After five minutes of watching the Netflix show Versailles, the eyes adjust to the unusual scene of men wearing heels and rich, velvet, frock like coats. Their shoulder length hair is softly curled and their high collars are embellished with gold lace. The series, about French king Louis XIV’s decision to move his court out of Paris, is captivating not just for its potent mix of history and scandal but also for its wildly extravagant costumes, a romantic throwback to a time of unapologetic decadence.
If one attempts to analyse the appeal of period films like Devdas or Baahubali, or shows like The Tudors, it’s not the brilliance of the script or the phenomenal acting that stays with the viewer. In fact, you’d be hard put to remember anything about the story in retrospect — other than the magnificence of the costumes, or the styling of the sets. The attraction may also be of a dreamy escapism, of (briefly) inhabiting a world when it was perfectly acceptable to spend two hours dressing for dinner. Those elaborate and very civilised rituals represent a comforting order, something we know too little about in our relentlessly busy and uncertain times. Even if we know, intellectually this highly sanitised version of history glosses over the hardships of millions. On film we are perfectly content to reap the benefits of the royal life, of rustling silks and haughty salutes. The highest rated shows on international TV currently, retrace history, tapping into a universal yearning for the gentler past. So much of the original content of Netflix focusses on court splendour from a different century. Those styles, of lace and ruffles, corsets and cravats are a current fashion inspiration, hugely influencing what we buy.
It’s possible that one only notices what one likes but many high fashion brands are showcasing shirts with overtly puffy sleeves and high frilly collars with dramatic trimmings at the wrist. At H&M, the first mannequin at the 20,000 sq ft store in Delhi’s Select Citywalk sports a diaphanous white, oversized blouse, reminiscent of the voluminous style in vogue in 17th century France. Pero, the very cool Indian fashion label has delicate roses in clusters of three, sown on in the traditional bullion stitch, on soft malmal. The fastest selling Mac lipstick, Russian Red is reminiscent of a post World War two theatricality. Sabyasachi’s Spring-Summer 2018 line shows plenty of flora and fauna, with hunting scenes abstractedly depicted. The couturier’s recommendation is to wear the saris with ’60s style “centre parted hair and industrial sunnies”. Most contemporary fashion is a reinterpretation of old styles and with the quirks and customs of bygone eras being explored so thoroughly in popular culture, vintage garments are back in wardrobes.
The rise of vintage styles in fashion coincides with the rise of subscribers to Netflix and Amazon Prime Video in India. It’s also a reaction to mass-produced fast fashion, which can never be exclusive. It’s convenient alright but anyone striving for a more individual look can’t find it in Mango or Zara. If the idea of fashion is wearing whatever it is that expresses a unique spirit, the possibilities (to copy) from TV right now, really are endless. Mixing eras would be the most fun: Lady Mary’s (Downton Abbey) tweed coats and flapper silhouettes with perky berets from the downtrodden gang of Peaky Blinders. We can’t retreat from the present but we can explore the sartorial richness of the olden times.