In Honor of Bhanu Athaiya, Her Most Iconic Designs Through the Decades

I am a bit late to this, Bhanu Athiaya died a couple days ago. But it took me some time to figure out how I wanted to write about her. As a craftswoman, behind the scenes, it didn’t feel right to talk about her personal life. But I decided I could focus on her designs instead and that would be appropriate.

Bhanu came into fashion through painting. Her father was a painter, after his death she started working freelance as a fashion illustrator. One of her clients opened a boutique and hired her to start designing clothes for her. From this popular Bombay boutique, she was discovered by Guru Dutt who hired her to do some designs for his movies. And that started it, for the next 7 decades, into her 80s, she kept making the looks that we all know from film.

While her Guru Dutt work was good, and had some lovely designs, looking at her filmography the first truly iconic look she was part of was Sadhana’s 60s take on Salwar Kameez from Waqt.

Waqt (1965) - Review, Star Cast, News, Photos | Cinestaan

And then there was Mumtaz’s layered sari look from Brahmachari

How Mumtaz's orange saree in Tere Mere Pyaar Ke Charche made way for our  saree-gowns - Lifestyle News

Less famous, less memorable, but just as absolutely perfect for the character, Jaya’s oversized men’s Salwar Kameez sleep outfit in Anamika

Roopa Banerjee on Twitter: "My addition with two Jaya Bhaduri songs on  #jhoola . Baahon mein chale aao from Anamika (1)… "

In the same “less is more” kind of way, there is Zeenat’s famous blouseless white sari in Satyan Shivam Sundarram

Satyam Shivam Sundaram by Varun Dhyani

Moving into the 80s, there’s Sridevi’s yellow sari from Chandni

10 Iconic Bollywood Movie Sarees That We Never Forgot - Wedamor

Bhanu was now well into her 60s and worked less in the 90s, but she was brought back for Lagaan because Aamir is a perfectionist and only wanted the best. Funny that the fashion designer who started by creating cutting edge super modern clothes was now the expert on period dress.

Aamir Khan Gracy Singh Editorial Stock Photo - Stock Image | Shutterstock

And then there’s Swades. Not a very complicated costume challenge compared to Lagaan, but Ashutosh brought Bhanu back for it and she created beautiful simple village made clothing.

Popular Swades & Gayatri Joshi videos - YouTube

Looking at her work in chronological order, it’s amazing how she matured through the years. She started out with this immediately original shocking kind of designs. And then she changed into looks no less striking, but more ready to be invisible and support the characters instead of overshadowing them.

5 thoughts on “In Honor of Bhanu Athaiya, Her Most Iconic Designs Through the Decades

  1. I’ve seen so much of her stuff. It’s kind of hilarious she also did Siddharta, which seems such a weird choice and yet in hindsight it’s obvious that the costume designer was much more experienced than the director.

    So many legendary costumes! All of Nagin! Vinod’s iconic tie-up shirt teeny tiny shorts combo! SHALIMAR! oh god. I just want to see Amrapali now but the world won’t let me.


    • YES! And I know she didn’t do everything onscreen, stars would no doubt show up in their regular clothes sometimes, and back-up dancers in whatever, but I’m assuming all the really special iconic stuff from alllllllllllllll those movies was hers.

      On Sat, Oct 17, 2020 at 3:20 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:



  2. The best part about her work was how her costumes never overshadowed the actors.Be it the white sari,the Mumtaz drape,or the simple striking Chandani looks,every piece was something we could have in our wardrobe but the way it was styled made them iconic.Her costumes can be summed up as yellow chiffon saree,white cotton sareee,orange pre drape zipper saree,jamdani saree with tinsel border and draped blouse and dhoti.She even supervised the actors wearing the costumes in Amrapali,helping them smooth out the pleats of the dhoti.Such dedication was unheard of in the day.
    Regarding the period costumes no one can come close to the authenticity of her pieces,unlike today’s historicals which are all about bridal couture(even though I would blame the director’s vision for this indulgent costuming nowadays,costumers have to work on their whims mostly).Costumes nowadays look like one time wears,but clothes were handmade in the past,and recycled,reused and repurposed which is forgotten now for aesthetic.Be it Chaudhvin ka Chand or SBAG or Amrapali,her designs were so gorgeous,but never eye-exploding ostentatious.She never used a lot of applied embroidery,but relied on fabrics,contrast,and block prints.Even the embroidery in Amrapali is mostly on the bottom,and Vyjayanthimala’s face is not surrounded by a lot of fabric to make the look less busy and more neat.One look at SRK’s pale blue shirts in Swades and you know he has got to be from USA,instead of the lazy way of layering him in ostentatious biker jackets and goggles.
    One of the questions that shall remain unanswered-how did Sadhna not burst out of those super tight suits?There is not even a visible back zipper.Did they wear girdle with kameez?I keep screaming in Waqt,”breathe girl,breathe.”


    • My theory is that Sadhana was tightly sewn in just before shooting started, and then resewn in over and over again as she burst her seams while moving.

      I agree, looking at these designs they are just so much better quality than what we see now. They are like what you would get at a good boutique, not for show or one time wear, but something original and wellmade and well fitting that you could wear for years.

      On Sat, Oct 17, 2020 at 11:44 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:



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