Will Manish Malhotra let go of the sari as Air India's uniform?

It is a conundrum, as Malhotra is loved for his glamorous saris

A year or so ago, the Fashion Design Council of India (FDCI) chief Sunil Sethi and I sat on the floor at the fashion week venue asking scores of fashion students and wannabe designers who they thought was India’s “biggest” fashion designer. An overwhelming majority said Manish Malhotra.

I was not surprised. Malhotra remains India’s most famous fashion designer, mostly thanks to his styling of famous Indian women like Kajol, Priyanka Chopra, Kareena Kapoor, Kiara Advani and Alia Bhatt. He would therefore obviously be the chosen designer for our newly privatised national carrier—Tata’s Air India. Much of this refashioning has been long awaited. Air India, once known for the beautiful women queuing up to be its flight attendants (Maureen Wadia, Parmeshwar Godrej, Asha Puthli), was now a frump’s dump. The old aircraft, outdated seats and old-fashioned uniforms had to go. Air India is now going to be a preferred airline once again, much like its new sister Vistara.

But what boggles the mind is why Malhotra hopes to let go of the sari as uniform. While there is no official statement from the designer thanks to a non-disclosure agreement, rumour has it that he is expected to choose tunics and trousers or more contemporary styles for Air India’s female flight attendants. (The male flight attendants have always worn shirts and trousers, sometimes with a jacket. Culture and heritage are almost always a woman’s job, the men are just expected to be serious.)

Manish Malhotra | AFP Manish Malhotra | AFP

It is a conundrum, as Malhotra is especially loved for his glamorous saris. Some of the most memorable Bollywood songs feature his heroines wearing saris. Kajol in ‘Suraj Hua Maddham’, Katrina Kaif in ‘Tip Tip Barsa Paani’, Deepika Padukone in ‘Badtameez Dil’, Alia in ‘What Jhumka?’ and scores of others. Priyanka Chopra’s ‘Desi Girl’ sari became a major cultural moment. The sequinned sari and the bra-blouse have never retired from the glamorous woman’s wardrobe ever since.

Air India has always experimented with the uniforms of its female flight attendants. When it was made India’s national airline in 1953, its female staff wore a skirt, a jacket and a tilted hat, in keeping with the mood that India would be a modern liberal democracy. By 1962, J.R.D. Tata introduced saris when he was appointed Air India chairman. Tata had founded Air India in 1932, when it was known as Tata Air Services and was India’s first commercial carrier taking mail between Karachi and a small airstrip in Mumbai’s Juhu.

The first Air India saris were sourced from Binny Mills. Air India continued to experiment with its saris for the next 61 years. The saris went from printed paisleys to a gorgeous ikat from Pochampalli, Tamil Nadu, in the airline’s trademark red, white and black colours. There was also a phase of cotton kanjeevarams. The air hostesses were made to take classes on sari draping, in order to become more comfortable and work efficiently for long-haul flights in their saris. At one point, they even wore mustard saris with red borders designed by students of NIFT, Delhi.

By 2015, the airline offered its hostesses a choice between the yellow saris, a black jacket and trousers, and a yellow kurta with black pants. It seems the airline has always attempted to keep a close eye on what Indian women wanted to wear, when choosing clothes for its female staff. It obviously seems that Indian women want to wear Manish Malhotra, and thus so will the flight attendants.