The year begins on a good note for the writer in me. 🙂 M Magazine has a special feature called ‘What Women Want‘. The feature covers various questions surrounding the Indian man of today.
Five women have each contributed an article and one of those women is me! My piece is titled ‘Is The Indian Man A Fashion Failure?‘
The piece was originally slated to run a few months ago but got rescheduled. Now I think it’s a great new year gift for me to start 2011, seeing my words in print. The issue has just hit the stands. Now, don’t make me beg….go out, buy it, read it already!
A version of this piece appeared in M Magazine, January 2011 and has been updated on this post on 21 February 2011 for the writer’s records.
Is The Indian Man A Fashion Failure?
I stood in front of my open cupboard. Scarves, sashes, handbags and dupattas fluttered on the door-racks while a jumble of dresses, skirts, salwar-kameezes, trousers, shorts, jeans and tops jostled for physical space and my attention. When I returned to sorting out the clean laundry, I laid out the few garments that didn’t belong in my cupboard. They were four men’s shirts of exactly the same size and type in the following colours: light blue, pale blue, barely blue and white.
My father never really gets this. After all these years, battles over the shoe-rack still culminate in, “Why do you need so many pairs?!” He is a firm believer in the footwear principle of three: one pair of house-slippers, one formal pair and one pair of sports shoes. Let’s not even get into those times when suitcases need to be shared. It would be easier if one could write it off as a gender thing, being that early evolution dictated that a woman presented the most visually appealing side of herself while a man cut a dashing figure as provider/protector. But we are in 2010 and the world of human beings has heard of men’s fashion.
Parisian men don cravats with as much pride as their female counterparts knot their scarves. Italians are meticulous about the quality of their leatherwear and the cut of their suits. The days of the stylish Englishman were immortalized in the lyrics of a Sting song that went, “A walking cane here by my side, I take it everywhere I walk, I’m an Englishman in New York.” Where do our Indian men fit on this? I’m thinking they’re very far away from being able to match Priyanka Chopra’s saucy declaration that there ain’t nobody like a desi girl. When I pour out my tale of woe at the lack of colour in masculine India, my friend Ajay (a hotshot 20-something investment banker) looks bewildered and replies, “But black is a colour!”
Wisdom dictates that terrain, weather and lifestyle must influence fashion but our desi men, otherwise so smart, don’t appear to have considered that at all. The average Indian man’s dressing is an elementary school collage of colonial hangovers muddled with satellite TV/call center Americana and conflicting geo-religious sensibilities. So there is a basic preference for respectful monikers, collared shirts, full-coverage of limbs and socks with shoes. Over that is laid, a slick gloss of first-name-basis, tee-shirts-to-work, shorts and open sandals. Add to that, conflicting thoughts on use of colour, appropriateness of fit and dusty topography. That’s how we end up with too-tight tee-shirts tucked into shorts sagging under the weight of mobile phone & wallet and ubiquitous socks-with-open-sandals as summer Sunday wear.
Shirts and trousers are worn to work and more often than not, everywhere else too. We count our blessings if the man remembers to match belt colour to shoes, never mind the frequent white (!) socks with formal shoes. While on colour, I want to know what little boys learn in school. From what I can tell, they took the same lessons that girls did. Then why, oh why, haven’t they learnt about shades, matching and clashing?! I’m not even getting into the complications of evolved colours like peach and burgundy. Let’s stick to the basics. Blue, black and maybe gray are part of a colour palette. Brown, cream and yellow are part of another. White stands apart when it pertains to clothing. Mix these and you go the way of the court jester, not the dashing man-about-town.
Fit is another thing that the average Indian man knows nothing about. On one hand, we have the wannabe star types with their ribs (and an occasional paunch) straining out of a body fit tee-shirt and jeans, two sizes too small. On the other hand, there are the teeming majority of men that get by in shirts with shoulders that bag and strain across the stomach at the buttons. These are paired with trousers that suggest that pocket-lining fabric is a key detail to be displayed. End with trouser bottoms that never match from leg to leg. One has lost a few stitches and is trailing thread while the other one is firmly tucked into the back of the shoe.
It is a wonder that more men don’t adopt Indian wear, seeing how it is much better suited to our climates and has enough craftsmanship to place them right up there in global style. But most Indian menswear seems to have gotten slotted into cultural stereotypes. Kurtas have to be heavily embellished and worn only at festivals or ‘traditional’ occasions. FabIndia did try to popularize cotton kurtas but their menswear collection has been dwindling, reflecting consumer response. While women have integrated their prints and fabrics into work wear, casual wear and even club wear, in men’s garments these remain slotted to the ‘bohemian’ look. In the same vein, mojris and leather chappals are out in full force in the summer but they’re rarely spotted on men. If this is the state of the country’s most basic, customizable garment, there’s nothing to be done about the achkan, bandgala and chudidaar. The Indian man has consigned them to history.
Metrosexuality was an attempt to bring men into the style-conscious consumer segment and it has had its takers. Even so, it finds support only in very niche segments. There are models, actors & others in professions of glamour and high visibility, who frequent styling salons. And there are openly gay men, given to expressing their dandiness. It is a rare Indian man who doesn’t fall into either of these categories and still takes pride in personal grooming.
My rant was momentarily stemmed when I spoke to my friend and hairstylist (of course, any sensible woman knows a stylist can only be a friend and vice versa). Himanshu Pal, a (straight) stylist in one of the few unisex styling salons in the city has this to say:
”Women comprise the bulk of our clientele. But there are more and more men coming in these days. And it’s not just students but also older men in their 30s and 40s. The difference is that men usually know exactly what they want and do not like to waver from that idea. Women are more experimental and like to try out different cuts, styles and colours.”
So it is not about disinterest as it is about habit? Why does that sound familiar? Men don’t like dithering over dozens of options (Shopping anyone? Huh? Where did he go?) Once a look or even a garment is decided, it is set and doesn’t brook rethinking.
Where the Indian man redeems himself in the fashionasta’s critical eyes is when it comes to his accessories. Even the most indistinctive man who appears to never have heard of a mirror, will take pride in his bag, his wallet, his belt or at the very least, his mobile phone. Scratch the surface and you find you have to give it to him for his facial hair styling. Whether by imitation or convenience or vanity, most men have a certain way they prefer to wear their facial fuzz (or not) and that by definition, is the essence of personal grooming.
Interestingly, all the men I spoke to, confirmed the fact that Indian men dress for their women. From better clothes to smoother shaves, it’s all about keeping the ladies in their lives satisfied (and possibly, from nagging them on their days off). That does seem to tie in with what I know of various male friends who suddenly look cleaner, fitter and sprucier after the entry of a woman into their lives.
As we got to this discovery, the door to the café opened and three men walked in. They were all in their 50s, presumably out to enjoy an evening coffee with their friends. The first gentleman entered sporting a bright purple kurta and pristine white pyjamas. It was the most colourful garment in the café and the only traditional one. He was followed by a dignified man who sauntered in, in a grey tee-shirt over casual six-pocket shorts and clean floaters. The third one plodded in behind gold-framed spectacles, clad in an oversized white tee-shirt teamed with tiny nylon shorts (the kind you see on a track athlete) and chappals. It was a perfect illustration to our conversation. One staunch traditionalist defiant-but-comfortable, one all-western high flier and one man stuck somewhere in between.
Two out of three isn’t too bad, actually. 66% makes a passing grade. So I conclude that on the fashion test, the Indian man makes the cut but has awhile to go before he becomes cutting edge.