She just doesn’t get it. Last week Pakistan’s first woman foreign minister, Hina Rabbani Khar, slammed the Indian media for its “frivolous” focus on her dress—the South Sea pearls, her Roberto Cavalli shades and Hermes Birkin handbag. “A guy in my place would never get such attention...nobody would be talking about his suit,” the enraged Khar later said. But they would—they always have, and still do. The what-shall-I-wear question has been a political rather than a personal dilemma in the subcontinent for at least the last 200 years.
In a nation fathered by a man who understood and harnessed the symbolic power of dress, our leaders could hardly afford to ignore it. President Rajendra Prasad, for instance, agonised over it three days before the first Republic Day. Nor did he think his dress dilemma was too frivolous to be openly discussed. In a letter dated January 23, 1950, written on his official letterhead with the crest of the Constituent Assembly, he appealed to Nehru, the greatest arbiter of style in free India. What should I wear? he asks plaintively. “General Cariappa suggested to me...that I should wear a black or grey achkan and churidar pyjama.” Over that the general suggested he wear a blue or orange sash with the Ashok Chakra symbol. He even sent across a sample for trial the same evening. “I am the last person to have any opinion in such matters,” admits Prasad, who usually wore a dhoti and kurta, “and I would like to be guided by you.”
In style Nehru meets sister Vijaylakshmi Pandit on his 1949 US visit (Courtesy: Roli Books)
Nehru, who took his dress very seriously, sat down to answer it immediately even though Prasad’s letter arrived “a little after midnight”. It was an old quandary, as Nehru says in his reply. There was a similar discussion when Lord Mountbatten was leaving. He wanted his successor Rajaji to have a distinctive dress for the ceremony. Rajaji agreed, suggesting a sort of academic robe with embroidery. “Somehow or other, nothing came of this,” Nehru writes, and, knowing his acute horror of bad taste, we can almost sense his relief. To Prasad, his advice is: keep it simple. No coloured sash, no chakra, just a black achkan and white churidar pyjamas.
Nor was this the first or last time that Nehru had to take time out from momentous affairs of the state to step in as fashion stylist. Before Independence, the British, with their obsession with appropriateness, had solved the dilemma of a national dress by laying down a strict code for official occasions. After Independence, it was chaos, as the writer Nirad C. Chaudhuri recalls in his Culture in the Vanity Bag. “Young women in the employ of the government of India came to office as if they were going to give a performance of Bharatanatyam. The men appeared in anything they liked, in any patchwork, even at the garden parties and receptions of the President of India.”
Chaudhuri, a stickler like Nehru for good taste and who was working in the government at that time, recalls the prime minister’s circular to the secretariat: “He asked the men to be more careful (in their dress), and the women more simple, referring to the use of jewellery in office and the length (or rather the shortness) of the sleeves.”
Clearly, that had little effect, forcing Nehru to write yet another note (December 11, 1953) laying down a dress code for office workers: “Smart-looking, simple and suited to the work a person has to do.” Ever the democrat, Nehru insists his note is “not an order but a recommendation”. But it’s clear that he didn’t approve of the way his officers dressed. He suggests the men wear “a buttoned-up short coat and trousers”, which he felt had two advantages: it looked distinctive and would hopefully erase the class distinction between high and low officers. For official functions, Nehru vetoed the European suit which he once used to wear with such flair, calling it a “sign of snobbery”. Instead, he suggests they shift to sherwani in hand-spun.
Niradbabu laments the effect of this note on Indian dress style: the buttoned-up coat made the officers look like English butlers, according to him, and it became hard to distinguish a Secretary from a waiter at the Gymkhana Club. As for the lower officials, they ignored Nehru’s note. In any case, as Chaudhuri recalls, “they were never invited to official functions where their ties and suits would have been noticed as anti-national”.
Nehru’s distress at the decline of dress standards is evident in this same note he wrote to officers: “The other day I visited the convocation of the Delhi University. I was surprised and somewhat distressed to find the great majority of students who had come up for their degrees wearing some kind of apology for European attire, collar and tie and all that. They looked neither smart nor distinctive...just poor imitations and not good at that....”
Curiously, Nehru has little to say about the alarming changes in women’s dress, although it soon became an issue in Parliament. Perhaps it was because all the women in his circle were famously elegant in their silk or chiffon saris. Even Sarojini Naidu’s daughter Padmaja, conspicuous for her colourful style, effortlessly combined the traditional grace of a sari with a sleeveless blouse and a plunging neckline, clearly inspired by western trends. Or perhaps his silence arose from a mistaken sense of gallantry.
Niradbabu, at any rate, had no such inhibitions and vents his acerbic pen on the “aesthetic hell” that women had fallen into: the uneasy mix of East and West, the shortness of the choli, the shrinking sari clinging too tightly to the bust and posterior, the garish make-up, the westernised salwar-kameez (like “knitted underwear”) and kameez-churidhar (“trunk hoses...looking like adjutant birds”). These fashions, as Chaudhuri points out, were mostly inspired by Hindi films, some of the women even taking their dressmakers to the cinema to point out the one they wanted copied.
For the new middle-class woman, it was the first, heady flirtation with western fashion. But it sent the wrong message: suddenly in cities across the country, molestation of fashionably dressed young women by loafer young men began to rise. In Delhi, special police arrangements had to be made to protect the girls, recounts Chaudhuri. The dress of girls became a frequent subject of discussion among educational authorities, and in 1960, even cropped up in Parliament, where a member suggested that the incidents were caused by the modern fashions in dress.
Behind the outcry over women’s fashion was a deeper anxiety: in a nation that had always recognised the role of clothes in carefully constructing a personal (or a caste) identity, a younger generation blindly aping the West was becoming increasingly oblivious to the politics of clothes, using it instead as a personal fashion statement. No one dressed more provocatively and inappropriately than Gandhi, but he did it with his eyes wide open, recognising the powerful symbolism of the dress he wore. And more important, the risk he ran of not being taken seriously, or even misunderstood. No fashionista, before or after him, took clothes more seriously than he did.
Always dapper Mohammed Ali Jinnah
There were of course others before Gandhi who considered dress a serious and political subject. For instance, Rabindranath Tagore was the first to push the “capkan” as a national dress, pointing out that it was a far more secular dress than the dhoti-kurta, a dress associated only with Hindus. But the dhoti unexpectedly came into political limelight when Lord Curzon announced the partition of Bengal in 1905. As a form of protest, men, including high court judges, barristers, solicitors, noblemen and merchants, abandoned their English suits and went to office barefooted in dhotis, their bare torso wrapped in a chadar.
But it was certainly Gandhi who made dress central to political debate. His dress sense was so keenly developed that when he first came to England, his friends dismissed him “as a student more interested in fashion and frivolities than in his studies”. But a wardrobe disaster early in his career—when he appeared in court in a turban and was asked to take it off—opened his eyes to the power of dress: how he could draw attention by breaking dress codes.
Hosed down Saira Banu; a college girl in similar salwar-churidar from the same time
But to merely draw attention would not suffice for him: each time he considered a clothing change, he did it with deep deliberation and preceded it by speeches and letters to the press. Without these explanations, he felt, he would be taken for a crank, an oddball. Throughout his life, wherever he went, questions from journalists about his dress were more than welcome. They provided him just the opportunity he sought to put his point across. It could draw almost everyone into the political debate. His clothes—or rather the lack of them—were his best advertisement.
Unlike Khar, Gandhi took even his accessories very seriously. On his voyage to England, for instance, he discovered that his well-wishers had saddled him with a couple of very swanky suitcases. He was furious. A representative of a poor country arriving with expensive luggage! He threatened to throw it overboard, until his attendants pacified him by shipping it back to Bombay. Perhaps that’s what Pakistan’s foreign minister should have done—left the Birkin bag at home.