Life | A Cut Above

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A Cut Above
Text by Madhu Jain and Illustration by Wyanet Vaz
Published: Volume 21, Issue 10, October, 2013

Understated chic, quiet elegance and dressing down is obviously the new mantra for a growing number of those who count themselves amongst the social, and no doubt, financial elite, observes Madhu Jain

She was wearing the finest of linens, an unclassifiable white – the type you could not pin down. Was it pure white, off-white or cream with a soupÇon of white? Cut on a slant, the asymmetric blouse with one side sloping, and far longer than the other side, reminded me of the signature diagonal of a Tyeb Mehta painting. I suppose it was all about the ‘cut’ – which made it cutting-edge in the exclusive/excluding world of those-in-the-know. A glance and they would know the price tag that came along with the seemingly down-market outfit.

To an untrained eye (disclosure: I am not to fashion or to the manner born) the blouse and Caprisque pants ensemble of an indeterminate colour looked like something you could pick up in Delhi’s Sarojini Nagar market or Mumbai’s Fashion Street – even from any of the roadside stalls. Some years ago (I think it was in the late ’80s) these places had become a paradise for those with slim budgets and fat ambitions.

Brimming over with export rejects these places had become the great equalisers. Nike or near-Nike, Prada or near-Prada, Mikimoto or faux-Mikimoto pearls, it was hard to tell the memsahib from the maid on her Sunday-off in her jeans and keds with logos approximating the more exclusive brands – or, for that matter, the sahib from his chauffeur or domestic help.

Jeans were, and are, the other equalisers: they blurred and are blurring the boundaries between the haves and the have-nots, the aspiring and the arrived, the dehati-provincial and the self-baptised cosmopolitan, the middle-aged and the young, the happening and the happening-in-progress.

To return to the lady with the seemingly askew blouse who had invited me to her sumptuous, high-in-the-sky apartment in Walkeshwar with an almost 360 degree view of the Arabian Sea for a sit-down dinner. The drastically understated way in which she was draped was in sharp contrast to how she had draped her walls. But before I get to the way she had dressed her living room and dining table I have to tell you about her response to a compliment about her eye-catching designer ring –big diamonds (or near-diamonds?) which were elegantly set in platinum or near-platinum.

“What a stunning, unusual ring,” I commented.

“Oh, it’s not very expensive. You see I am a Bohemian...I wear anything that catches my eye....” her voice trailed off.

“Bohemian chic then,” I countered, a question hanging in the air.

“Not at all, sweetie. I just don’t like all the bling. It’s blinding – the sparklers, all the shiny stuff on clothes. So nouveau, nouveau. These women might as well wear gowns made out of hundred dollar bills and solitaires with price tags in their hair....” she replied, a tad smugly.

What she had around her neck could have been Delhi Haat – tribal updated – or from some European designer flirting with motifs that women from Bastar in Bihar and the Bhils in Rajasthan wear around their ankles, necks and in the drooping holes in their ear lobes. Her long silver necklace with abstract and semi-abstract motifs was certainly unusual but ambiguous when it came to assessing its monetary worth.

The walls wore the evident wealth. Stately, museum-quality jamevar shawls in perfect condition (not the bits and pieces that many of us might frame) were used as throws on her sofas or tastefully framed in Plexiglas – just so. A few hung from the polished-to-perfection brass rods; the shawls alternated with paintings by contemporary artists. All, well quite a few, of the big names from the Moderns to the contemporary artists who were the stars of auction houses before the art market went south adorned those expensively dressed walls.

Her table for eight-going-on-10 was eloquently dressed: silk table cloth, dinner ware and cutlery were not something you could pick up from a boutique. It had exclusive and expensive written all over it. Impeccably dressed staff moved silently, serving us. The cabinets of curiosities full of, but not overflowing with, silver and crystal picked on travels in India and abroad, bespoke taste and, of course, well-marinated wealth. The home was all dressed up, unlike the inhabitants.

‘Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society’ that incorrigible wit Mark Twain wrote. Now even that is not enough to signal your arrival in ‘society’ and mastery of taste. You need the audacity or chutzpah to go the other way, making sure that you wear on your person or in your lifestyle other signifiers of being a cut above.

Dressing down is obviously the new mantra for a growing number of those (both men and women actually) who count themselves amongst the social, and no doubt, financial elite. The problem is, as those from this tribe see it, that there are just too many people with oodles of money who increasingly wear their wealth on their sleeves.

An acquaintance from this tribe, no shrinking violet when it comes to wearing the absolutely latest off the ramp, tells me that it is becoming more and more difficult to rise above the growing hordes who flit around the world and buy just about anything they fancy. You know, the type who wedding-hop around the globe, equipped with wardrobes and gems that their newly acquired money can procure – never repeating an outfit, and occasionally, seemingly accidentally wearing the labels inside out.

Only the truly rich can afford to sport an attitude of disdain, an indifference to prevailing fashion dictates. I can think of maharajas, nawabs and Western millionaires from robber-baron heritage who at times looked like paupers. Going down the trying-to-be-different-and-above-it-all path can also lead to quite an acquired eccentricity.

We need to look no further than the writer and living legend Khushwant Singh whose salon thousands covet. He wore his T-shirts with holes with such elan. Bless him.

Perhaps shabby-chic is the way to go.

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