister. Ashley also designs for certain other stars, and sometimes Salman “loans” him out to other stars he is supporting. So he is in the same category as Manish. Earlier Salman used to use Vikram Phadnis quite a lot for his film costuming. He started mainly to support Vikram who was just starting out then, *with a retail store and line of clothing*. So Vikram became the costume designer for several other films with other stars after he got established due to Salman. He also regularly participates in the high end fashion shows, with well known models/stars doing ramp walks for him, etc. So I really don’t think it’s correct to say Manish is the “only” costume designer in Hindi films. Plus there are a bunch of female costumers, too, who do the same kind of thing.


    • Thanks for the background!

      Let me put it this way. Even if there are other designers who pick up work as stylists for films, Manish is the only one who has reached this point of success, as a designer and a costumer. His credits in films aren’t literally “above the title”, but they are metaphorically, writ large as something to be proud of, hard for the audience to ignore. And as a designer, he is the one people wear to Cannes or when the royal family visits. Or for their filmi weddings. It’s a unique position, and so far as I know he is the only one who has achieved this level of independent fame, and still styles for films. And does it not as a “costume designer”, but only for certain characters with certain looks.


  2. Stop apologizing for making full posts out of questions or suggestions through comments — just thank them for the great idea!

    This reminds me of Armani and how he became a famous designer after working with Richard Gere in American Gigolo. I don’t think he was well known before suiting Gere in that film.


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