The wardrobe diaries

By Madhu Jain

For a new generation of Diaspora desis, the guiding inspiration for fashion continues to be Bollywood, rather than Paris or London.

I am intrigued by my daughter’s new nanny from South Africa. My daughter lives and  works in Washington DC. When her set of delightful, identical twins came along, so did Vanisha, a bubbly, cheery-eyed 25-year-old from Johannesburg, who wants to be part of the much-fabled American dream. Nannyhood is a small step towards her goals.

Her Tamil ancestors left the shores of India over 150 years ago. The elastic in the bands that connect her and her family to their original homeland has indeed lost its tautness — not one of her forbearers has since gone back, even to visit. Vanisha speaks English, Afrikaans and an indigenous dialect. She doesn’t know any Tamil.

But she knows more than a smattering of Hindi, quite a bit actually, courtesy Hindi cinema. Bollywood is the long distance guru here. Interestingly, not only has she learned Hindi by watching Hindi movies, she and her two older sisters have also taken their cues for fashion and, hold your breath, sartorial propriety from them.

Says Vanisha, “When the heroines started wearing pants, we thought, ok, it’s alright to wear pants. When they began to put on short skirts and halters, we thought, aha, Indians have changed. They are very modern now. We can also wear such clothes.”

While the desi South Africans may not have much to do with India as such, many have held on to the cultural and social values that earlier waves of migrants brought with them to Africa. Consequently, many parents tend to be a bit strict about what their daughters wear and with whom they socialize.

Bollywood, not Paris, Milan or London, is the fashion template for many young members of the Indian Diaspora — particularly for special events like engagements, weddings and anniversaries. A shop in Johannesburg specializes in outfits worn by popular stars in new Hindi movies. Karan Johar is clearly the style guru: clothes from his films are eagerly, almost instantly copied — and usually in faux-georgette.

There’s even an enterprising woman, who dashes off to India every few months to source clothes knocked-off from the latest box-office hits. Scores of young South African desi women started wearing what is quaintly called a “butterfly sari” after they saw the likes of Deepika Padukone, Shilpa Shetty and Aishwarya Rai wearing these highly-worked and glimmeringly embellished saris with pallus usually cut in the shape of a butterfly. The pleats of a butterfly sari also tend to be different from the rest of it.

Style voyeurism
Following the stars is nothing new, universally. It’s almost as old as cinema itself. But, today, their influence is even more pervasive, especially in India. Ubiquitous Bollywood stars have colonized the ad world. They are telling us what to buy — from shampoos and clothes (even banians) to mobiles and cars. Well-ensconced, these style gurus are even hogging the catwalks.

The marketing men have long known that celebrity endorsements work. Now scientists have proved them right. A recent report in the Journal of Economic Psychology conducted by a Dutch team of scientists from Erasmus University claims that celebrity endorsement “alters brain activity.” Brain scan technology has shown that there is “enhanced activity” in the medial orbito-frontal cortex when presented with the image of a celebrity pushing a product. Apparently, this part of the brain is associated with positive responses.

Suppose Katrina Kaif appears in an ad for a “butterfly sari” all the positive associations you have about the actress will transfer to the product she is pushing. If she is in a commercial for whitening creams you are more likely to believe that the product will lighten you up too. Celebrities, it seems, can bring forth positive emotions. In other words, if you like me, you like what I am wearing and presumably, buy what I am wearing.

Celebrity wardrobes increasingly fascinate us. But nowhere has style voyeurism flourished as it has in the United States. The famed ones, even if they are famous for just being famous, have also moved online. We are heading towards the age of celebrity wardrobe diaries. Television presenters, models and singers now post style diaries, some of which are gathering large online fan bases.
Celebs have begun to give “an intimate access” to their wardrobes and lives, according to an article wittily titled Out of the Closet in a recent issue of The Observer Magazine. A few are already recording, daily if you will, “self-portraits” outfitted in designer wear with captions on personal blogs or internet sites.

Just picture Kareena Kapoor blogging with “self-portraits” in ensembles confected by her favorite designer Manish Malhotra — and the clothes she picks up on her overseas jaunts. But I would put my money on Shah Rukh Khan as the savvier clotheshorse blogger.

Sumptuous modernity
The clothing diaries border on narcissism. But they do say something about ‘our times and the way we look at ourselves and each other’ according to the Observer. Paradoxically, while the celebrity online style diarists may believe that they are posting their individual personas and identities along with their clothes, there is an anodyne conformity to most of them.

The individual, alas, is hidden beneath an avalanche of brands. Our home-grown prima donnas, who inhabit the society pages, go about as if they incarnate modernity. Fashion and modernity have long gone their separate ways, on occasion meeting tangentially.

True modernity comes from within: it isn’t just about how you decorate yourself, your home or the dinner parties you give, but the way you live your love affairs and life. You could say that Coco Chanel was the quintessential modern woman. No wonder there has been a spate of biopics about her recently.

Long dead, she still seems far more liberated and “modern” than most women today. She defined her times, leading the front of the avant-garde. This comes through marvelously in the sumptuous new film Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky. Director Jan Kounen focuses on the 1920 love affair between the visionary designer and composer.

The verisimilitude is amazing. Chanel’s art deco country home, Bel Respiro, is the set. The actors wear their designs, and Stravinsky’s visceral music fills the air. Coco is magnificently played by the regal Chanel model Anna Mouglalis. Yet, what comes through is the spirit of the fiercely independent — both the élan with which she wears her creations and the attitude with which she leads her life.
As do her mantras: “Always take away, always pare down…. There is no beauty without freedom of the body.”

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