Critically Inclined Society

Fashioning fascist hallucinations: decoding the Modi jacket

Symbolising royalty

Symbolising royalty   | Photo Credit: PTI

There are complex messages in the Prime Minister’s sartorial choices

There are many riveting narratives in literature of hallucinatory experiences. My favourite one with a comical twist is called ‘The Face on the Wall’ by E.V. Lucas. The narrator describes a time when he fell seriously ill and, confined to the four walls of his pokey room on a street in London, found his attention mesmerically drawn to a patch on the wall that assumed the shape of a human face. It was so realistic he was convinced it resembled a real person. Even after he recovered, he stayed obsessed with the face and actively began searching for this ‘person’, until one day, he stumbled upon a magical link between the patch on the wall and a person. I won’t reveal the climax nor the comical denouement, but I invoke this story to describe a similar experience I had a month ago.

On a week-long lecture trip to the M.S. University, Baroda, I was laid low by a steady 102° temperature over the entire duration of my stay. By the third day, I was feeling like a character floating out of Udta Punjab. There was no respite from the three to four hours of daily classes, which happened through a heavy haze.

Jackets on the wall

The rest of the time, totally exhausted, I was cooped up in my pokey and glum guesthouse room, with similar patches on the wall where the plaster was peeling. Fitful sleep patterns, acute joint pains, loss of appetite, heavy head, runny nose, rheumy eyes, eyelids struggling to stay open. And through this feverish gaze, I began to ‘see’ a continuous chain pattern of Modi jackets all over the wall.

This was partly triggered, obviously, by the fact that Modi jackets (MJs) have become ubiquitous in Baroda’s landscape. Wherever your eyes turn, you encounter it in some form or the other. As I was driven from guesthouse to the lecture hall and back; to a dingy hospital for some tests and back; to a friend’s house and back, through the pointillist haze coating my eyes, I was seeing an awesome display of MJs everywhere — which then took on a surrealist life of their own on the walls of my room.

Some manifestations of MJs in Baroda shops are bizarre. Take, for example, the farsan shop-window, which has dhoklas arranged like the said MJ, with green chillies inserted down the middle to resemble buttons. Or the kite shop down a narrow lane, with a range of kites with round collars and arms that can become flying MJs. Or a restaurant announcing ‘South Indian’ food, which has a figure with a 56” belly, fitted into a tight, red MJ. Or the toy shop at the circle, with a teddy bear grotesquely fitted into a politically savvy MJ. A few shops away is a tailor’s den with a phalanx of pastel MJs on plastic hangers swinging in the breeze, some with designer buttons and shiny piping. In shop after readymade garment shop, male, female and child mannequins are togged up in MJs, producing a fervid uniformity of dressing that seems like the death of fashion and imagination — not to speak of a somewhat severe repudiation of native dress sense.

However, in this city of designers, artists, art schools and art movements, the award must go to the automobile junk shop in one of those desperately grimy looking neighbourhoods where, right at the entrance to the shop, hangs a ‘mobile’ (a hanging sculptural concept, popularised by Alexander Calder) that should make Subodh Gupta chew down his nails in envy — an MJ made of Vespa scooter junk. If, on one traffic circle, they can install a Gir lion made of an assemblage of industrial junk like gear shifts, sprocket wheels, crank-shafts and exhaust pipes — in a quick toadying up to the equally rickety slogan of ‘Make in India’ — why can’t the city’s tinker/ welder community do one better!

Both inside my room and outside, I had to constantly keep shaking my head to ensure I had not entered cuckoo-land without a visa. Then, I’d recover quickly to reason, but I was in cuckoo-land. The final evidence that I hadn’t sniffed too many tea leaves came when I opened a local paper one day to find a group photo of almost a dozen ministers of the Gujarat government arrayed in a line, all sporting the by now inescapable MJ. That’s when I snapped out of my hallucination and began reflecting on how fashion can turn fascist.

There can be no argument over the fact that the MJ has become a form of power dressing. In the Narendra Modi cabinet, of course, everyone announces their proximity to power and their alignment to a particular ideology and an individual by appearing in the mandatory MJ — even Sushma Swaraj. This obsession with a specific style or look and a specific kind of grooming or appearance has been central to fascist processes for the past 80-odd years. One cannot equate it with, say, the universal donning of khadar and the Gandhi cap during the Swadeshi movement. That was a sign of protest and an assertion of the resistance to machine-made goods that helped imperial rule.

Power dressing

The fascist ‘black shirts’ of Italy/ Germany or the black caps and khaki shorts of the RSS closer home, on the other hand, indicate a certain affinity to unofficial militarisation which, when massed together, as in a street march, serve the purpose of inducing fear and terror in the minds of the average citizen. This deliberate choice of a brutalist fashion functions as a tacit mode of making a social statement. As Leni Riefenstahl’s propaganda film Triumph of the Will on the 1934 Nuremberg rally of the Nazi party showed, when you mass and bunch together colours, forms and uniforms in sheer quantity, with the intention to overwhelm, you give birth to what Susan Sontag pithily described as ‘Fascinating Fascism’.

Fascism understands and manipulates the potential of fashion in terms of art, form, identity and expression. The consistency of Modi’s Independence Day speech outfit over the past three years is fast assuming this semiotic.

The feudal headgear, with a generous streamer at the back, at once a symbol of nominal royal power and caste dominance, has been uncritically accepted in both the media and the public sphere. This, combined with the jacket, swiftly converts the body as a site of performance in the public space — a performance that choreographs power into an identifiable dress code.

In Fashion under Fascism: Beyond the Black Shirt, author Eugenia Paulicelli deftly traces the fascist origins of contemporary popular brands like Gucci, Prada, Max Mara, etc. It’s time our critical fraternity here decoded the complex messages in the sartorial signals being emitted by the politically powerful in our times, which the market and popular culture reifies and absorbs. The provocative actor Maya Krishna Rao does a rip-roaring send-up of Modi headgears. It’s time to unbutton the Modi jacket. Even as a hallucination.

The writer believes the best book on fashion is Moti Chandra’s Pracheen Bharat ki Vesh-Bhusha, which describes some tree-bark garments that would put Lady Gaga to shame

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Printable version | Feb 21, 2020 4:03:27 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/fashioning-fascist-hallucinations/article19523278.ece

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