When I was growing up, there was an infallible way to tell when a woman had gotten married. She gave up on childish things like frocks and dresses, put away her jeans and skirts, and adopted the salwar-kameez or the sari as her uniform of choice. Okay, perhaps it wasn’t always by choice.
Sometimes it was dictated by conservative in-laws, on occasion it was the husband who didn’t want her to dress ‘Western’ now that she was married, and at times it was just unspoken societal pressure. That was how married women were supposed to look: all wrapped up decorously in a sari, or a salwar-kameez at a push. And most married women complied, no matter what their private feelings on the matter.
I am happy to report, however, that this is no longer the case.
Marriage no longer spells the end of edgy or even sexy dressing. Women, or at least urban women of a certain class, can continue to wear what they like even after they have that ring on that finger (or the mangalsutra around the neck). Nobody looks on with shock/horror if a married woman accessorises her chuda with tight jeans or a short skirt. In fact, nobody so much as bats an eyelid.
How gender binaries dictate fashion closets
Never was this brought home to me more forcibly than when my newly wedded niece was taken shopping by her mother-in-law. My niece gravitated towards the churidar-kurtas, thinking this was an appropriate choice given that mum-in-law was paying. But even as she was riffling through them, she felt an urgent tug on her shoulder. It was her mother-in-law, who had found an outfit she thought would look amazing on her new daughter-in-law. It was a short, sleeveless, patterned dress with a halter neck.
But it’s not just young, newly married women who are dressing differently these days, eschewing conservative choices for more modern ones. It is women of all ages, all social classes, all shapes and sizes, and from all over the country. It is no longer unusual to see a young mother in a short dress or even a grandmother in trousers. Jeans have become a great equaliser, being worn by women young and old, with every body type, from all income brackets, and from every region.
In my case, I have made quite the opposite journey. In my teenage years, I could not wait to get into the sari. Even the act of draping it in front of a full-length mirror made me feel ineffably grown-up. As a young professional in my first job, the sari’s natural grace and elegance helped me negotiate the new and tricky world of the workplace from within the security of its folds. It made me look like and act like a responsible adult even when deep down inside I didn’t really feel like one. The perfect camouflage, in fact, for faking it until I finally made it.
Now that I can class myself as a ‘woman of a certain age’, I still wear the sari. But now it is when I want to have fun and play dress-up, having tired of my everyday uniform of jeans and shirts. And sometimes I treat the sari like a secret weapon in the armoury of my wardrobe, to be deployed when I particularly want to impress. It is pulled out on special occasions, like formal dinners, weddings, or at important professional engagements when I want to feel the same security I felt as a young journalist starting out.
There is none of the palaver of figuring out what goes with what, none of that nightmare called colour coordination. It’s simplified dressing at its best: pull on a dress, slip on a pair of flats, stick on the sunglasses, a slash of eyeliner, a dab of lipstick, and you are good to go.
Did I hear you mention the words ‘mutton dressed as lamb’? Ah yes, I thought so. But you know what, the best part of growing older and becoming comfortable in my skin (not to mention my dress) is that I no longer care what you think of me, my clothes, my sense of style, or for that matter, my bare arms. I will wear what I like, thank you very much. And in the famous words of Rhett Butler, I really don’t give a damn (what you think about it).
And I am rapidly coming around to the view that, no matter what your age, this is the key to personal style: it has to be a personal choice (not made on the basis of the diktats of some fashion magazine); and you have to own it, no matter what other people may think (or say) about it. Feel like wearing a sari? Do it. Want the comfort of a pair of lived-in jeans? Knock yourself out. You’d rather live in a dress? Go right ahead.
There is no one you need to please but yourself. Tell yourself that the next time you go shopping. It will make things so much simpler.
From HT Brunch, August 17
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