The residents of Gothivli in Rabale, a semi-industrial zone in Navi Mumbai, must either possess a highly evolved fashion sense or a terribly low tolerance threshold. On Wednesday, news reports said that a group in the area decided to impose a Rs 500 fine on women wandering around wearing nighties.

Though the police struck down this sartorial vigilantism, it's clear that the guardians of Gothivli don't get the point of the nightie, which is a common sight on the streets of working-class neighbourhoods in the southern and central parts of Mumbai, sometimes accompanied by a dupatta.

A nightie hides more than a sari but less than a salwar kameez. It’s certainly not for the faint-hearted or the fashion conscious. “The nightie is a horrible garment,” said Shefalee Vausdev, Style Editor at the Mint Lounge newspaper and author of Powder Room, a backroom account of the Indian fashion industry. “It is tremendously fuddy-duddy with short arms and a nowhere shape. It’s basically a sack in which to sleep. It says, look, I don’t care about myself, and is the Indian middle class woman’s short-cut to casual wear.”

It's a breeze

Despite its deeply unflattering aspects, women of all classes have owned a nightie at some point in their lives. Mumbai is one of the most nightie-loving of cities, although Kerala might offer stiff competition. The shift-like dress is comfortable and easy to step in and out of. Nighties let in the breeze, which is most useful in a metropolis that has one-and-a-half seasons (summer and dabs of rain). It doesn’t need ironing, washes and dries easily, and has a sweet way of concealing love handles and post-30 paunches.

The nightie is necessarily an intimate garment. The negligee’s lowly cousin is not supposed to make it past the bedroom door, and certainly not be spotted during the day. Yet it has, and continues to indecorously pop up in the drawing room, the kitchen, the compound, the balcony, and the entrance to the house. Washermen, fish sellers and milk suppliers have all witnessed domestic goddesses in the outfit that is supposed to be the pleasure of only husbands, and Indian society is none the worse for it.

The perfect summer outfit

In Mumbai, where convenience often gets the better of morality, it is common to spot underclad men and women loitering in public. Mumbai’s oppressive summer means that men and women expose their bodies without caring for the vigilant moral majority. Bus conductors will unbutton the top of their uniforms to let in some air, industrial workers will take off their shirts, and fisherfolk will wander around in yellowed banians or singlets over shorts.

The women are a bit more decorous but no less practical. It is not unusual to see them wander out of their chawls and matchbox flats to the market or the grocery shop in faded nighties, the frontal lace embroidery long reduced to shreds and safety pins in place of buttons to keep their modesty tucked away.

The nighties are usually ankle length, but the bolder ones will roll them up to their knees, unmindful of their unwaxed lower legs or the curious eyes of strangers.

That’s why it was surprising, and irritating, to see the Bengalis beat the Maharashtrians in the nightie movie department. Obhishopto Nighty, which was released this February, is a horror movie and sex comedy about a haunted garment that makes its wearer a nymphomaniac. Starring Paoli Dam (Hate Story) and Parambrata Chatterjee, the movie didn’t impress too many critics, but its genius lies in the very idea itself. Take this one-line plot and set it in Rabale and you have a sleeper hit on your hands.