These days, it is with alarm that I view myself in a full-length mirror before stepping out for some tedious chore. Ray-Bans to cover my eyes, a cap to cover wisps of grey hair and the ubiquitous mask stretching uncomfortably behind my ears, it feels like I have disappeared and somebody unrecognisable is staring back at me. My androgynous outfit gives nothing away either. Loose, casual clothes, the kind that six months ago I would have considered unfit for death by suicide. 2020 is the write-off year where we must imagine we are fugitives in disguise who need to perpetually duck from a devious assassin. Among the random thoughts floating in my head, I suddenly feel gratitude that fate placed me in India. I could have been born on some remote mountainside in Afghanistan, where disassociation from one’s appearance is mandated by law. I think about how so much of the world functions permanently swathed in drab religious garb, let us presume, willingly. This is what a face veil must feel like, only more claustrophobic, because unlike a mask it covers the entire head leaving only slits for eyes. My face gets hotter and hotter in Delhi’s searing humidity and my breath fogs up my shades. The discomfort frustrates me.
It seems almost incredible that it was only six months ago that I was scrolling down Instagram admiring a range of flawlessly-contoured selfies. Overnight, those vacation images on exotic beaches or people posing at glamorous art soirées have magically vanished. FOMO is no longer a thing when everyone’s missing out. If I think about what I really miss during COVID-19, it’s the trivial bits of khabar that would come my way about friends, family and situations. Especially, because now all conversations veer right back to the coronavirus. Nobody can talk of anything else. Besides, no parties mean no gossip. No more who-wore-what. I could kill to discuss a dress right now. Alas, at this moment, the fear is so heightened, posting a party picture could provoke a malicious backlash. How pathetic life has become can be seen in what passes for scandal these days. There was a time when conversations conducted in hushed whispers revolved around who was sleeping with whom. In the post-COVID world, the new adultery is who is socialising with whom, and how much. Or, who is dumb enough to conceal a meeting with someone who tested positive. Calling out people with a cavalier attitude to COVID is the latest in armchair activism. It’s no wonder that upscale housing societies in Gurgaon shame members found violating home quarantine rules and they are roundly applauded for it. Everyone’s suspiciously sizing up how everyone else is living, perhaps to reassure themselves that the Fear Of Going Out (FOGO) is justified, and, so, they are still, in some sense, winning.
While this novel time is indeed triggering, it is also a time for introspection. Mainly, to think about how history’s biggest disasters could have such banal origins. Of all the pandemic-induced upheavals, from careers imploding to terrifying confinement, there’s been no time to analyse the impact of the bizarre visual spectacle confronting us on the rare occasion we leave our homes. It’s surreal seeing bodies behind a steering wheel or a grocery line but not being able to gauge their expressions. As Oscar Wilde noted, the true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible. We’re deprived of using a primal instinct honed over millennium to make snap judgments about people, based on a smile or a frown. In the absence of facial features, personal aesthetics — fashion and jewellery for instance, have ceased to matter. Consider the irony that COVID-19 has been the great equaliser between the good-looking and the not-so good looking, and between the shabby and trendy. However liberal one’s notions of beauty and sophistication, COVID, in one fell swoop, has relegated everyone equally unappealing, masked. The cumulative effect of this abrupt dismantling of style will have profound implications — on beauty norms, how we consume and what a future cool could look like.
Last week, a meme titled “Week 20 of lockdown” was floating around WhatsApp. It showed an adorably large and furrowed Saint Bernard, its drooping doggy ears sweeping the floor. The caption read, “When the Botox begins to wear off.” Point being, it’s so dangerous to step out that we’re better off sliding back to our old, wrinkled, real selves. It’s never been attractive, admitting to want to enhance one’s looks, and, in the midst of a pandemic, it’s downright unacceptable. The narcissism of our times has been a subject of so many critical think-pieces, that everyone is anxiously projecting a perfect version of themselves. Since country after country went into shutdown mode, what is essential and what isn’t has been debated endlessly. One rightly supposes if a kidney transplant can be postponed so can cosmetic surgery. However, to state the obvious, what’s necessary is always subjective. To some, the number of likes and retweets is meaningless. To others, it means everything. When we appraise our lives, it would be dishonest not to recognise that we all strive to meet our own standards of desirability. The joy of looking good — and thereby feeling good — through new clothes, new lips or new shoes, cannot be underestimated. Showing off our best selves is a central need, a vital cog that allows us to pass on our DNA to the next generation. As a friend put it, as if coming out of COVID broke and jobless isn’t bad enough, most people will also gain weight and have lower levels of confidence than before.
The records of previous generations tell us old habits die hard, especially ones we never wanted to give up in the first place. Women bought lipstick and stockings in the Great Depression as well. “This time next year all of this will be a hazy memory,” predicts Rashi Bhimani, a trousseau consultant based in Gurugram. It certainly appears so when one considers the BBC images of humungous crowds outside London pubs on day one of reopening. Bhimani helps brides connect with fashion designers and choose the right assortment of outfits for the family. Three of the weddings she was working on were cancelled between March and May. One of the brides decided to go ahead with the wedding, scaled down to 30 people. But instead of her heavy bridal lehenga, she opted to wear a Banarasi sari, more appropriate for an intimate celebration. This is a legitimate fear, that if people stop spending for an extended period of time, they may stop finding value in flaunting wealth on original creations, forever. I can’t count how many times I’ve heard lately my friends constantly marvelling at the startling discovery of how little they actually need. Besides, in the last five years, there have been a growing number of prominent climate-change activists and vegans on the scene, who have made conspicuous consumption look decidedly uncool.
It does seem hard to believe that the pandemic is the end of the road for grandiose wedding extravaganzas, valued at over
Rs 100,000 crores, considering India’s most influential trendsetters have quite recently flown down Beyoncé and the Cirque du Soleil to entertain their guests. Fashion designer Rahul Mishra, 40, who showed at Paris Haute Couture Week’s online show recently, remains quietly optimistic of a slow but steady recovery, though the pandemic has robbed his clients of the in-store shopping experience. It was an essential part of the ritual, holding family meetings with the designer, discussing embroideries and colour themes, to arrive at the dream wedding wardrobe. Mishra was quick to adapt to WhatsApp and Instagram marketing, where he posts trendy short videos describing India’s intricate weaves and how they fit his design vision. He launched an e-commerce platform in June and he foresees it being way more important that his flagship store five years from now. “When I compare my accounts of July 2019 and July 2020, they don’t look very different,” says Mishra. “In my opinion, clients will become more discerning and will invest more in understanding craftsmanship and the story behind a brand.”
Indeed, even a brief re-evaluation of consumerist values will create havoc in every industry, not just for the lakhs employed in fashion and celebration businesses. Some corrections were long overdue. It’s also true that memories are short. While more people are questioning if everything we did to self-optimise mattered, it’s only because the last few months have been so discombobulating. A decade from now, when academics have analysed all the changes COVID wrought upon us, perhaps, one will be that fine lines and white hair are acceptable imperfections. It must be noted that despite the pall of gloom, it’s not like people are okay with staying home, hairy and unkempt. Amazon and other online stores have noted the rise in demand of do-it-yourself home beauty kits. While sales of lipsticks have crashed, nail-polish brands are doing very well. Eye makeup tutorials on YouTube are notching up lakhs of hits. There’s something to be said for the well-known contradiction that Saudi Arabia has always been famous for — however modestly covered the women may be, they are the largest consumers of makeup in the world. No doubt there is a pause in normal life while people consider what they want to render obsolete, and bring back. I see a lot of spiritual metaphors around that this catastrophe is meant to force us into new beginnings. More pertinently, it is a reminder that we thrive on the shared experience, and community is precisely what this capricious virus tears apart.
Leher Kala is director, Hutkay Films, and a columnist with The Indian Express
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