India is the land of drapes, not fitted fashion. The bra, then, was nowhere on the scene, a fact amply supported by ancient paintings and sculptures that depict women bare-chested. The first historic allusion to the bra—half-sleeved tight bodices called kanchuka—can be traced to the Vijayanagara Empire that thrived between the 13th and 16th centuries.
When, after two hundred years, the British Empire’s rule ended in India in August 1947, it bequeathed her tea, cricket, and the Victorian brassiere. “Padded or underwired bras were never a part of Indian culture. We inherited corset-inspired bras from the British,” said Priyanka Thakran.
The 42-year-old is the maker of Angiya—The Indian Bra, inspired by the short-sleeved bodice that ends just below the breastbone (also known as angiya). The aboriginal design finds copious pictorial references in author Kālidāsa’s Shakuntala, an epic play integrated as a chapter in India’s literary masterpiece Mahabharata,written somewhere between the 1st century BCE and 4th century CE. Eons later, the indigenous underwear staple was worn by womenfolk in Rajasthan, Haryana, and Punjab, very much before the invention of the present-day bra.
And that’s why Thakran’s attempt to revive the angiya is significant, because it’s not a derivative of the colonial corset. “The angiya decolonizes design. It’s about form and fabric,” said the designer, who was first introduced to the bodice by her paternal and maternal grandmothers, and has, in fact, dedicated three styles, Shobai, Sukma, and Shanti, to them.
Her incentive to reintroduce an alternative to the modern pad-prod-push bra instantly takes us back to the 19th century, when a young American socialite, Mary Phelps Jacob, fought to catch a full breath in a stiff, “boxlike armor of whalebone and pink cordage” (according to a Telegraph report on her life). Just over a century ago, Jacob invented the first “backless brassiere” by stringing together two handkerchiefs, some pink ribbon, and cord to create a light-as-air halter-top bikini shape, and sold it under the name, Caresse Crosby.