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Modi's fashion sense is a welcome relief

By Mahendra Ved
Last updated on: May 29, 2015 16:57 IST
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His sartorial taste is not something he acquired suddenly as the chief minister or the prime minister.  His “god-given” dress sense is like his politics: inventive, imaginative if slightly unconventional, often loud. It goes well with his oratory, robust persona and penchant for coining terms, says Mahendra Ved.

Diplomacy and dress may seem just two alliterative words, but they complement each other; Prime Minister Narendra Modi has shown that during his visit to China and the Far-East. He must easily rank as the first Indian leader to be seen in China in a traditional shawl and garish orange kurta amidst terracotta warriors and colourfully dressed Chinese children lined up to welcome him.

The closest, yet far away, parallel one can think of is the late President R Venkataraman. Visiting the Great Wall, he donned a striped shirt with open collar, a camera strung around his neck. That is as informal as our leaders get while abroad on official trips. Being from the East and interacting with the West has always posed a problem. 

Jawaharlal Nehru shed his Western suit, hat and all, after his first couple of foreign visits as prime minister. He switched to the achkan with a red rose in the buttonhole. Meticulous about presenting the best to the outside world, he insisted that President Rajendra Prasad switch to the churidar and shed the short dhoti, fluttering inelegantly while in an open, windy space like the airport. 

Indira Gandhi set high standards with her elegant saris. To this day the gossip goes that her elder daughter-in--law and Congress chief Sonia ‘inherited’ them. Both women are known for wearing saris that reflect local handloom and craft traditions during their visits around the country. But after Indira, later prime ministers from Rajiv Gandhi to Manmohan Singh wore staid attires.

Those from the North, like Vishwanath Pratap Singh, unknowingly followed Nehru. I K Gujral’s Fez cap and Lenin-esque beard did mark him out as somewhat different, but he dressed conventionally. In any case, there were not too many “photo-ops” for them while not engaged in formal meetings. 

Think of Jackie Kennedy, by contrast. Or of Margaret Thatcher, who was known around the fashion world for her feminine consistency through her signature pearls and bows. Her wearing pearls on an afternoon while addressing the Indian Council of World Affairs was, however, criticised by the fashion enthusiasts who insisted that pearls are to be worn in the evening.

Thatcher used clothing to help create a variety of personas from housewife to the Iron Lady, and to build relationships overseas and send political messages. She was initially resistant about focusing on dress in her public life, but over time learned to adapt and master the dress to suit certain political ends and help craft a dominant and secure political status.

Indira and Margaret had little in common though, but got on well.  In the American presidential race again, Hillary Clinton was very aware of the image she had created leading up to her campaign for presidency in 2008. Even before running for president, as senator she strived to exude a more masculine appearance in order to distinguish herself from the hyper-feminine appearance she had created as First Lady.  

When transitioning to a campaign for presidency, she valued the masculine lawyer-esque persona she had created. Yet she knew she also had to connect with her feminine side in order to appeal to the everyday woman as wife and mother. She did this rhetorically in her initial campaign announcement speech, yet appearance-wise the masculine image took over and the balance with the feminine was not maintained.

As for Modi, whatever else may be said of his achievements or the absence of them in the year he has been prime minister, he has certainly displayed high sartorial standards. His taste and choice are arguable, but cannot just be ignored. He has been a stickler for the norms, though. Political gossip has it that he asked a Union minister going on an official foreign trip wearing a pair of jeans to return home and change. 

He donned an orange shawl, a colour identified with his party, the BJP as also with ‘Hindu nationalism’, while receiving US President Barack Obama and snatched some admiration from him even in comparison with First Lady Michelle. Modi changed his dress thrice a day during that high-profile visit, while Obama, by contrast, would be in the same dark suit and tie.

Modi’s monogrammed suit did generate as lot of criticism, though. Many thought it was garish, lacking in taste and inappropriate considering that India remains a country of millions of poor people. It was described as “dus lakh ka suit” (costing a million). It is said the suit-length probably came as a gift from some NRI acolyte and was stitched locally -- not Saville Row-level and price. 

But there was scope for criticism and it was just as well that Modi had it auctioned, the proceeds going to charity. This suit, obviously, is at the back of Rahul Gandhi’s description of the Modi government as a “suit-boot ki sarkar.” 

One may ask why Rahul, two decades his junior, is not going colourful. Even Mayawati, who claims to represent the poor and the Dalit  -- more than Rahul can -- dresses colourfully, with jewellery and all. Rahul probably does not think that would help his pro-poor image and would take away his brownie points against Modi. 

Whether or not his government is engaged in demolishing Nehru’s ideas, Modi certainly has appropriated the Nehru jacket, stitching it in vibgyor hues with turbans to match. It is now a “Modi jacket” going with “Modi kurta”. Much like the Nehru jacket, his half-sleeved kurta has entered the global fashion lexicon from the realm of Indian politics. Looked at politically or from a fashion standpoint, it is no mean achievement.  

There isn’t a social gathering these days without men in “Modi jackets.” It has impacted the country’s men’s fashion scene in a big way. When poor, Modi was known to carry a comb in his pocket, always. He would press his simple clothes with burning charcoal placed in a lota, the round-bottomed vessel. 

Thus, his sartorial taste is not something he acquired suddenly as the chief minister or the prime minister.  His “god-given” dress sense is like his politics: inventive, imaginative if slightly unconventional, often loud. It goes well with his oratory, robust persona and penchant for coining terms. 

Should he wear a tie? Critics have panned his appearance in formal jackets minus a tie or jacket with polo-neck jumper during his European tour. Here Modi appears one with the Indian PMs before him who have shunned the tie. His moorings may be in a conservative party, but he displays a liberal fashion sense. He believes in the Gujarati proverb that says a man’s worth is determined by what he wears.

Image: Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the terracotta warriors museum in Xi'an, China. Photograph: Courtesy MEA on Flickr

Courtesy: The Hans India

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