The fashion of politics

Oh, Justin Trudeau. Was enough said about your wardrobe on that endless India tour? We say yes. India, social media, and Omar Abdullah all agreed it was a bit much. But there is a silver lining. An opportunity. A road not taken. Yet.

It is the chance to examine the sartorial choices of our own politicians. No, not the disasters, the good ones. A chance to be properly appreciative of the style our politicians have and the people who have it. To fill the dark hole left behind by the ‘what-on-Earth-was-he thinking?’ Trudeau pictures with images of our young and stylish power players.

Who might these be? Do we actually have such an animal? Yes, we do, though they are as rare as the one-horned rhino. So, in no particular order: former Jammu & Kashmir chief minister Omar Abdullah (47); Congress scion Priyanka Gandhi Vadra (46); President of the Rajasthan Pradesh Congress Committee, Sachin Pilot (40); Union Cabinet Minister of Food Processing, Harsimrat Kaur Badal (51); Congress MP Jyotiraditya Scindia (47); and Samajwadi Party MP from Kannauj, Dimple Yadav (40), former Uttar Pradesh CM Akhilesh Yadav’s wife. (This isn’t a definitive list; mail us if you would like to add to it.)

That rare breed

In fashion, there is a phrase that is used ad nauseum and it applies to “effortlessly stylish”. That a few people will always look smart whether they wear things off the street, traditional garb, or designer wear from international brands. It is, like the thin, tall, flawless-skinned models, an anomaly of nature.

It is a short list, of course, because politicians with style are an endangered species, and young politicians with style... it is a tough find. Politicians are not style icons; they are not expected to be. Their clothes are part of their message that they are women or men of the people. They have uniforms: in the West, it is the suit — trouser or skirt — while in India, it is the white kurta pyjama and bundi for men, and a sari for women.

The fashion of politics

And yet, some of them do better than others even within these. It is like being in school and watching for the tweaks — has that skirt been tightened, are they wearing sneakers, and have the socks been rolled down? Who looks best in uniform then? And who has thrown it out of the window?

Staying mostly between the lines are Sachin Pilot and Jyotiraditya Scindia, whose campaign appearances are in the white kurta-black bundi, though the former has changed the look up with a gilet. Khadi has also been replaced by linen on occasion. Kurta lengths vary — Scindia goes from mid-thigh to knee, Pilot’s are usually at knee-length. Both slip effortlessly into western wear when the occasion demands; Pilot more often publicly than Scindia, though points to the latter for wearing ceremonial outfits with aplomb.

“Sachin Pilot is dashing, handsome, tall, and fills out a suit nicely. He is fairly conservative in his dress sense, with the exception of the odd pocket square,” says Delhi-based fashion writer and editor Varun Rana. “Jyotiraditya Scindia has more style chops. He does bright colours, cool aviators, bracelets — he has that rakish prince vibe going for him.”

The right balance

It is a truth universally acknowledged that Omar Abdullah ticks all the boxes when it comes to style. He is that rare politician who is not afraid to show that he owns a variety of clothes, and wears them appropriate to the occasion. That is why you have seen him in everything from shirts and trousers to the traditional Kashmiri pheran (which he has been credited with bringing back in fashion in the Valley), pathan suit topped by a gilet, to a trench draped over the de rigueur navy suit, sherwanis, and bandhgalas. He even wears hats, from the boat-shaped karakuli to a baseball cap.

The fashion of politics

“Indian politicians are very lucky that the clothes that form their uniform are so elegant. Where they stutter is in wearing anything western, but these three are well travelled, well groomed, have international exposure, come from wealth, and they have understood style throughout their lives,” says Ambika Anand, VP Fashion Programming, NDTV Good Times. “They have inherited a sense of style from their families. Plus, they are also young and fit.”

Dimple Yadav is a surprise entrant into the lists. A major campaigner in the 2017 elections, who has carved out a key space in the Samajwadi party, she is a picture of restraint. She has taken the rules of unobtrusive sari wearing and made them her style statement — with monochrome linens and cotton saris in romantic, faded hues. These are paired with three-quarter sleeved blouses, a bindi and centre-parted hair tied in a loose knot at the nape of her neck. Notwithstanding that, it is a look that has quite a debt to pay to the Anavila aesthetic, and she wears it inimitably. “Saris are usually worn as a way to advance a political agenda, but what she is doing is making it cooler and younger,” says Rana. “She wears it the way women her age would and it is resonating with people.”

Accessories and experiments

The Akali Dal’s Harsimrat Kaur Badal is the picture of Punjabi style in well-cut churidar kurtas and salwar suits. The former student of textile design favours pretty spring hues of pinks, greens and yellow, and a dupatta draped over her head. It is her accessories game, however, that is worth noting — from single strands of lustrous pearls to colourful jutties as well as branded extras such as Hermès slides and Tod’s bags. “She has a very fine choice of chunnis, and her salwar suit length and proportions are just right,” says Shefalee Vasudev, editor, The Voice of Fashion, and former editor of Marie Claire. “The textures are fine and hold up her identity; she chooses them very well.”

The fashion of politics

Meanwhile, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra might be following on the path laid out by her grandmother Indira Gandhi, but she has made her own tweaks. “She can be quite eclectic, wearing everything from trousers and shirts to her grandmother’s saris for weddings, salwar kameezes, or jersey tops and saris. She has a contemporary working woman vibe and comes across as a person of today,” says Delhi-based curator and writer Mayank Mansingh Kaul. He is especially fond of her choice of ikats from Orissa, a preference shared by her mother and grandmother, and notes that she wears the auspicious athoor (long gold earrings worn by Kashmiri Pandit women that are like a mangalsutra) to weddings.

“Priyanka chooses her handlooms, and she is understated in her approach; she understands proportions in Indian wear very well,” says Vasudev. Like her mother, Vadra has been known to buy Neeru Kumar’s weaves, but also more contemporary brands like Raw Mango by Sanjay Garg. Part of her collection of saris has been inherited from her grandmother, though she is a more minimalist dresser than the former Prime Minister (no furs, to begin with). “Minimalism is a difficult idea to practise and be consistent with,” adds Vasudev.

Politics and style are not natural bedfellows and nobody here is a trendsetter. But then their wardrobe is not meant for the fashion crowd; people would rather be impressed by what they do than what they wear. Thank god for that.

The writer is the former editor of Harper’s Bazaar India.

The political aesthetic

Poornima Joshi

The cult of khadi and monochrome of our men and women in legislatures is not a stereotype without justification. As a thumb rule, politicians in India convey through their attire what their public utterances usually depict — piety, morality, sobriety, idealism — notwithstanding their actual conduct.

Institutional styles contrast sharply between the two national parties, the BJP and the Congress, both carefully evolved as distinct fashion sub-texts in politics. The Congress, with its Nehru-Gandhi legacy of subdued elegance and Ganga-Jamuni syncretic traditions, is sharply in variance with the BJP’s need to brandish its uber Hindu credentials and organic connect to the country’s Vedic past. Hence, the bright red bindi / sindur underlines the ‘Bharatiya Nari’ persona that Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj and Minister of Information and broadcasting Smriti Irani have carefully crafted for themselves.

Bold statements: Although saffron always dominated the BJP’s public profile, the institutional sub-culture has decidedly been revolutionised by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, with his distinct branding as the 56-inch chested Hindu Hriday Samrat. The quietly avuncular white dhoti-kurta, signifying benevolent Orientalism adorned by Atal Behari Vajpayee, LK Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi, is now permanently preserved in the Margdarshak Mandal. The cadres now follow the leader in their depiction of strong Hindutva. Bright and sometimes pastel half-sleeved kurtas, and colourful pagris, donned by the likes of Arjun Ram Meghwal, the MP from Bikaner and Union Minister of State for Finance, underline the ruling party’s current style quotient.

Subtle yet chic: Clashing with the orange-tinged flashiness is the Congress’ Nehru-Gandhi aesthetic. Jawaharlal Nehru was truly India’s first style icon with a red rose in his sherwani button-hole, a khadi cap donning his forehead, and tight-fitting churidars with closed Peshawari footwear. Rajiv Gandhi introduced cool, contemporary chic to the aesthetic with his introduction of dark shades, sneakers and sleeveless fleece jackets with khadi kurta-pyjamas. And his son, Rahul Gandhi, carries on his stead with his band of peers — Pilot, Scindia, Jitin Prasada et al, all in white tunic-trousers with designer accessories.

The fashion of politics

His sister Priyanka Gandhi Vadra has made her own alterations to grandmother India Gandhi’s adoption of traditional sari weaves from across the country. So while it may be difficult to spot Sonia in anything but straight-jacketed blouses with classic, hand-woven saris, her daughter is not afraid to experiment, albeit subtly. She goes with T-shirt blouses coupled with mostly Sambalpuri or South cotton saris. She is also occasionally spotted in casual trousers and tops — not only when she is shopping in upscale Khan Market, but also when she knows she will be photographed, like when she cast her vote in the 2014 general elections.


Local weaves, dapper designs

Designer Raghavendra Rathore, known for his take on the classic bandhgala, believes politicians, in their own way, walk a thin line between the sartorial style of political India and the fashion of the times. “Many young politicians exude a dapper demeanour, completing their look with a watch, sunglasses, handmade stoles, woven shawls, a cap or an interesting pair of kolapuris.” Having lent his bespoke services to create small wardrobes for young politicians, he says one of their conditions is to use fabrics from native weavers. “These are faces of the new political landscape of India, who have been educated in some of the finest schools and understand style, but want to promote local traditions by mixing them with modern fashion aplomb.” He feels the political look blends well with contemporary fashion trends, like the bandhgala waistcoat and the classic kurta. “But, what is most important, is that the perception of wealth must not interfere with their personalities, which they nurture carefully. So resources must be carefully thought of, and brands and logos must be avoided.”

Visual impact

Style in politics is getting increasingly important, says Che Kurrien, Editor-in-Chief, GQ magazine. “With more people on a visual medium like Instagram, politicians are aware of how they present themselves. Especially as we have a very large youth demographic, who look at fashion and style very differently.” He feels sustainable fashion and handloom is the way forward and “politicians will embrace it over the plain old suit”.

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Printable version | Apr 19, 2021 11:16:58 AM |

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