Narendra Modi: In 2012, listing it as one of the world’s top 10 political fashion statements, Time magazine described the Nehru jacket as “a descendant of the northern Indian achkan, a closed-neck, coatlike garment usually considered court dress for Indian nobility.” The jacket – a marriage of Indian handloom and Jawaharlal Nehru’s sartorial sensibility – seems to have found a new messiah in India’s current Prime Minister Narendra Modi. But like the rest of his wardrobe, his modified Nehru jackets (popular as Modi jackets now) are far more flamboyant, with a colour scheme that ranges from oranges to pinks to yellows. His wardrobe, when he is travelling, is an eclectic mix – he has tried his hand at Indo-western fusions in the US, worn a casual shirt-trousers and muffler in Brazil. At home, Modi prefers functional short kurtas with short sleeves and fitted churidars. It’s a given that fashion is as much about taste as about vanity and Modi has taken “bespoke fashion” to new heights by wearing a suit with his name embossed in the fabric. For a forever selfie-ready prime minister who can’t get enough of the limelight, Modi sure knows the importance of looking spiffy.
The history of handloom in India dates back to the Independence struggle, in particular to the Swadeshi Movement that aimed to increase economic self-sufficiency through boycott of foreign goods and production of indigenous goods. When Gandhiji began advocating the use of khadi, it became the symbol of the movement and a revolution in itself. In post-independence India, handloom was the obvious choice of politicians who wanted to pitch their support firmly behind the socialist fabric of the new nation. By the time Indira Gandhi came to power in 1966, handloom was firmly established in the corridors of power dressing. The Gandhi women have always been subtle dressers, mostly favouring handwoven cottons over silks, starched and pleated with clinical precision, with little or no jewellery. Sonia Gandhi is known to favour chanderis, sambalpuris and ikats in muted colours, teaming them with high-back blouses with 3/4th sleeves and kitten heels. In keeping with the unspoken dress code established by the first generation of politicians in India, their fuss-free look is tied to the provenance of the land and hints at a certain amount of privilege.
There’s nothing unorthodox about India’s external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj’s wardrobe. On the contrary, her dress code – sari-sindoor-bindi-mangalsutra – encapsulates her party’s idea of an adarsh sanskari Bhartiya nari. The only sartorial concession that Swaraj makes is to add the sadri – half-sleeved ethnic jackets – to her attire. Over the last few years, Swaraj has moved away from the staid black, white and maroon ones to more experimental colours such as blush pink and majenta.
How does the average man on the street dress? No, not the ones travelling in the backseat of cars, reading their newspapers to the soft hum of the air-conditioner, but the ones who often become invisible in power-loving Delhi – the night watchman in his ill-fitted uniform, with his muffler wound tightly round his face or the man at the kirana store in his half-sleeve shirt that is never tucked in, and casual chappals on his feet? Arvind Kejriwal did his homework right when he sought to represent the aam admi in Delhi. Not for him the starched kurta-pajama that reeks of power and red tape. Kejriwal’s utilitarian comfort fit trousers, casual shirts, sweater and his trademark muffler redefined power dressing and boosted his acceptance among those he sought to represent.
Apart from her unpredictability, if there’s one other thing that defines West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee, it’s the way she dresses. If handlooms have traditionally been the bastion of the elite, Banerjee has championed the sartorial sensibility of Bengal’s middle-class with her austere tant saris, hawai chappals and the jhola (cloth bag, the quintessential holdall favoured by the Bengali intelligentsia). Mostly in white, and with thin borders, preferably in blue, Banerjee’s saris are an indication of her decision to live local (some of Bengal’s finest weaving hubs are in Shantipur, Phulia, Dhaniakhal, Farasdanga and Begumpur).
The sari has never been Mayawati’s go-to attire. From her bobbed hair to the loose (mostly) beige or brown kurtas that she wears, from her sandals to the unflattering closed shoes that she wears in winters, there’s something intensely business-like in the way the BSP firebrand carries herself. Yet, long before a WikiLeaks cable in October 2008 revealed her obsession with being well-groomed, the Dalit leader was known for her love for the good life. She frequented high-end salons in the capital and the bauble of her choice has almost always invariably been a diamond (the bigger the better). In the world of luxury labels, there’s a grudging respect for her choices (apparently, she owns a Birkin – that comes for anything from $11,550 to $150,000 and has a long waitlist — in nearly every colour). If Mamata Banerjee and Arvind Kejriwal are chanelling the aam aadmi in them, Mayawati is doing just the opposite. Her clothes seem to say, “Look, even in this caste-obsessed nation, someone like me can aspire to and live the high life.”