Beatrice Clifford, 74, sits by the window of Peace Haven, her chalk-blue bungalow that landmarks Perry Cross Road in Bandra, people-watching. What she sees doesn’t impress her, especially the women’s fashion. “There used to be such a thing as personal style,” she said.
In dark slacks and a floral blouse, a single strand of pearls in her neck and hair folded back in a tall quiff, the lithe Clifford, better known as Aunty Betty, is all elegance even in her own drawing room. She motions at her black ballet flats and says, “There was a time you wouldn’t find me in anything but pointy stilettos. That’s why I have pain now and have to wear these.”
As a young secretary at the American Bureau of Shipping in the early 1960s, and later, as a self-styled shipping entrepreneur holding court in large rooms full of men, Clifford would certainly belong to the first wave of “Sandras From Bandra” – the stereotype used to refer to Christian career women, usually secretaries, found in large concentrations in Bandra who followed European fashions and appeared to enjoy social, financial and personal freedoms that women of other communities didn’t. Hindi cinema of the time parodied this woman as the boozy, sexy, unserious sidekick or romantic prelude to the deeply moral, bashful, ostensibly traditional heroine. Ask Clifford what she thought of the cinematic representation and she says, “I haven’t seen these films. I was too busy working to watch TV.”
Four decades of entertaining and jet-setting turned Clifford into something of a shopaholic and she amassed the latest fashions as they dropped in the West. “I started shopping compulsively. I’d walk into Marks & Spencer, Debenhams or buy cut-price designerwear at these exhibitions in London, stuff all of it in my suitcase and never look at them again.”
In December, Clifford got the chance to trot out these old ghosts for an exhibition curated by freelance stylist and fashion consultant Nikhil Dudani. “I was shooting at Peace Haven [which Clifford rents out for commercial work] when I got talking to Aunty Betty and she mentioned she had all these clothes she had barely worn just lying in her closet,” he said. Dudani asked to see them. “When I told him I didn’t have any use for them, he asked if he could take them,” said Clifford.
With the spoils of her wardrobe – about 45 pieces, several of which he had altered to modernise them – as his centrepiece, Dudani curated a pre-Christmas exhibition and sale that included contemporary labels like Shift by Nimish Shah, Lovebirds, Raw Mango, Eka, Bodice, Pero and James Ferreira, among others. Featuring cape frocks, cocktail dresses, lace and pussy bow blouses, pleated skirts and floral saris, the showcase was called Lady Pow! to riff on both “makapao”, the colloquialism for Goan Christians, and the “mac aunty aesthetic”, as he puts it.
“Sandra from Bandra” has travelled – from alluding to the discomfitingly modern in the 1960s, it came to be the catchphrase for a staid, matronly style typical to older Christian women in the 2000s. Today, it summons fey fashion insiders creating makeshift vintage and embracing a kind of dotty conservatism. Incidentally, Dudani, along with longtime friend Nidhi Jacob, a freelance stylist and former fashion editor at ELLE magazine, tend to be credited with bringing the Indian fashion community’s attention to the style nearly a decade ago, via their blogs and at fashion weeks.
“While studying fashion, we realised that everywhere else in the world, people had the option of buying vintage clothes and we didn’t,” Dudani said. “Then we came upon the Bandra aunties who were wearing clothes that didn’t look like they belonged to this time and we figured, this was our version of vintage.”
Together Dudani and Jacob trawled the few shops on Hill Road (an arterial shopping street in Bandra) that catered specifically to this demographic of women. “They offered brand-new, old-fashioned clothes in synthetic fabrics and we bought lots of it because it was so cheap and still looked like we’d picked them up from vintage boutiques in Paris,” said Dudani. “I especially loved their short-sleeved, printed blouses which seemed so easily androgynous to me.”
Jacob says it was the aunties’ pragmatism, on top of everything else, that really spoke to her. “I was so inspired by their casual way of carrying off complex patterns and silhouettes with back-friendly sandals. It’s like sassy glamour, but also knowing you have a long walk to church. I always want to be that cool and comfortable.” Over the years, Jacob has tempered the normally more-is-more aesthetic into an insouciant, minimalist version, with sensible mules, full midi skirts, gentle peplums and Bata flats in dusty, muted palettes.
Accents, silhouettes and print mashups signature to the style now routinely surface in the work of several designers from season to season. But Nimish Shah’s appears to be the most ostensible ode to the Catholic aunty. His Winter Cruise 16/17 collection for his label Shift featured sheath and shift dresses, printed maxis, peter pan collars, turtleneck blouses, drop waists and oversized ribbon bows. Bandra has been his source of inspiration for some time now, he says – “the Salsette Catholic societies and quaint bungalows, mac aunties going to Sunday mass or attending weddings, the fuddy-duddy clothing stores. The uniformity of these women’s style over the years makes it charmingly subcultural.”
Designer Tania Fadte’s fixation is far more personal, having grown up in Goa where the Catholic aunty and her style are ubiquitous. “This was just a regular way of dressing for everyone here,” she said. “My mother’s side of the family was Catholic and worked for the church so I grew up going to Sunday church, feasts, dances wearing skirt suits and frocks that my mother would stitch for me. I only began to see it as a ‘trend’ when I moved to Mumbai.” Fadte relocated to Goa a few years ago.
Last year, she launched her label Mogachea, which means beloved in Konkani, with the long-term aim of showcasing Goan women’s dressing. Her debut collection is full of easy silhouettes in hand-dyed and handwoven khadi, malkha and cottons with crochet flowers and custom watercolour prints and she herself plans to return entirely to dressing the way her mother and grandmother did. “My mother doesn’t get why,” she said.
Nostalgia is proving a deep well from which designers are drawing endlessly, but nostalgia is also myopic. All the tedious details fall away and the past tends to take on a pleasing soft-focus.
Elettra Gomes, 80, a former primary school teacher, doesn’t think the fashion of the past was any more individualistic or inspired than, say, today’s ripped jean. To her slender silhouettes and knee-length hemlines of the 1940s, for example, were just a condition of scarcity during World War II. “There was rationing, food coupons, there was less food, less cloth and so the hemlines too were shortish. Then after the war ended, Christian Dior came out with calf-length swirling full skirts and tiny cinched waists [this lavish, ultra-feminine aesthetic was an antithesis to wartime restriction and repression and became known as the New Look]. All the ladies took it up.”
Wivina D’Silva, 80, a onetime pharmaceutical factory worker and later a Catholic evangelist, says her own style was shaped by her strict, deeply-religious parents. “It was made very clear to us that that we had to wear our best to church. Good dresses and skirts, matching shoes and matching earrings. Two new dresses for the two Sundays of Bandra feast was a must. If you went to Saint Peter’s for Sunday mass, it was a fashion show.” An athlete and a tomboy, D’Silva doesn’t necessarily remember the past as a time of great personal style, but of uniformity with little wiggle room for those who preferred less fuss.
The style’s stronghold began to wane in the late 1980s, according to the women, as the readymade industry began to phase out personal tailoring. Until then the family tailor had been their single greatest harbinger of style, apart from Jacqueline Kennedy. In Bandra, an entire generation of older Catholic women swore by a handful of Muslim tailors – Bashiruddin, Mohammed, Shafad Ali, Ashraf – who ruled their westernwear wardrobes.
“Many of them moved here from Ajmer during the Partition,” Clifford recalled. “Their skill was unbeatable. They would also make these genius winter coats that you could wear inside out that could rival anything in Europe.”
In their shops, the women browsed Lana Lobell and McCall’s pattern books for their next outfit. Gomes remembers the imported fabrics – glazed cotton, bakrams, nylons, taffetas and crimplenes, and tulle – her brother-in-law Aubin Dyas, who ran the iconic tailoring shop Aubson’s in Colaba, passed her way.
“I think that the gradual loss of the tailoring community really changed the game,” said Gomes’s grandniece Kavita Dyas. “More and more families had children who went abroad and sent over readymade clothes, which were so much cheaper than getting them tailored. In fact, I think we only ever tailor bridesmaids and bridal gowns anymore.”
The older women find this new interest in their heyday style surprising, but it does appeal to their sense of decorum. “It’s amazing how everything repeats itself,” said Gomes. “I loved what Melania Trump wore at the inauguration. She looked like Jackie Kennedy… no matter about her husband.” Clifford says she’ll just be glad if she doesn’t see jeans and bared shoulders and thighs in church anymore.
You won’t find them rushing to pick up the new-gen versions of their old staples, though – the natural fabrics render the price prohibitive. Also, the ceaseless crumpling would send the ladies over the edge. “Khadi seems to be in right now,” Gomes said, with a chuckle. “But we didn’t embrace it even when it was the thing to do during the freedom movement, because it was thick and coarse and didn’t lend well to dresses. I should probably be ashamed to say that.”