Brought up on old values of ‘simple living and high thinking’, India finally broke out of its contraints in the years post liberalisation. What exactly has this meant for women in India? An overview…

Life before 1991 was not very glamorous for women in India. They did dress well in the most luxurious silks, brocades, satins and fabulous weaves that glittered with beautiful crafts and jewels, but the liberty to buy some exotic foreign brands seemed a little out of their reach. There was a time in the 60s, 70s and 80s when a visit to the West or East meant quickly drawing up long lists for perfumes, makeup and lingerie. The most popular brands were intimate perfume by Revlon and of course Marks & Spencer for lingerie.

When liberalisation and the opening of the economy came to India in 1991, it was a joyous time for women and they rushed to the stores to satisfy their sartorial and beauty needs. An initial entry by the Italian brand Benetton in 1991-92 set the pace and soon to follow were Vanity Fair, Jockey, Lacoste, Lee, Levi’s, Adidas, Reebok and a host of others. By the start of the 21st century, women had at their fingertips, top high fashion labels like Triumph, Le Senza, Diesel, Nautica, Hanes, Aldo, Burberry, Versace, Gucci, Guess, Prada, Armani, Esprit, Calvin Klein, Hugo Boss, Mango, Marks & Spencer, Tommy Hilfiger, Etam, Giordano with many waiting in line to enter and grab a piece of the retail market in the new age India.

Soon, every top brand from Dior and MAC to Bobby Brown, Escada, Marc Cain, Estee Lauder, Elizabeth Arden, and Ferragamo to Christian Louboutin, DKNY, Louis Vuitton and Hermes were opening stylish stores in the best locations around the country. Adding to the excitement of having foreign brands at the doorstep was the blitz of giant malls and multi-brand stores that appeared in not only the metros but even in tier -I, -II, -III and -IV cities and towns.


Multiple careers for women opened up along with the economy of the country. Earning their MBA degrees with proficiency in engineering, law, medicine, hospitality and turning into entrepreneurs with their own businesses; women’s lifestyles changed as more opportunities were offered to them with the growing economic freedom. Women from all strata of society started earning big money as salaries and options increased. The call centre culture, along with some easy funding, enabled thousands of women to realise their dreams when it came to starting their cottage industries and making a name for themselves.

The retail business started with Shopper’s Stop in 1993 and saw a massive boom that exploded with brands taking up space and making their products easily available in giant multi-brand stores as well as giant malls. What gave Indian women a further glamorous push onto the best dressed lists was the start of the fashion weeks in 2000 in New Delhi by the Fashion Design Council of India and the Indian cosmetic brand Lakmé. The entry of foreign high street fashion and cosmetic brands spurred Indian designers and labels to make an aggressive entry into the Indian markets. This, in turn, gave Indian women an exciting array of Indian and foreign names to choose from, which in turn also taught them the finer nuances of dressing well.

Indian designers realised their creative potential and prepared to dress women in the most exciting creations in the early 90s. With the opening of the first high fashion store, Ensemble in 1987 at Lion’s Gate, Mumbai, fashion was the most desired profession to enter as creative men and women trained in India and abroad presented seasonal collections. Buying Indian high fashion designer wear was a relatively new concept for the Indian women but they lapped it up eagerly.

Krishna Mehta one of the pioneering Indian designers who has been in business for nearly 30 years and was the first to put Indian men in designer wear comments, “Earlier, Indian women were covered in yards of fabrics and sarees. Today there is great fashion available as well as a wide variety of fabrics, and innovations. The embellishments are fabulous and so are the textiles. In the past, high fashion was only for the elite but now it is within the reach of nearly every woman. The fashion evolution for women is nearly 360 degrees. In the past, women were deprived of several fashion items, today it is a great space to be in where style is concerned and women are as well dressed or even better styled than their international counterparts. Even the ethnic garments like the salwar and kameez have undergone a metamorphosis and are accepted globally.”

Before liberalisation, it was estimated that Indian wear vis-a-vis western wear was in the ratio of 80:20. Post entry of foreign brands, not only did the younger buyers add western attire to their wardrobes but even their mothers and at times, some glamorous grandmothers also wore some stylish pant-suits and dared to step into Levi’s or Wrangler jeans. The ratio of Indian vs western wear gradually tilted towards the latter and it is now estimated that it is 50:50 with the salwar, kameez, dupatta being sidelined at times and the evening gown being preferred at times for wedding receptions instead of the traditional lehenga, choli, dupatta or saree.

Radhesh Kagzi, President and CEO, Creative Lifestyles Pvt. Ltd., which has 109°F, Fusion Beats and O2xygen, is delighted with the fashion choices made by Indian women. “We launched 109°F in 2006, Fusion Beats in 2012 and O2xygen in 2014 and all the three brands are doing very well. Right from the young to the mature buyers, women have evolved in their sartorial preferences and are more western in their choices. They could go for deeper necklines and armholes when earlier they were quite conservative. The GenNext is also working at an early age and have spending power with a preference for western wear. So in many cases, the sales of this category could account for more than 50 percent in the metros.

There is more availability of brands and with the blitz of social, electronic, international print media, women are becoming extremely fashion conscious. Today, a mature woman doesn’t look her age and wants to dress young, since she has the buying power.”

The influence of western wear was pushed into the smaller towns where the sale of many foreign brands like Zara, Mango, Marks & Spencer, Promod and now H&M is soaring.

Another major influence on the lifestyle of women is the proliferation of Indian fashion institutes, which started with the setting up of the National Institute of Fashion Technology in 1987 in New Delhi, which brought forth a new breed of young designers who created extremely imaginative western wear. This in turn, snowballed into thousands of fashion institutes where women have studied and created a career for themselves in the world of style. The saree and salwar, kameez, dupatta were at times ignored but soon Indian designers gave these two traditional Indian garments a more westernised touch and brought them to centre stage. The drapes of the sari were pre-stitched; while the kameez turned into a panelled floor length gown and the salwars emerged as cowled pants.

Ready-to-wear garments turned into “must haves” for Indian women who gradually forsake their trusty ‘darzis’ by the roadside and preferred the ease, luxury and facility of stepping into off- the-rack creations. The friendly ‘darzi’ however, was not completely ignored as he was grabbed by the many ‘housewife’ designers who turned fashion designing into a cottage industry and held regular exhibitions of their creativity and realised that fashion designing was great business.

With western wear being the order of the day in most cities and metros, looking fit and good was important for women. The entry of beauty salons and spas like Mark Dessange, Jean Claude Beguine, Saks London, Toni & Guy, made a major impact on the looks of the Indian women. Along with that, brands like L’Oréal and Wella brought the thrill of hair colour, which had not been experienced by women in India. In the past, hair was coloured by mature women who wanted to hide their grey. With the entry of fashionable hair hues, it was time to rejoice and change the colour of the hair to match the dress. From pre-teens to stylish grandmas, colouring hair is big business and women now look half their age, thanks to their crowning glory truly turning them into beauty queens.

Asha Hariharan, ace hair stylist and makeup expert has been in business for 30 years and her salon “Beyond the Fringe” has transformed Indian women into raving beauties for their weddings as well as many formal events. “Today women are more independent, spend more on personal wellbeing and grooming. Earlier it was just maintenance like manicures, pedicures and facials. Now it is power pedicures, more treatments for hair, exciting short haircuts. Women in the age groups of 25-46 and 50-60 years are more experimental. They read foreign fashion magazines, have travelled abroad and the international media has turned them into global citizens. Women are now risk-takers as they value themselves more. We are in the pre-luxury stage but brands like L’Oréal are responsible for changing the concept of hair colour from mehndi in pre-1991 times. Cosmetic bands like Maybelline and MAC have made home grown brands like Lakmé and Chambor sit up. Today, dyeing grey to black is passé. Now it is mermaid colouring that is ombré shades or block colouring, which means numerous colours for one head of hair; for the young trendy women; while the mature women prefer more elegant, stylish hair colours,” said Hariharan.

From age-old traditional massages, women are drawn to the latest spa treatments that offer day- long pampering and relaxation that ensures some pretty good results.

Nothing has made the lives of Indian women more free than the advent of internet and e-commerce that has revolutionised the way of life for everyone. At the click of a button there is news, products, communication all available to women, which has enhanced not only their knowledge about what is happening around the globe but also shrunk the world into one big market where everything and everybody is within reach. From clothes, to beauty products, medicines, information, the lives of everybody right from the city to the villages and from the rich to the poor have changed. The cell phone has made everyone net savvy. Keeping in touch with the family no matter in which part of the world they are was never easier. Buying a fabulous high fashion dress by an Italian designer is only a click of the mouse away. Even gold, silver, diamonds and precious jewellery can be ordered from around the world.

It is a wonderful world to live in and the liberalisation of the Indian economy has made a tremendous change in the lifestyle of every Indian woman no matter what her age or social status is.

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