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April 04, 2017

What is the Secret To Being Truly Stylish?

Text by Madhu Jain. Illustration by Gouri Katdare

The innately fashionable know that true style comes from being comfortable in your skin — as well as in your clothes

Like me, my French roommate was on a scholarship in a rather waspish, well, to be frank, snobby, women-only college in New England. Most of the other students were the progeny of rich Americans. And their clothes reflected it. Francoise (let’s call her that) had a spartan wardrobe. Yet, whenever she emerged for an evening out she stood out from the others, despite their Saks Fifth Avenue ensembles. There was a je ne sais quoi aura about her. It was the little touches that made her different — and the inventive way in which she accessorised. Francoise would tie a scarf around her neck and move it to one side, rendering it a bit off-kilter. The same scarf would metamorphose into a belt another day. Occasionally, she wore just one earring. The tilt of her beret would change to suit her mood: this was before berets became commonplace on the American side of the Atlantic Ocean. Likewise, her hair would also somehow always match her changing disposition.

When I went to Paris for further studies at the Sorbonne, there were many Francoises swanning about the Latin Quarter, or other haunts where my meager scholarship francs (before Euro days) could go further. Paris opened my eyes to the fact that it wasn’t what you had but what you did with it that mattered. Jugaad! It was all about curating your own look. But, before that, you have to discover your look and personality. Like Francoise’s long earring worn in just one ear. Years later, I saw author Arundhati Roy with one long, brightly-coloured wooden earring dangling provocatively.

We were in the picturesque town of Carmel in California, long before The God of Small Things and the Booker were even on the horizon. Arundhati had accompanied her partner Pradeep Krishan to a conference sparkling with the bright stars in the literary firmament of the time: Vikram Seth and Amitav Ghosh among others. Little did one know that the debut novel of the reclusive Arundhati, who largely roamed about by herself, would create such enduring ripples.

What she did with her bearing and individual style of dress, Anil de Silva, the late Sri Lankan art historian and co-founder of Marg magazine, along with Mulk Raj Anand, did with colour. She lived in a little one-room flat near Porte de Vanves, in the far-from-luxe part of Paris. She was tiny, middle aged or perhaps even a bit past, but she drew men and women to her modest place — like Winnie-the-Pooh to honey. Anil always wore the thickest silks imaginable in blazing oranges, purples and reds; she dazzled with her charm and outshone everybody in her much-coveted salon. Her cuisine was as legendary as her appearance — and almost as colourful. Those who came and went were Henri Cartier-Bresson, his sister Nicole, Jean and Krishna Riboud, ambassadors, celebrity artists, architects and writers.

The late Padmaja Naidu’s weapon of disarmament was also colour. Anil, a natural raconteur, related fascinating anecdotes about the former governor of West Bengal and close friend of Pandit Nehru. She once shared a coupe with her on a train. When a prominent political personality came on board in Delhi, Anil had to move to another compartment. But not before she saw Sarojini Naidu’s daughter change into a bright red silk sari, put red flowers in her hair, red lipstick on her lips, spread a piece of red silk on the berth and put up makeshift red silk curtains on the train’s windows. (Come to think of it, Christian Louboutin’s iconic and lacquered red-soled shoes signal the sensual power of the colour.)

Closer to home and our times, it is becoming more difficult to craft an individual signature for the self — or to flaunt sartorial idiosyncrasies. You can use Google to curate a ‘look’, but then so can everybody else. One-upwomanship with the help of branded clothing is no longer as satisfying: they are too easily available in our globalised world, even delivered to your doorstep. We have to find new frontiers and battlefields for the fashionistas.

Fashion is increasingly more than brand-deep. Women (and men) come and go talking about handcrafted textiles, weaves and fabrics sourced from across India, including its far-flung corners. Pochampallis, Venkatagiris, Baluchari, Maheswari, kantha embroidery…the wannabe-cognoscenti of indigenous textiles flaunt these words, just as connoisseurs of wine drop the names of regions and producers for certain varietals.

The innately fashionable know that true style comes from confidence in yourself, and in being comfortable in your skin — as well as in your clothes. The way not to go is that of Cinderella’s sisters, who tried to squeeze their chubby feet into her tiny glass slipper. Or, like women with bulging midriffs, shoehorning themselves into skinny jeans — often competing with their anorexic daughters.

I recently got into a bit of a skirmish at a gallery. I was wearing a sari I had taken off a loom in a village near Chettinad in Tamil Nadu. A woman wanted to know where I had bought it and then went on to say that she had a similar sari but hers was the real thing, from a temple. Touché? Perhaps not!

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