The Madras lookbook

Chennai is not the country’s fashion capital. Not that we are sighing, sobbing and losing sleep over it... we are cool like that, you see.  But that doesn’t mean we in Chennai aren’t trendy. From haute couture to individualistic street styles, we do it all.

New fashion sensibilities permeate the city and we accept and flaunt them. What also exists side by side are the traditional elements, and of late, it’s these that have taken on a contemporary form. Here is our pick of fashion trends inspired by Chennai.

Kanchipuram silks

This one’s a no-brainer, right? For years, Usha Uthup, with her trademark Kanjeevaram saris and malli poo, has taken the quintessential Chennai look to wherever she’s travelled. Actor Rekha, yet another diva with roots in this city, is always seen in heavy silks. And you thought Rajinikanth with his cigarette-tossing-sunglass-flipping skills was the only style icon we had? Kanjeevaram silks have a huge fan following, but it’s not just the saris. It’s all about reinventing tradition. Designer Pritha Agarwal’s label, Asat, fashioned a collection of sleeveless, buttoned-down jackets and gilets out of Kanjeevarams. The elaborate borders from the saris were used on tunics, anarkalis and palazzos. “It’s a tricky fabric to use, but also very sturdy with a weft count of 240,” says Pritha, who works extensively with the fabric. In 2008, Rehane Yavar Dhala’s Space-age Sundari (her line for Wills Lifestyle India Fashion Week) had vibrant outfits with strong South Indian aesthetics created from this fabric. And the fad continues, with a host of stylistas choosing to transform yards of this into trendy silhouettes, thereby slipping into the best of both worlds.


Crisp, white and a favourite with the city’s politicians, the veshti found international love when singer Akon wore it on a visit to Chennai. Cricketer Dwayne Bravo got adventurous too and sported one for a music video; yeah, the one where he shows ample legs while skilfully managing his veshti.

It’s light, airy and perhaps the most common garment worn by men in the city. A staple at weddings and auspicious occasions, there are even themed parties that have revellers wearing their whites in the funkiest styles. And then there are those who jazz up the pristine white piece of clothing with embellishments, a dash of colour or by dyeing it in a particular shade and matching it with sneakers and shades. It’s popular among those settled abroad; no wonder, has them selling at $ 35.

To make life easier, there are dhotis with pockets and velcro attached — hurrah, no more having to bother with tying it right and tight. Because honestly, if your shoelace comes undone, it’s alright, but it’s never the same with your veshti!

Madras checks

The Scots have the tartan; we have the Madras checks. From handkerchiefs and lungis to shirts and even jumpsuits, this print is literally ubiquitous. Around for centuries, it was first introduced to the U.S. in 1902 by Brooks Brothers, an American brand launched in 1818.

“It was marketed as ‘India Cloth’. It was perceived to be a colourful, exotic, and desirable novelty fabric that was extremely cool and comfortable for the humid summers in the United States,” says Glen Hoffs, Men’s Fashion Director at Brooks Brothers.

According to the brand’s archives, it was first used in the early 1900s in their line of sleepwear. “We found an ad we had placed in the Yale Gazette where we marketed the colourful cloth to the young men of the Ivy League institution in 1902. By the 1920s, we had expanded our line of leisurewear and had shirts, trousers, shorts, robes, pocket squares, ties and bows in Madras checks. Being lightweight and breathable, besides the way it takes colour, and even more notably, how it ages over time, has made it a perennial favourite,” adds Hoffs.

That explains why fashion houses globally incorporate Madras checks in their designs. For example, The IOU Project, a Madrid-based designer label that sources materials from weavers in Tamil Nadu. Shorts, little strappy dresses, skirts and even footwear are covered in these cheerful checks.

Tamil alphabet

Masaba Gupta and her quirky ideas! She took the Tamil alphabet, one of the oldest scripts, and used it on her clothes — wispy saris, tunics with long slits, jackets, dhoti pants… Even Priyanka Chopra couldn’t resist getting hold of one of those. In Chennai, Raji Anand incorporates the same in her creations. It’s not just Tamil words and alphabets; Raji also uses motifs such as autos with TN registration, Bharatanatyam and mridangams. “Apart from clients here, I also have a lot of NRIs who want to take back a piece of Chennai, and this works perfectly for them,” she adds. Fans of these prints have takers even in Delhi Pune, Odisha, Kolkata, London, Muscat, Dubai…

Kolam-inspired prints

For those new to Chennai, most mornings are spent in awe, looking at those intricate white patterns outside people’s houses — we are referring to kolams. Replicating them may not be the easiest task, but these designs find their way to outfits or as tattoos, nail art or mehendi. They are also used as home décor, and as prints on candles and furniture. Designer Raji Anand, whose creations celebrate all things Chennai, uses kolam prints on her saris.

Half sari

Talk about Chennai-inspired fashion and what you often hear of is the half sari. Deepika Padukone probably made it well-known to the rest of the globe when she wore it in Chennai Express. Now, there are more fun variations. Anamika Khanna’s rich cream-and-black half sari with a striking red border garnered enough eyeballs to set the trend rolling.

“I design quite a lot of funky half saris and team them with palazzo and dhoti pants. Sometimes the length of the skirt is shorter. Around 40 per cent of my clients have experimented with my half saris,” she adds.

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Printable version | Nov 28, 2021 11:02:32 PM |

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