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Vidya Balan at Cannes in Sabyasachi. Photo: Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images
Vidya Balan at Cannes in Sabyasachi. Photo: Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

Essay | The age of auntie fashion

What happened to youthful dressing that doesn't groan under the burden of looking 'Indian'?

Indian fashion is in a quandary today. It looks Indian, but without the shock of the new. A certain sameness and much-ness dominates its most visible face.

Flick through glossies, watch TV shows, attend a wedding or surf the recent appearances of celebrities, and a familiar tide will drench you. Heirloom saris and ornate lehnga-gowns, cholis with strings, multicoloured anarkalis, Patiala salwars with embroidered kurtis, heavy jewellery worn with branded accessories is the predictable formal fare. Even if it’s a printed maxi dress, in all likelihood the wearer will pair it with crystal-encrusted chappals.

At awards functions, stars turn up in elaborate, tired ensembles from all the biggest couturiers, including Sabyasachi Mukherjee, Manish Malhotra, Abu Jani & Sandeep Khosla, Rohit Bal, Anamika Khanna and Tarun Tahiliani. They try hard to appear distinctive but end up looking like each other. It’s a boisterous mela of heirlooms, handlooms, logo brands and industrial chic, with everyone sitting on a flashy ferris wheel that’s going nowhere.

Sania Mirza in Shantanu &Nikhil. Photo: Amlan Dutta/Hindustan Times
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Sania Mirza in Shantanu &Nikhil. Photo: Amlan Dutta/Hindustan Times

Ironically, there is more experimentation today with the idea of India through fashion than there ever was and there is a new handloom brigade that consciously rejects old silhouettes and decorations. The non-conformist creations of younger designers like Aneeth Arora, Rahul Mishra, Kallol Datta, Arjun Saluja, Amit Aggarwal or Shilpa Chavan buzz with unembellished textiles, androgynous clothing, anti-fit silhouettes or shapes moulded from silicone and steel. Yet even younger and ostensibly “rebellious" celebs—Sania Mirza, for instance—prefer the older ideal (lehnga-esque ensembles by Shantanu & Nikhil).

The whiff of modernity evaporates soon as the gaze shifts to the actual consumption of fashion. Vidya Balan’s veiled head and full-sleeved blouses at Cannes, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan’s choking full-length anarkali, Balan and Sonam Kapoor’s nathnis said a lot about what designers select and reject when communicating their “Indian" selves. Our most commercially lapped up style statements are genetic modifications from an antique melting pot of art, craft, embellishment and fuchsia-tinted solutions.

The sari’s re-established power undoubtedly makes for fascinating fashion theatre. But when the sari-playing protagonist has a ghost story in its folds, it suggests a crisis both in styling and creativity. An exhausting repetition of lace, net, ornate tassels and contrasting silken borders on the reverse is making visible fashion a farcical representation of our age, which is hardly a sum total of dated mindsets. From Manish Malhotra to Sabyasachi, designers should worry how similar they appear in their differences. What’s paraded does not speak for the flux in our society or an economy under a cloud.

It is almost as if the aunties who rejoiced in the first flush of the retail boom—tried capris, dresses and strappy tops—realized that nothing really works for them and returned to the sari and its “fancy" cousins with a vengeance. Now we have auntie fashion taking centre stage, converting everyone, including most of our top designers—who gladly tweak their wares for them. Some talented younger designers have traded originality to seduce the masses—Gaurav Gupta and Anand Kabra being just two examples. They blazed on to the fashion scene with bold new ideas, but now allow assorted lehngas to eclipse their edgy creations.

Kareena Kapoor in Manish Malhotra. Photo: AFP
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Kareena Kapoor in Manish Malhotra. Photo: AFP

It just doesn’t add up. The fashion industry has evolved tremendously yet every market looks like a Meena Bazaar. The masses may be buying more but are wearing what they always did, only in a more chaotic manner. Despite a trendy curiosity for fashion magazines, a majority sidesteps the fabulous styles enshrined on their covers. In personal appearances, cover girls look like they belong to a rich-wives club instead of a fashion-forward brigade. Young girls choose to appear overdressed rather than trendy. The bridal chooda has mutated into an audacious cluster of sparkly bangles that reaches the elbows—making new brides look enslaved instead of modish.

An enduring fashion lesson from India is the gaping difference between fashion as spectacle and fashion as consumption. The former is a feisty spectator sport, the latter much like family politics—where elders have the last word.

Really, this is no country for young fashion.

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