The optics of Indian women being centre stage and taking charge has never been as strong. Just this week, Captain Tania Shergill became the first Indian woman to lead the parade at the Army Day celebrations
What is the relationship between women’s empowerment and the economy? Perhaps women are able to seize power when the markets are bullish. Or perhaps markets turn bullish when women are feeling empowered
In late December, a picture of actor Kareena Kapoor Khan wearing a royal blue bandhgala suit, paired with monochrome stilettos and gold brooches that looked like military decorations, created quite the storm on Instagram.
In an interview in Mumbai earlier this week, Raghavendra Rathore, the designer behind the tailored outfit, told me that while his women’s bandhgala has seen a steady uptick in interest in the last six-seven months, that photograph specifically “got many orders coming in".
The Jodhpur-based designer, who studied at Parsons School of Design, New York, and worked at Donna Karan and Oscar de la Renta before launching his eponymous label in 1994, is known for his exquisitely tailored bandhgalas for men. Rathore’s designs are often coded with insignias of regality, which can be traced to his roots in the erstwhile royal family of Jodhpur. Viewed in this lineage, the Kareena Kapoor Khan image signalled a new kind of female sovereignty, a departure from the chaste elegance of chiffon and pearls.
If we go by the last six-seven months, the timing is anything but random. The optics of women in power, of Indian women being centre stage and taking charge, has never been as strong. Whether it’s Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union (JNUSU) president Aishe Ghosh or actor Deepika Padukone or the collective might of the women at Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh. Whether it’s debut book awards, the Indian entry to the Oscars or the Chandrayaan-2 launch, the spotlight has been firmly and resolutely fixed on women. Just this week, Captain Tania Shergill became the first Indian woman to lead the parade at the Army Day celebrations in Delhi. Distil that into fashion terms and the image of Kapoor Khan in the blue bandhgala might begin to emerge.
The last time Rathore’s clothes appeared on the runway, at the Lakmé Summer Resort 2019, there were a few bandhgalas on women—paired with pants or flouncy skirts. Rathore’s typical female client is either from the entertainment business, out every night, or “owns her own company" (the bandhgala suit costs upwards of ₹1 lakh). Most Indian women in the C-suite wear a sari or a Western pantsuit. The bandhgala then, with its fine structuring, presents itself as a far more flattering alternative for the Indian woman.
In 2018, the Italian luxury house Ermenegildo Zegna partnered with Reliance Brands to purchase a 12.5% stake each in Rathore’s label. As Mint reported at the time, it was the first time a European luxury group had invested in an Indian menswear brand. Now, with uncertainty writ large in the luxury fashion space—Rathore pegs this to the unchecked rise of embroidery-heavy festivewear that changed the business—can the sudden, organic interest in the relatively new segment of tailored luxury womenswear be good news? While Rathore is clear that he doesn’t see womenswear becoming his primary focus, he definitely sees it as an area of growth. Fashion desks are picking up on the trend. This week, The Indian Express pointed out women wearing bandhgala in an article titled, “Bollywood Is Loving Bandhgalas And Looks Like It Is Here To Stay".
Rathore points out that despite his strong associations with menswear, the origins of the brand lie in the Indian model Mehar Bhasin walking down a runway in a 1,200-year-old fort in Jodhpur, wearing a beige bandhgala jacket paired with Jodhpur breeches. This was in 1994.
With increasing inquiries from female clients, Rathore is keen on experimenting with materials such as organza and refined cotton and silk. He is interesting in playing with the silhouette while keeping the emphasis on the bandhgala collar, and include open jackets, dresses, blouses and tunics. “The good thing about this look is that you can wear it anywhere in the world," says Rathore. He has even had a bride in Goa wear a white bandhgala.
After 25 years in the industry, he plans to redefine power suiting for Indian women. “What Boss suits are to Western women, bandhgalas are to Indian women," he says.
What is considered alluring in fashion is changing constantly, often in tandem with the sociopolitical climate. Some would argue fashion trends are in tandem with the economy: In pop economics, the skirt-length theory is the idea that skirt lengths are a predictor of stock market direction. If hemlines are going up, it means the markets are going to go up, and vice versa. First suggested in the 1920s by George Taylor of the Wharton School, the idea behind the Hemline Index is that shorter skirts tend to appear in times when general consumer confidence is high.
I find it tenuous to equate hemlines with Rathore’s necklines but there is something to be said about the relationship between women’s empowerment and the economy. Let’s take the US as a case study because it offers all three feminist waves and a dynamic stock market. It appears that the three waves of the feminist movement coincided with economic boom times. The American women’s suffrage efforts succeeded in 1920, ushering in the “roaring twenties", a period of tremendous prosperity. Coinciding with the second wave of feminism in the 1960s, when women fought for equal legal and social rights, American payrolls increased by 32% that decade, the highest growth in jobs by far of any decade during the postwar period. And finally, as the third wave began in the 1990s, it was a period of unprecedented growth, the height of American capitalism.
Perhaps women are able to seize power when the markets are bullish. Or perhaps markets turn bullish when women are feeling empowered—there is enough research to show how the economic empowerment of women aids economic growth.
The first doesn’t seem true at the moment. As for the latter, that image of Kareena Kapoor Khan in a blue bandhgala suit should definitely make market watchers happy.