Out of all the visuals that persist in my memory, one of the precious images is that of maternal grandmother sitting in her large verandah, her translucent skin and silver hair bathed in light, slightly hunched over her sewing machine, gently paddling to keep it going. She was widowed when I was three years old and, as was custom, replaced her wardrobe with white saris thereafter.
She would buy the material – almost always organza, starch it, stitch the ends and then spend days embroidering small flowers on the fabric – tiny bits of colour that she held on to. I remember the flowers vividly for how accurately they embodied her grace and resilience.
The sarees of my grandmother’s widowhood were my first introduction to personal style but I was too young to recognize this at the time.
What is Fashion if Not Influence?
My initiation into consciously thinking about fashion and style did not happen until I was a teenager. I was a voracious reader, and in the absence of social media, cable TV, and fashion magazines, portraits of my favourite writers became my style inspirations. Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald’s celebration of the Années folles, Joan Didion photographed by Julian Wasser in front of a yellow Sting Ray Corvette in a long louche dress and a piercing unsmiling gaze, Dorothy Parker, who Christopher Hitchens would describe as the “rebel in evening clothes”, Truman Capote’s extravagant black and white ball, and James Baldwin’s statement overcoats and fierce eyewear drew me to the potential of self-expression through clothes.
In the years to come, early literary influences were layered with music, movies, art and travel – a touch of punk rock, Klimt’s gold, Van Gogh’s brush strokes, Dali’s whimsy, Andy Warhol’s brave new world, Meena Kumari in Pakeezah, Marlene Dietrich’s androgynous avatar, Wes Anderson’s colour palette, people-watching from the cafes of Paris, Helmut Newton’s male gaze, and everything Art Deco.
A Wardrobe is a Museum of the Self
As the influences got more complex their translation into my personal style could no longer be literal. I went from recreating looks of people I looked up to, to focusing on how clothes made me feel and what they helped me channel.
My wardrobe, curated very slowly and very deliberately, began to take the shape of a personal museum of my growth and my journey. I followed the runways avidly but could never get myself to take cues from them because clothes had become a way for me to keep in touch with every single person I am and used to be – to break the strictures of time and space and assimilate the intangible riches of the world into a couple of cupboards.
My closet is also a physical manifestation of memories and an unconventional library of stories. I can walk in and pick up a piece of clothing at random and it will transport me to the places I wore it - bringing back feelings, tastes, smells, and sights that I had no idea were still lurking in my mind. To throw away any of one of these pieces would be to throw away more than I can account for.
Curious Case of a Tattered T-Shirt
Take for instance, a black and white T-shirt with Dali’s face on it and his words – “everything alters me, but nothing changes me.” I bought it at a traveling exhibition of Dali’s paintings in London’s Southbank. His work and artistic philosophy had fascinated me for a while but this was the first time I was seeing his paintings in person. I was a law student with a part time job as a barista but that exhibition convinced me that I needed more art in my life and I applied to the National Gallery for a part time position.
On the first day of the new job, I wore the Dali T-shirt with an old pair of jeans and a black suede coat and to date, when I see the T-shirt, I can tune into the naïvete and excitement of the girl who walked up the steps to the National Gallery all those years ago. Years later, I was wearing it when I suffered a somewhat serious injury in Bombay and was alone to fend for myself, and then, again, on an evening that would be the start of a long tumultuous relationship. This T-shirt is now in tatters but I cannot bear to part with it.
‘Vaccine’ for the Fast Fashion Pandemic
The inability to discard even a single piece of clothing means I can rarely add new pieces to my wardrobe, and when I do, I have to be sure I will love them for years to come. This approach to style has inoculated me against the pandemic of fast fashion – buying affordable and trendy clothes in bulk and wearing them merely a couple of times before throwing them away.
The joy of a sanctuary that offers me refuge and restores my confidence to be myself with all my contradictions is far greater than a wardrobe by the ‘gram, of the ‘gram, for the ‘gram. The privilege of being able to wear clothes that have, over the years, acquired the essence of my personality, is more precious than discounts over sale season. The need to be able to tell my own story is more pressing than the need to present myself in the latest trends.
History Never Goes Out of Fashion
Even so, last year, I found myself in need of a somewhat new wardrobe. I was getting married and that called for a trousseau. The pièce de résistance of the trousseau is, of course, the wedding dress and the search for one took me to every single reputable design house in Delhi and Bombay. The clothes I got to see, for most part, retained the essence of tradition while incorporating the mood of the season in terms of the ‘it’ colours, silhouettes, and embellishments. The influence of a number of much talked about celebrity weddings cast a perceptible shadow over the collections. There were any number of exquisite pieces but not one that could tell my story.
Eventually, I turned to weavers from Benaras, from my home state of Uttar Pradesh, and commissioned a vermilion red saree with Shikargah motifs hand embroidered in gold zari.
Watching the sari come to life in the hands of artisans who spent days hunched over the fabric brought back memories of my grandmother. By wearing something she could easily have worn, and her mother before her, I had wrapped myself in history and the thing about history is that it never goes out of fashion.
(Pragya Tiwari is a Delhi-based writer. She tweets at @PragyaTiwari. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses, nor is responsible for them.)
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