It’s not too usual to put politician and fashion in one sentence. “Fashion, really? Isn’t that for Bollywood?” an MLA from Kanpur said when I asked him if he would like to discuss if Parliamentarians care about clothing.
The only times we have heard about our politicians’ fashion is when Prime Minister Narendra Modi wore a monogramed suit with his name on it. It went on to become one of the most expensive suits ever auctioned—when a Surat businessman bought it for over Rs 4.3 crore. Or, when Rahul Gandhi wore a jacket in Shillong during the election campaign that was assumed to be from Burberry and cost Rs 70,000.
Now, a 20-something-textile history student who is backed by a coterie comprising of lawyers, a journalist and economists are trying to change that.
What started as a running commentary on a WhatsApp group on “Who wore what” has turned into a full-fledged Twitter handle. The handle that goes by the name @ParlFash dedicatedly tweets about the fashion sense of our ministers in an otherwise boring setup like the Parliament.
So what inspired them into turning into a fashion police of sorts? It definitely isn’t Rahul Gandhi’s jacket. “His dad’s choice to pair his Indian attire with Ferragamos, maybe,” the 20-year-old fashion enthusiast said, adding that it’s just a ‘joke’.
The idea behind the Twitter handle-- that’s a mix of fun, interesting, and often things you wouldn’t notice—stemmed from a concern for the Indian handloom and the idea of promoting the rich textile history. “Particularly, the much lesser known work of indigenous weaver clusters that often don’t capture the imagination of the designer houses and celebrities (whose contribution stops at romanticising, in some cases homogenising the uniqueness of the textiles and of course, making a million bucks on sales) lies at the core of my interest,” he said in an interview with News18.
The 20-year-old who wanted to remain anonymous has received his formal training from Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum in Mumbai.
Why do we need to focus on our leaders’ clothing?
The fashion enthusiast believes that political leaders replaced the role of our “Rajas and Rajpramukhs” who were the patrons of the artisans and weavers. “To us, urban folks, it may be of least consequence but maybe for the cluster that may have produced it, it’s patronage,” he said.
He said that politicians, especially those who represent constituencies of the hinterland, matter because they are often seen wearing not all that bling; but something local, non-designer and in all likelihood a fabric straight from the loom.
“If we were to question and negate the need for focusing on our leaders’ clothing, then the history of the Indian Independence movement will have a huge void. And when persons of consequence sport them, and that makes news, it creates an economy and in some cases, sends out a strong social message,” he said.
The 20-year-old who’s trying to create a conversation around our leaders’ fashion said that most fashion blogs are focused on labels and sizes, and in turn leading to body shaming. That, he said, isn’t the twitter handle’s purpose.
Poonam Mahajan, BJP MP from Mumbai North Central said that she likes wearing something ‘Indian’ even with her Western attire. But she doesn’t feel that clothes make a leader. “You don't need to look like a neta to be a leader,” she said.
Mahajan, who is a member on the board of The National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT), said that it’s important to showcase the varied and rich colours and textiles of India through our clothing. “Even when I go abroad, I try and wear Indian clothes,” she said.
The Gandhis and clothing
Peter Gonsalves, a teacher of social sciences at a Paris university, in his book Clothing for Liberation, had written that Mahatma Gandhi’s discarding of Western fashion was his loudest cry on behalf of colonised humanity and the zenith of his search for sartorial significance.
“The choice for khadi was no arbitrary fashion statement; it was an option for perfect and uncompromising integrity," Gonsalves wrote.
Now we may have come a long way since the whole Khadi movement, but not much has changed. While there is no ‘dressing code’ in the Parliament, there’s an idea on what one should wear and one shouldn’t. And no one wants to cross that line.
Meanwhile, as various foreign publications comment on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s dressing sense, the man handling the Twitter handle feels that the Gandhis and their dressing sense is a very important part of Indian history. “While everyone’s focus is on Rahul’s Burberry jacket, his dad’s government needs to be credited for carving out this Ministry in the first place. And ponder over why a need to do so was felt and acted upon,” he said.
He also said that Indira Gandhi was “incredibly well-versed” with Indian handloom textiles and by sporting them, revitalised the textile-patron space. “Rajiv made that crisp, starched mid-calf kurta cool, fashionable by pairing it with loafers: thereby maintaining “accessibility” and “simplicity” with a sense of elite style,” he added. The Gandhis’ clothing left a trickle-down effect. “The pairing remains a staple in political fashion even to this day; every young male political entrant sports it invariably. Because it serves a purpose,” he said. Who wore it better?
The 20-year-old doesn’t think twice before saying that most of our Parliamentarians are dressed ‘sloppily’. He doesn’t want to call it boring, though. “The BJP leaders are a colourful lot. They wear the brightest of pastels, sometimes mismatch too, but they bring a lot of colour to the Houses,” he said. The Opposition, on the other hand, wears mostly whites and greys, which, he admits, makes the eye ‘sore’.
“Nirmala Sitharaman’s inherent South Indian sartorial simplicity adds great strength to her persona. Whereas Kanimozhi, ever since her comeback, brings some really nice stuff too. Harsimrat Badal, we may say with a degree of certainty, is a force to reckon with: her ensembles are just the kind one in conventional sense calls perfect. Smriti Irani has had a major turnaround since she became the Textiles Minister,” he said.
As far as the men in the Parliament goes, there’s not much of a choice for these fashionistas but Union Minister Prakash Javadekar tops their list. In fact, he has been deemed as the ‘boss’. “To sport fluorescent colours in a pastel template is just gutsy. We enjoyed keeping a watch on Javadakekar, and he never disappointed.”
N. Premachandran, an MP from Kollam also wins the fashion game by pairing his shirt with a mundu. “He is a star in his own right, especially with his school boy enthusiasm to participate in all discussions,” he said.
Will We Break Away from the ‘Adarsh Naari’ and ‘Adarsh Purush’ look?
While Sushma Swaraj has her fashion game spot on, pairing a jacket with each of her saree-blouse ensemble—here’s a thought—are we stuck in a place where our ministers don’t wear more casuals because of a certain ‘image’ that they have to maintain?
That’s not how this 20-year-old fashionista sees it. “From Thatcher to Indira, they all sported conservative looks but set their own trends. That act of subversion by accepting what the system dictates and overturning it to their advantage is what is so fantastic. When we see MPs like Nirmala, Vandana, Maneka, Sushmita, Supriya, Anu, Kavitha, Renuka, Meenakshi, and the list, we see accomplished professionals and now successful politicians and the sari is merely an asset to their persona,” he said.
But, he agrees, that the casuals—whether it’s the printed, polo shirts for men or denims for women—is mostly limited when they are not attending a Parliament session. “They are a lot more casual in their private spaces. Run into them at the Constitution Club gym or for a quick evening soiree, they are not dressed to their hilt but keeping it cool with western casuals,” the 20-year-old said.
BJP leader Poonam Mahajan agreed. According to her, Parliament is “where you have a sense of decorum and you must maintain that.” She said that while she wears sarees to the Parliament, she often sports casuals when she goes to pick up her daughter, or attends a more casual event.