Life | Mistress Of The Universe

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Mistress Of The Universe
Text by Madhu Jain and Illustrations By Bappa
Published: Volume 17, Issue 10, October, 2009

Fashion has been and continues to be a weapon of revenge and also a marker of status, power, wealth and sophistication, states Madhu JAIN even as she prefers to stick with her own nostalgic views of beauty and style

NOT TOO LONG AGO MY DAUGHTER Sonali and I had quite a robust argument over Michelle Obama’s famously exposed biceps. Somehow, while munching on low-fat nachos with a nifty peach salsa we got talking about the notions of beauty. The American First Lady was for Sonali – she currently lives in the United States with her family and we were visiting her – the epitome of chic and beauty. Not for nothing did Vanity Fair bestow on her the title of ‘commander in sheath’. Her toned body, especially those rippling arm muscles and taut calves, had launched millions of laudatory words in newsprint.

But for me, the desi that I am and the generation to which I belong, my views on beauty are more conventional – outdated, perhaps, and stuck in the groove of nostalgia. Gloria Swanson’s immortal line (as the ageing film star Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard) about the good old days when she was the reigning queen of the silver screen says it so poignantly: “We had faces then.”

Looking good in my book has more to do with gently curving feminine bodies and perfectly chiselled features – more Devika Rani or Madhuri Dixit than Shilpa Shetty and Bipasha Basu. Come to think of it, today’s muscled beauties are the female equivalents of screen gods like Salman Khan and Hrithik Roshan with their quasi-Popeye muscles.

My daughter’s views, however, got me thinking, doing a re-think actually. For her generation a healthy, gym-toned body is a statement. It is about being empowered, liberated and silently bespeaks all the hard work and self-control that goes into its making. It also spells self-confidence. And I suppose ambition. Michelle Obama isn’t just making a fashion statement. Presumably, she is just being herself, with the delicious audacity to mix and match her J. Crew with haute couture. The high and lower ends of fashion served on the same platter.

Is it all then about being the mistress of your own universe, specifically of your wardrobe? ‘Clothes make the man’– Mark Twain’s resonant quote (of course you could also add woman) was dinned into generations to stress the importance of dressing appropriately. Never mind the tongue-and-cheek nature of the great American humorist’s following sentence: ‘Naked people have little or no influence on society.’

The Brits when they ruled us had strict codes – both about how they conducted themselves and what they wore. Formal wear went with the stiff upper lip they had to paint on their faces in order to govern the overwhelming number of natives in their empire. The brown sahibs working for them did much the same. Though once home they discarded the western apparel for dhotis or kurta pajamas, and with it the personas they put on for their Angrez superiors.

Clothes and accessories have always been markers – of status, power, wealth and sophistication. In the era when women were not supposed to air their opinions or to make manifest their desires, many turned to fashion to express themselves. In a telling bit of dialogue in the film The Duchess, Keira Knightly, says to her beast of a husband, the Duke of Devonshire (a nasty but ever-dishy Ralph Fiennes) that clothes are “the only way a woman has of expressing herself” as a riposte to his boorish comment on her complicated corsetry.

This duchess – her name was Georgina – did it through her outrageous hats in the 18th century, long before voting rights for women were even a glint in the eye. And women were supposed to be seen, not heard. Come to think of it, plus ca change: women’s hats at Ascot seem to be getting increasingly more bizarre each year. Interestingly, the late Princess Diana, Georgina’s descendent, used her flamboyantly seductive wardrobe, spilling over with Versaces and creations from other big ticket designers, to grab power and show up her husband who was still in love with his old flame.

Fashion has been and continues to be a weapon of revenge. But it is more commonly used to stand out from the rest – something that is getting increasingly difficult to do. For a while luxury brands did it for you. The Guccis and Ferragamos and Versaces are fairly widely available in metropolitan India – as are the fakes that are getting closer to the real thing. The Joneses of society have to work much harder to keep their emulators out of their zones of exclusivity.

Some of the fashionistas with deep pockets have even abandoned the kosher brands and dressed down – with their waterboard stomachs and huge solitaires as signifiers of their wealth. Others have turned to brands that don’t shout their presence. Only the knowing eye can spot a Bottega Veneta bag: the woven leather bag is discreet in calling attention to it.

Fashion is also increasingly about attitude – to differentiate you from the crowd. Since brands have become ubiquitous another way out is self-branding. Tattoos were once associated with sailors and criminals. There was a frisson of danger about them. Today, the well-heeled wear them with panache – it’s almost become part of the discreet charm of the bourgeoisie. And I don’t just mean Hollywood, but closer to home in Bollywood and amongst our energetic habitués of Page 3. Sporting a tattoo is not just another way to be cool. It might also be an attempt to assert an identity.

The word modern has a particular resonance in India. Being a fairly young nation that hasn’t quite shed the entire yoke of colonialism, many of us tend to stress on the necessity of the Next Best Thing, of modernity if you like. The latest of everything – be it a car, a trend, a cutting edge artist, fashion –is a must. However, a ‘modern’ appearance does not always signify a modern mind. The two can be at great variance. The ‘modern’ mind – one that can be inclusive, expansive, knowledgeable or creative – may not come with the outward signs of being modern.

Appearances can be deceptive. I remember my grandmother disdainfully referring to girls with short hair as modern girls: sirmunis or waal-katis in Punjabi. The ‘nice’ girls had oily long plaits and wore shapeless salwar-kameezes. But little did grandma know that the ‘nice girls’ had all the fun, sneaking off with their boyfriends while the short-haired, supposedly western creatures were merely wearing the outward symbols of modernity.

Well, it’s best not to judge a woman (or man for that matter) by her cover.


Madhu Jain is an author and a journalist. She writes for several publications and is currently working on her second book. She also curates art shows.

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