On The Plus Side
Encouraged by a prominent fashion campaign’s inclusion of a curvy model in high-end bridal couture — a segment that is usually showcased on those who can fit into unrealistically sized designer samples — Shreemi Verma offers her take on why this kind of
representation matters for Indian women.
This year on International Women’s Day, fashion designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee posted two pictures on his Instagram account. The images featured a woman who didn’t look like either Anushka Sharma or Priyanka Chopra — actors I’d constantly been seeing on his page because he had designed their wedding outfits.
The model, Varshita Thatavarthi, wasn’t skinny, she wasn’t fair, and she didn’t look like someone I’d usually see on a designer’s Instagram but more like someone I’d know, someone from my social circle who enjoys carbs as much as I do. Thatavarthi’s inclusion caused a stir online; some lauded Mukherjee’s decision while others called it tokenism. I noticed her on his page again that August and September. It was refreshing to see a dusky, curvy girl regularly popping up on my timeline, in Sabyasachi outfits, looking absolutely sexy — a word not often associated with ‘fat’ people.
Which brings me to the question: are fashion designers finally waking up to the reality that there is more than one body type in India?
The wave of international fashion, which flooded our market and the movies, came after liberalisation in the ’90s. Brands became cool in India; as ‘cool’ as the necklace Shah Rukh Khan tragically wore in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998).
The aspirations of the Indian middle class increased, and so did their need to be validated by luxury brands and popular designers. People saved up to buy Louis Vuitton for that famed LV logo emblazoned on the products.
The diktats of high fashion still don’t demand that a trend or design suit the consumer, rather that the consumer needs to self-improve to be deemed ‘worthy’ of the product.
In a recent interview, designer Falguni Peacock said that plus-size brides should “work on themselves” if they want to look good on their wedding day:
“I won’t blatantly tell her to lose weight, but you have enough time and you can work on yourself. It is pretty easy to lose a couple of inches if you want to.”
When asked for a solution if the bride-to-be was unable to lose weight, she responded:
“Long blouses, more flared lehngas and not fitted because fitted won’t really work when you’re a little big. No deep necks for them, maybe more higher.”
What she said was nothing new. Girls who don’t have the ‘ideal’ body weight deal with such ‘advice’ all their lives. Fat girls can’t be attractive, you see? Thanks to backlash online, Peacock issued an apology the next day.
Today, social media has changed the game when it comes to literally everything that matters to us, including our jobs, our food and our clothes. An active Instagram account with a sizeable number of followers is sufficient for designers to promote their work, and on a medium as robust as that, if a big name like Mukherjee shows a plus-size bride dressed as beautifully as a sample-size model, it helps in changing public perceptions.
But can all designers do this? Pawandeep Thukral Desa, whose label, PWN Clothing, creates custom-made designer outfits for women and children, told me that “Indian women are primarily curvy. We genetically have bigger hips and breasts. But every PR person has told me to feature only thin girls. Fashion has aspirational value, we sell a fantasy. Lots of girls who come under the plus-size category, sadly, have body image issues. I’ve had clients insisting on trying out clothes even when they know it’s not their size — I’ve heard seams tear while they’re in the changing room. My customers know that if they like something which isn’t available in their size, another one can be made one for them, but it becomes a matter of ego. It’s difficult to break down years of conditioning”.
She sees the need for fashion designers to help break the stereotype that only thin girls are beautiful. “I completely agree [with that], but at this early stage, I don’t have a loyal clientele. If I post an Instagram photo of a plus-size girl and another of a thin girl, the thin girl will get more likes, irrespective of the outfits. If big designers take the onus of featuring plus-size models, like Sabyasachi did, then that will definitely help budding designers like me to take the leap. But it is a trickle-down effect, until the stalwarts do it, we don’t really stand a chance.”
People on social media called out Mukherjee’s post as a PR tactic. Which, sure, it might have been, but users often forget that the conversation around body positivity is still in its nascent stages in India. Even if it was a marketing strategy, is that so bad? Women already deal with so much else during weddings. Visa officers probably scrutinise documents less than Indian society scrutinises a bride.
Rashmi Daryanani, the strategy head of branded content at MissMalini, is going to be married soon. She isn’t a plus-size girl, in fact, Daryanani could carry off most outfits you’d find in a store. Despite that, her experience has not been ideal. She recounts, “Every bride-to-be wants to look at herself in the mirror and feel incredible — but that’s really hard to do when, day after day, you’re just trying to squeeze yourself into outfits that don’t seem designed to fit a normal human body. I consider myself fairly average-sized, and still most designers didn’t seem to keep my size. One designer’s assistant even bluntly told me that there was probably nothing in the store that would fit me, and that made me feel awful for days after. Honestly, it doesn’t make sense for designers to keep only sample sizes. Every single outfit I purchased came from a designer whose outfits I could immediately fit into. I just felt better when I wore them. It just seems like better business to make your customers feel good!”
Hopefully, after this becomes the new normal, Mukherjee won’t be lauded as a visionary but as a socially conscious designer who simply wanted to showcase the variety he’s capable of creating.
It’s ultimately all about representation. Knowing that there are stunning outfits available for brides who don’t have alabaster skin or waists tinier than my arm will definitely make me more confident on what will be one of the most special days of my life. If I don’t have to go on a liquid diet to fit into my outfits, the photographs in the wedding album might actually be of a woman who is truly happy.
FIT FOR A BRIDE
Taking inspiration from cultures across the country, Verve portrays the Indian bride the way we imagine her today — unapologetically distinctive, authentic and unconstrained by convention.
PHOTOGRAPHED BY TENZING DAKPA. STYLING BY AKANKSHA PANDEY. MUSE: REBECCA ANDERSON. PHOTOGRAPHER’S ASSISTANT: TUHIN CHANDRA. HAIR: SONAM SINGH, FEAT.ARTISTS; ASSISTED BY SIDDHARTH GOGOI. MAKE-UP: SHREYA SRIVASTAVA, FEAT.ARTISTS. DRESSMAN: SHAIKH MOHAMMAD AZIM.
*Stylist’s Note: I have been styling shoots for eight years now, and this one was particularly eye-opening for me. I was taken aback by the difficulty of sourcing plus-size occasion wear and found myself confronting the fashion industry’s lack of regard for diversity in a much more significant way than I have had to do before. The standard of beauty for women, while being challenged now, is still largely unrealistic. My goal is to normalise the representation of different body types in fashion, where curviness is still treated like a disability. With this shoot, I was able to realise the vision of inclusivity as the norm and create thoughtful looks while keeping in mind the interaction between body, clothing, and occasion.