The Bollywood industry, which consists of big screen Indian movies in Hindi, only came into existence in the 1930s, when colonialism still had a tight grip over the South Asian region. Consequently, the West has had a huge impact on Bollywood films, even if it only manifests in the subtleties of the movies, such as costumes.
Western media, and in particular the canon British films, often glorified the upper classes during the Victorian era. Still, to this day, films like Pride and Prejudice manifests Britain’s problematic relationship with an oppressive class order through the guise of historical nostalgia. Costumes from the Victorian era are constantly romanticised while being divorced from classist implications. Hence, due to the deep-rooted effects of British imperialism on India, clothes in the Bollywood industry were not left untouched by Westernisation.

During Bollywood’s early conception in the beginning of the 20th century, most stories were about the working class and were set in rural areas. Men wore dhoti, a simple piece of material that was tied around the waist and extended down to the legs, while women wore a modest version of ghagra choli, which consists of a short top and a long flowy skirt. Few urban stories featured Indians wearing Western-influenced clothes, using the West as an elitist symbol of wealth. In many of these Bollywood period dramas, costume designers admitted to using Western actresses such as Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn to inspire the costumes they created.

While using the West to represent a higher status in society has racist implications, it also points to the fact that the white upper class had a monopoly on the representation of Western media in older films. Extravagant Victorian dresses and suits are reserved for the highest ranks in British society, which meant that the beauty of a working-class individual or a person of colour was never celebrated in period dramas; beauty seemed to be an exclusively white and upper-class concept.

In the 21st century, people of colour everywhere are dismantling these harmful ideas. In the musical Hamilton, where the cast is mostly made up of people of colour, the costumes were designed to imitate 18th century America. Seeing people of various darker skin tones wearing these sophisticated costumes with pride is already striking enough, but the producers of Hamilton also went a step further by retaining the casts’ original hairstyles. Black women with big, curly hair looked beautiful in long Victorian era dresses, and black men with afros looked striking in old army uniforms.

In William Oldroyd’s Lady Macbeth (2017), Naomi Ackie’s casting came as a surprise, even to the young black actress herself. Oldroyd had done his research and found there was a huge amount of diversity in 19th century England, contrary to the belief of those who criticized him of misrepresenting history. When he asked these people what their reference points had been, they responded that it was other period dramas, proving that the majority of period dramas in Britain choose to feature only white, elite characters. Diversity is not a modern invention, and whether it is a class or race, a genre should never leave people out on accord of their backgrounds.

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