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Venus Envy

Oh, those border incursions! A slinky machismo slips out of the closet...Ziggy dates Twiggy.

Venus Envy
Atul Loke
Venus Envy

Ever wondered why Shahrukh Khan loves to flaunt his hairless chest in brightly coloured see-through net tops. And why Britney Spears is chasing Madonna wearing a blue suit with highlighted collars and a blue tie in her latest video, Me Against the Music? Are they mixed up or is mixing it up tres chic? Quiz the fashion fraternity and they'll say it's the latter.

Androgynous dressing washed up on our shores at last year's India Fashion Week with designers like Rohit Bal, Ashish Soni, Manish Arora and Kiran Uttam Ghosh manfully pushing the boundaries of what we'd traditionally have labelled male or female. If Bal and Ghosh had male models dressed in skirts and saris, Soni was busy making female models appear impressively butch in his masculine-looking jackets and dangerously low-waisted jeans.

Author, art advisor and curator Alka Pande would have us believe there is a little bit of the gender-bender in every one of us. In her forthcoming book, Ardhanarishwar: The Ultimate Union, Ancient Image, Modern Identity, she looks at "How there is a man in every woman and woman in every man."

This should not hugely surprise anyone who has studied the way Indians have dressed through history. A certain parity in the dress ethic has always been a discernible streak. And it wasn't just because men and women both draped themselves in several similar styles—stitched garments were still an unrealised dream. Even later, the advent of Islam and invasions from the West brought the tailored salwar-kameez, which became a common template for both male and female attire. Remember those flowing angarakhas in Mughal-e-Azam?

So, though what designers like Bal are doing might look fresh, it certainly isn't new. "The dhoti and mundu, worn by South Indian men, are in fact variations of the quintessential skirt," he reasons.

In the late nineties, when designer Wendell Rodricks tweaked the basic form of the kurta and hacked the bottom two feet off it to create the short kurti (though he called it a tunic), he actually created something that looked great on men and women alike. More recently, Monisha Jaising embellished the kurti—often in entirely 'feminine' ways. And suddenly everyone you saw at those uptown nightclubs was wearing them.

If the looks-are-deceptive look is still finding ground elsewhere in India, it has gone through several cycles of revival on the international fashionscape. In the sixties, Yves St Laurent effectively appropriated the style. After a lull, it was to take off again, this time from London, with its unisex fashion code—a look that glam rock icons like David Bowie (think Ziggy Stardust) did much to popularise. A decade later, it would be pop icons like Grace Jones, Annie Lennox and even Tracy Chapman who championed the cause of the mean, de-sexed look.

Image consultant Prasad Bidapa recalls how some years back fashion legend John Galliano arrived at the UK BAFTA awards ceremony in a kanjeevaram and jacket. Designer Ashish Soni tracks the popularisation of the look to the time when international fashion houses like Dior came out with an edition of men's clothes in smaller size. "Instead of men, women started buying these clothes and the look immediately caught on," says Soni.

Closer home, designers like Bal are dressing men in skirts. One of the first buyers of his men's skirts line was Rajya Sabha MP Vijay Mallya. Designer Ravi Bajaj's 2003 men's collection bordered on the frilly, girlish prototype; instead of those featureless white shirts, he had embroidered linen shirts, t-shirts with floral patterning and tie-dyes. At a showing of his collection last September, Bajaj's models wore velvet trousers and jeans in strawberry and bright orange Spandex.

It isn't just clothes; men are discovering a whole new world of accessories as well. A groom-to-be has asked Bal to indulge him with a sehra with pearls and diamonds instead of the traditional marigold flowers. Lingerie designer Suman Nathwani has a separate line of men's underwear. And yes, before you ask, there are thongs. With tiger prints.

Speaking of thongs, if you managed to get your eyes off Shefali Zariwala's waist in the Kaanta Laga remix video, you'd have noticed she was also wearing a blue tie to match the thong. As long as it looks good, girls just wanna be boys, too.

Designer Puja Nayyar points at a growing trend amongst partying girls of wearing berets, suspenders and French cuff shirts. "Girls are doing away with frills and detailing," says Nayyar, who herself likes to wear ties and berets to parties. In jewellery too, designs are eschewing old-world feminine elegance. Square-shaped and spiked have moved from junk jewellery racks into designer stores. In watches too, square, dark dials are slipping onto female wrists. Check out Aishwarya's watch in the latest Coke commercial.

Most designers feel the trend towards androgyny is elitist. They don't see any potential for mass appeal. Still, some elements are certainly trickling down to the street. On college campuses like that of the National Institute of Fashion Technology, Delhi, where students are more likely to experiment, some boys don't think twice before stepping into the classroom in a side-slit denim skirt.

A wider popularity is limited by the tendency to see men in even slightly feminine clothes as gay—even if the hottie in the sarong next to you is rampantly heterosexual. Not everyone has the confidence to carry off the style, which is one reason why Nayyar says, "In the West I can still imagine men picking up stuff from the women's section of a fashion store. This can never happen in India."

This is much less of an issue for women, since they've been doing it for years. Ananya Sen Sharma, a third-year student in Delhi's Lady Shriram College, feels she always fits better into Levi's 28-inch men's jeans than women's jeans in the same waist size. Let's say girls like Ananya are lucky—they simply have a wider repertoire from which to pick their look-of-the-day. Ultimately, the test of androgyny in fashion should depend on the choice it offers you, man or woman. As Bidapa puts it, "Now a wider array of options are available for both men and women in terms of dressing up. What they are doing is mixing and matching to create their own personal style."

And if the style that works best for you is androgynous, break on thru.
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