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Six western classics: styles that are etched in memory

What makes a fashion staple timeless? The ability to withstand time, trends, endure generations, people's fickle attitudes and temporary fads. Here are a few 'classic' pieces of clothing - both for men and women - that have been around since long.

brunch Updated: Jun 01, 2014 10:42 IST
Parul Khanna

What makes a piece of art or fashion timeless? The ability to withstand time, trends, endure generations, people's fickle attitudes and temporary fads. Anything (even a relationship) that outlasts these obstacles, will find itself in the 'classic' category. And since summer is a versatile season, it allows one to try out a variety of clothes. We decided to dig out a few 'classic' pieces of clothing - both for men and women - that have been around a century or two. Make them work for you this dusty, windy, sunny summer.

Little Black Dress

It's as enduring as enduring can be. It's classy, sophisticated and simple. It's also versatile, makes most women look slim, and adds an aura of mystery and sexiness. All this makes it a 'bettable' option. Says fashion designer Narresh of the duo Shivan and Narresh, "The dress' easy formality and ability to lend instant sophistication to any look make it an enduring garment. Its formidable image in fashion history remains untouched for the sheer ease with which this dress can pass on from morning to evening without a change." The LBD is the heel of clothing. No matter how fashion-challenged you are, wear it, and you are set.

Read: The Little Black Dress is trending again

The original LBD was introduced by Coco Chanel in the 1920s. Typically it had long sleeves, was made in wool for daywear, and satin, crepe and velvet for the night. It was calf-length, straight, plain, devoid of any ruffles or other popular girly tropes popular then.

The way it is now
But Audrey Hepburn, in fashion designer Hubert Givenchy's version of the LBD in the movie, Breakfast At Tiffany's, changed the DNA of the dress. Hepburn's LBD was more a sheath dress - shorter, till the knees, sleeveless, and fit close to the body. So many versions of the original started to do the rounds that they took on a destiny of their own. "From shifts to pencil silhouettes to draped versions, the LBD has seen evolution across generations," says Narresh. Indian designer Anand Bhushan currently experiments with LBDs in lycra with a more industrialised look. With varying necklines, little sleeves, or none at all, sometimes off-shoulder, plain, with prints (geometric and tropical), the dress has become ubiquitous. Chanel chief designer Karl Lagerfeld in an article, Has The Little Black Dress Finally Fallen Out Of Fashion? in The Guardian, explains why he didn't showcase the iconic fashion item in Chanel's haute couture fashion show in 2010: "Every woman has already got a Little Black Dress."

LBD moment
Marilyn Monroe in a barely-there Orry-Kelly beaded dress in the movie, Some Like it Hot. And of course, Miss Hepburn.

The white shirt

It's an interesting garment, if only because of its rich, rich, rich history. And a story that - if made into a film - would definitely earn the White Shirt an Oscar in the Male Lead category. White shirts were like undergarments at some point in the 19th century. It was considered inappropriate for white shirts to be peeking out of coats. And because washing machines didn't exist, rinsing clothes wasn't a regular chore. Men would wear the shirt for days, causing the collars and cuffs to turn black and grimy. To combat the problem, detachable collars and cuffs were introduced.

"Wearing white shirts meant the man was moneyed, he had servants to wash his shirts. In fact, this divide continued much later in the 1930s too when the white shirt was restricted to educated and salaried professionals privileged to work in offices,
resulting in the term 'white collared workers," explains Savi Munjal, an academic and travel enthusiast, with a blog

Designer Narresh points out that the white shirt always looks good, and you can match it with any colour or any lowers. That's what makes it a classic. "The white shirt has innate sophistication," he says. A good white shirt is made with cotton, with a high thread count, well-fitting, with a glossy finish.

Contemporary take
Modern-day shirts are just not buttoned down, they come in various fits, from tight to loose. "There's a lot of experimentation, especially with the collars. There are Chinese collars, bandhgala ones, kurta style. A few are embellished too. White shirts are not just accompaniments to suits. They have a life of their own," says designer Gaurav Jagtiani of duo Gaurav & Ritika.

White shirt moment
James Bond movies. All actors who have played Bond have worn a white shirt at some point in the movie, sometimes with a suit, sometimes, like, Daniel Craig with denims.

Maxi dresses

Read: The Maxi, a favourite with fashionistas

There's a certain vibe about a woman who hitches up the hem of a maxi, flashing a tantalising bit of ankle or leg. And that really is the appeal of the maxi dress. Labelled so because of its length, the maxi has survived the onslaught of the overtly sexual mini and the desire-evoking fit leggings. Of course, women's dresses from the 16th to the 19th centuries can be loosely classified as maxis. But it was fashion designer Oscar de la Renta who created the first version of the modern maxi dress in 1968. In cotton, with lace trimmings, full-sleeved, reaching the ankle, it was a far cry from the sensuous versions that exist today.

The length (always long, though it varies every few decades) actually decides if a garment is a maxi or not. It was the hippies who revived the cult of the maxi. "Deep rooted in the hippie culture of the Sixties and Seventies, the free-flowing maxi became synonymous with the ideology of the time - rebellion, freedom, a sense of individuality," says Savi Munjal. Flowy and comfortable, the maxi dress was also associated with women's liberation, their choice to dress in comfort, she explains. The ease of the garment makes it forgiving. It looks sensuous, without being in-your-face flashy.

The way it is now
A maxi can now skim the ankle or even trail the floor. It can be halter-necked, off-shoulder, strappy and with slits (Paris Hilton). Fashion designer Gaurav Jagtiani says that the maxi doesn't just have a feminine vibe, it has also assumed a more sporty feel. "Maxis are being made in jersey, worn often with sneakers. They have gotten into another spectrum too - gothic, with boots and leather jackets. They come fitted too," he says.

Maxi moment
Maxi skirts were very popular with the hippies. Flowy, in florals, and light fabrics, they became a symbol of that generation.


It is a basic and a necessity. That's why it's a classic. Menswear may be getting all fancy, with a lot of focus on suits, innovative dressing, skinny fits etc, but the tee tribe continues to grow alongside. The question to ask men is not if they possess a tee or not, but rather, how many? Unlike women (who look for variety in clothes), when men become converts, they tend to buy in bulk, says Anand Ahuja, founder of Bhane, an online retail portal. It's not unusual to find many copies of just one item - maybe in different colours - in a man's wardrobe. White tees came as an afterthought to white shirts, and a more practical option to white, button-down, collared T-shirts.

According to a New York Times article, Who Made That T-Shirt?, in 1904, the Cooper Underwear Company popularised the crew-neck tee when they put out an ad campaign with a man in that tee (after that it became mandatory for US Navy sailors to wear it under their uniforms). It was a prudent choice for men who didn't have wives to wash clothes, sew buttons or put safety pins on their white shirts.

Contemporary take
The original tee was white, now it goes through the entire spectrum of shades, even tangerine and fluorescent. Tees have become an extension of the self, a notice board to make statements. There's the military-inspired camouflage tee, ones with funny messages, three-dimensional prints, tees with bands on them (we have all worn those Metallica, Nirvana, ACDC tees at some point in our lives), skull tees, Punjabi tees, FCUK tees, The Godfather tees, skeleton tees, Che Guevera and Superman tees. "The versatility of the tee cannot be compared to any other men's garment.
It goes with just about anything, from denims to shorts and pants. And in an increasingly casual environment, they are a great pick," says Ahuja.

White tee moment
Actor James Dean gave tees cult status when he wore one in Rebel Without A Cause, sometimes with the iconic leather jacket.

The corset

One of the more polemical fashion garments of all times, the corset has survived generations and trends. A cerebral piece, if only because of the discourse surrounding it, the corset's history is fascinating - from an undergarment it became outerwear. It was worn under large frocks in the Victorain era; today, it has acquired sexual overtones. "From a staple in French aristocratic wardrobes to modern day usage, the corset has been used as a varied form of iconography for women's clothing. Every decade it takes a new form and re-interprets itself," says Narresh. Women in the Victorian era were under pressure to reshape their bodies with bone-crunching corsets, which gave them hourglass figures.

Read: Now, a sexy yet comfortable corset!

There's a famous part in Margaret Mitchell's Gone With The Wind (translated onscreen by Victor Fleming), in which the house servant, Mammy, fits Scarlett into a corset, giving her a 17-inch-waist (we don't believe it either, but that's what the book says). The modern corset was popularised much later in the 20th century when fashion designer Jean Paul Gaultier gave Madonna her iconic pink corset, which she wore for her Blond Ambition Tour in 1990. In the '70s, designer Vivienne Westwood had corsets in her show. The USP of the corset is its versatility and ability to give the body a beautiful shape. It's a highly sexualised garment, associated with bondage sex.

The way it is now
From being part of a dress, the corset has become a garment on its own now: worn with denims, skirts, or as corset dresses. These corsets are easier on the body. The most recent twist: corset blouses with saris and lehengas in Asian wardrobes, points out Narresh.

Corset moment
Madonna's pink corset, worn while performing at her Blond Ambition tour in Spain in 1990, made the garment iconic.


Hats have a history. No, seriously, they really do, and it dates back to times we may not be able to accurately recall.

But the genesis of hats was purely pragmatic. More utilitarian than fashionable then, they were worn for protection from the sun. "Of course, thereon, they became connected with fashion. As everybody who has watched period dramas will know, hats were considered de rigueur for men before the Fifties," points out Munjal. Hats found mention in literature too.

How can we forget Mr Darcy and his hats in Pride & Prejudice, or Sherlock Holmes and his deerstalker? According to New York Times' The Cat In The Hat Comes Back, till World War II, a gentleman was not considered properly dressed till he wore a hat. Hats lost favour thereon, but have seen a revival, courtesy the many period dramas on TV for the past few years.

Hollywood always gave the hat its due, with icons such as as Frank Sinatra and Charlie Chaplin endorsing them. "Then there were the Westerns. That way hats never went out of our consciousness," says fashion designer Gaurav Jagtiani. Designers such as Armani, Dolce & Gabana, Dior, Lanvin showcased hats - trilby, fedoras, boaters, bowlers and the Panama - in their shows in 2011.

Contemporary take
Hats are being worn with denims, suits, pants and even shorts. They are more casual than formal now.

Hat moment
Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca. Michael Jackson popularised fedoras in the 1980s.

Follow @ParulKhannaa on Twitter
Photos: Shutterstock, Getty iMages

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