In a world where women’s bodies are constantly scrutinized and dictated by cultural norms, the humble nightie has become the unsung hero of South Asian fashion. This shapeless wonder, a cross between a maxi dress and a nightgown, has taken the region by storm, becoming a daywear favourite and a symbol of liberation. It may not be the tightest or most glamorous garment, but its airy and comfortable design makes it perfect for keeping cool in the sweltering heat. So popular it’s even earned a cute nickname, the “maxi” has become a must-have in every South Asian woman’s wardrobe.
Long ago, in a far-off land, the nightie emerged as the offspring of the Victorian nightgown. Some say it took a long journey to arrive in India in the 19th century and even longer to become the superstar it is today. The nightie wasn’t always popular in India, but in the 1970s and 1980s, it found a new home in Kerala. And how did it get there, you ask? Well, it’s all thanks to Malayali men who travelled to the Gulf and returned with suitcases full of nighties. In the Gulf, women wear robes during the day, and somehow, the nightie switched to daywear in Kerala, probably due to some Gulf connection. It’s a tale as old as time – the nightie, a globetrotting superstar.
In Kerala, the sari is draped in a manner quite unlike other parts of India. The mundu-neriyatham consists of two mundus, or a skirt-like garment. One covers the lower part of the woman’s body, while the other is worn with a blouse and draped across the torso. In contrast, women in North India were quicker to adopt the salwar-kameez or palazzo-type trousers. Kerala is all about the drapes, which might be why the nightie quickly became a hit. Soon enough, the rural population adopted the Gulf nightie, and it became the unofficial uniform for lower-class women. They made it their own, transforming it into a cheap, shapeless garment that can be washed and maintained easily.
The nightie is a part of Kerala’s psyche, and even leading actresses are seen wearing them in the region’s movies. In the super-hit movie “1983,” lead heroine Srinda Arhaan wears a nightie for the most part. Similarly, in the movie “Kaliveedu,” one of Kerala’s biggest stars, Manju Warrier, is clad in one. Women in rural areas embraced the nightie as it was both “modest and decorous.” It allowed them to go to the public tap, fill two plastic pots with water and lug it back home without worrying about a sari unravelling.
Comfort is key, especially in Kerala, where the humble nightie reigns supreme. Sherly Benny, CEO, and chief designer of N’Style, attributes the garment’s popularity to the state’s hot and humid weather. The nightie provides women with a good, comfortable, and airy garment that they can wear for work and sleep.
Made of 90% cotton and 10% polyester or rayon, the Kerala nightie is practical, durable, and easy to wash and dry. At N’Style’s production unit in Piravom, 600 workers produce 10,000 nighties daily, retailing for Rs 200 to Rs 800.
The nightie’s simple design – just shoulders and neck with an easy straight stitch – makes it easy to cut and stitch, which is why most of the tailors who make them are women. Although the nightie is a “boxy garment which doesn’t give any shape to the body”, fashion designer Sreejith Jeevan admits to using the shape in his designs for its functionality.
In a world where people suffer for fashion, finding a garment that values comfort over trends is a relief. The Kerala nightie may not be Vogue’s latest cover star, but it’s a practical and cosy option that has survived the fashion industry’s fickle ways.
So, there you have it! The popularity of the nightie has now spread beyond Kerala and is now a part of the daily wear of women across South Asia. In a culture where women’s bodies are heavily policed, the nightie is a prime vehicle for female liberation and a social leveller. It allows women to move around freely without worrying about their appearance and has become a symbol of women’s freedom to prioritize their comfort over traditional expectations of what women should wear. Despite the nightie’s apparent comfort, its public acceptance has not been without controversy or shame. However, as more and more women embrace it, the nightie’s status as a wardrobe staple for South Asian women is only set to grow.