Actor Ranveer Singh
Actor Ranveer Singh

Rethinking dandyism

The menswear ramp conjures up risqu dandyism as style, but the Indian man remains emphatically macho in dressing choices

The pressure to be new makes the fashion ramp a carousel of constantly changing visuals. A competitive reflex perhaps in a saturated market. Menswear designers especially are drawn to the subculture of dandyism, espoused by a few, most famously actor Ranveer Singh. This “newness" gets interpreted through peacocks strutting in green dhotis or floral suits, gold shoes, shaven chests shining through gossamer mulmul tunics or hugging jackets minus buttons. The illusion is of boundary-busting menswear.

When these images fade out, you stumble, again, into the real man. A CEO, an industry leader, a banker, a bureaucrat, a businessman, a writer, a realtor, a Silicon Valley dude even. None of those clingy orange trousers, silver bracelets or see-through vests can be seen on this man, who, in all probability, fires the female gaze.

There is a mismatch, a dissociation between fashion’s images and its actual consumption. Most well-dressed, heterosexual men in India remain mired in the conventional masculine dressing matrix—sharply tailored fits, white or dark shirts, black T-shirts, black or brown shoes, black trousers or denims. The visible shift is in the increasing refinement, quality and taste, boosted by widening retail. “Change", though, remains largely about a quirky print on a tie or a pocket square. Macho rules. Thankfully, some will say.

“No designer in India has made a fortune out of floral pants for men. Designers like to be disruptive on the ramp, but the next day, most men would line up to order black pants anyway," says model-maker and fashion guru Prasad Bidappa. He feels that while the colour palette is indeed shifting and shirts “the colour of strawberry shake" are popular, little has changed, except holiday dressing.

This argument resonates among everyone interviewed for this story. Over the years, the classic bandhgala remains designer Raghavendra Rathore’s highest-selling menswear garment. “The runway symbolism may be distorted as there is leakage of ideas between the womenswear and menswear studios," says Rathore, adding that a majority of men don’t want to wade into uncharted dressing territory. “The classic still rules in Asia except amongst an extreme fashion clique. Those who deviate are a part of the tribe, but not leaders of the tribe." While a jacket without buttons looks great on the runway, when you actually make one for a client, they don’t like it, he says. “It’s like a car without headlights." He points out that items such as slimmer pants and summer jackets are being bulldozed into our culture by brands such as Massimo Dutti and Zara.

The “extreme fashion clique" may need some elaboration. It includes edgily dressed gay men, mostly in cities, who, as senior fashion stylist Mohan Neelakantan says, are “now more comfortable in their skins". It also includes men who attend fashion shows dressed in attention-seeking garb. Then there are “fashion victims". Ranveer Singh may be India’s most famous dandy, but Neelakantan says his risqué outings are aped only by fashion victims—the actor hasn’t been able to change the tide for the rest. “The average straight man plays safe. He may wear floral shirts for a Hawaiian theme party or a beach holiday, but barring colour, these trends are not catching on."

Model Amit Ranjan
Model Amit Ranjan

Singh deserves another accolade here. Samurai skirt or floral suit, his clothes are always accessorized by machismo on steroids, making him a unique example of stunning polarity.

One time men aren’t averse to experimentation, Neelakantan says, is at their weddings. He would know. He has styled many a campaign for ethnic-wear brand Manyavar, which specializes in occasion wear and wedding garments. “For weddings, men will wear velvet jackets; bring on the zardozi, the diamanté, the decoration."

Some male models admit that what they endorse for a living or the way they look on the runway doesn’t always sync with their own masculine ideals. “I prefer the grunge look—boots, beard, leather jacket and tattered jeans—and can’t relate to gold or silver shoes or buttonless jackets worn without anything inside, but then it is my job," says Amit Ranjan, 29, who is often seen on the Indian ramp. Ranjan, who has appeared in commercials for Bombay Shaving Company (he shaved his beard for it), Maruti Swift, Fastrack watches and Monte Carlo, says he has to shave his chest hair for most assignments. As does Arry Dabas, 28, who made it to the top 5 in the Manhunt International in 2012, winning the “Mr Photogenic" crown. “The notion of the real man, like Dharmendra or Vinod Khanna of the bygone era, is getting lost because of the need to follow the styling imagery of the West, where fashion is blurred between gender identities," says Dabas. He shaves off his chest hair for his profession, even though it may not be his preference.

Many a ponderous question lurks in this narrative: Who does the contemporary man dress for? If it is for the female gaze, the question that follows is—has heterosexual admiration, even lust, shifted towards a man in bracelets and floral trousers? Or do women still prefer smoothly rugged, tall, dark-shirted, dashing men?

The answers point to a pattern. “Men dress for individualism, to look good, to draw attention to who they are. The classic rules, yes, but I think that once a man is settled in a career and a marriage, he becomes more experimental in dressing," says Shantanu Mehra of Shantanu & Nikhil, whose menswear line at the recent Lakmé Fashion Week’s Winter/Festive 2016 edition was called Mutiny 1919. Inspired by the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, it showed men in neutral, organic colours in beards, turbans and shawls, underlining hyper masculinity, the other extreme.

“Men dress for attention," says Neelakantan, whether it is from their peers, girlfriends, colleagues. “Men dress for power, for money, to get laid. There is a sexual undercurrent in dressing," says the CEO of a company, who did not want to be named.

Actor Ranveer Singh
Actor Ranveer Singh

What floats between the runway and the real is a series of disconnects. The meme of metrosexuality in visuals doesn’t translate to the thick of retail. It’s admired, but only in the realm of a spectacle—whether it’s Singh’s hats, round-rimmed glasses and suits with Kolhapuri chappals, a fashion show riding on fantastical styling or one’s own wedding. Men love the Ram Leela costumes—but does anybody really dress the way we picturize Lord Ram? Outside that spectacle, dressing follows men of influence—for instance, former Reserve Bank of India governor Raghuram Rajan, who always dressed in suits and ties, industrialist Anand Mahindra, also a sharp-suited man, or even Prime Minister Narendra Modi with his classical style.

“It boils down to culture," says Rathore, adding that it is easier to change the software than the hardware. Following the (north) Indian man’s ready reflex of rolling up his sleeves on almost every occasion, Rathore created kurtas with pre-rolled sleeves in different colours. Not surprisingly, they sell well.

This says something about androgyny, often drummed up as a “trend". Androgyny, by and large, is for women who can mix menswear separates, brogues, braces and red lipstick to create a style flutter. But when men tread into androgynous territory, there is a gap between what they admire and what they desire.

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