Since time immemorial, human beings have used dress to set themselves apart. There’s something primal and innate in our desire to preen. From ancient times, when kings and queens had elaborate costumes and court pageantry was at its zenith, to the advent of gilded-age aristocracy and 20th- century high society, clothing is what distinguished us from the ordinary — a way to stand out and be seen.
From Mughal emperors and France’s Louis XIV to the extreme no-fuss style of today — think Steve Jobs in his black jeans and turtlenecks — fashion and style have proven to be obsessive pursuits. Don’t forget that 400 years ago, Indian chintz was so prized as dress material by European women that royal courts in England and France either banned or taxed the fabric heavily to protect their own textile industries. Fashion is, after all, big business.
And as ephemeral as fashion is, style, on the other hand, endures. Hard to decode and pin down, style is something towards which we all strive because it reflects our personality and how we choose to express ourselves. In the late 19th century, Oscar Wilde made his mark as a writer through his celebrated essay, ‘The Philosophy of Dress’, in the New York Tribune, in which he extolled the virtues of dressing simply. At the time, Western women’s fashion was all frills, bows, corsets and layers of fabric, making dressing an elaborate ritual and movement difficult. Through the Rational Dress Society, which Wilde’s wife Constance championed, Victorian-era women tried to reform the constraints of clothing by encouraging beauty with comfort.
The women of the society would have rejoiced over the fashion revolution brought on by Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel, who transformed women’s wear forever. Taking inspiration from her boyfriend’s wardrobe, Chanel made trousers acceptable women’sclothing, moved silhouettes away from emphasising on breasts and waists and gave the world the little black dress.
While Chanel was hard at work in early 20th-century Paris, in India, too, winds of change were affecting attire. Led by both royalty and social reformers, the nine-yard saree was giving way to the easier-to-navigate six yards, along with Western-style blouses and shirts. Indira Devi of Cooch Behar, born a Baroda princess, cut a stylish swath with her silk chiffon sarees sourced in Paris, while Ruttie Petit, the fabulously wealthy Parsi wife of Mohammed Ali Jinnah, raised eyebrows in Bombay society, with her diaphanous sarees and next-to-nothing (for those days) blouses. These were women who were unafraid to challenge conventional social norms. While Ruttie died far too young at 29, Indira Devi is still considered one of the most stylish women of 20th-century India.
In the pre-internet era, when newspapers, movies and magazines were the only way to disseminate images widely, stars like Hollywood actor Anna May Wong, the first Chinese-American global celebrity, was a fashion icon. In the 1930s, she set trends with her hairstyle and embrace of her heritage. Across the pond in England, Wallis Simpson created waves not merely because of the man she loved, Edward VIII, the King of England, who abdicated the throne for his love. With her high elegance and individuality, severe simplicity and outstanding jewellery, Simpson has endured as one of the most stylish figures of modern times.
The ravages of World War II brought in more shifts, as women liberated themselves from the constraints of the past. Queen Elizabeth II ascended the throne in England at the age of 25 and remained steadfast in her clothing choices of hats, handbags and matching coat dresses. For many women of that era, she was a style icon, though her unwavering devotion to matching everything did not stand the test of time.
While Elizabeth reigned in England, in India, a young Indira Gandhi dominated headlines as a rising politician. She was a simple but fastidious dresser who eschewed the Indian penchant for jewellery and embellishment in favour of handlooms, traditional silks, perfectly coiffed hair and the odd fur coat thrown casually over her shoulders on myriad overseas trips. As one of the most photographed women in the country at the time, her image dominated our lives. It may be hard to imagine today, but one cannot underestimate Mrs. Gandhi’s style influence over generations of Indian women.
The sartorial choices of Maharani Gayatri Devi of Jaipur, a contemporary of the former prime minister, also endured. She took her wardrobe cues from her fabulously fashionable and extant mother, Indira Devi. Whether out riding in her Jodhpurs, regal at court in her chiffon sarees and pearls, or wearing tweeds at her manor in the English countryside, Gayatri Devi is still held up as an embodiment of sophistication. After the staid 1950s, the 1960s ushered in a fashion revolution across the world. Rock n roll, the contraceptive pill, rise in air travel and the expansion of mass media had shaken things up.
In the West, Jacqueline Kennedy was the youngest First Lady in American history. With her pillbox hats, shift dresses and matching skirt-suits, she had millions of women emulating her style. Over in Hollywood, Grace Kelly and Audrey Hepburn were ushering in another revolution. Kelly married a Prince of Monaco and dominated society pages with her sartorial choices, while Hepburn’s collaboration with couturier Hubert de Givenchy continues to offer inspiration of simple elegance even today. In India, Mumtaz’s bouffant, tight churidars and kurtas and figure-hugging sarees were the ultimate in high style.
And then came the 1970s. Bell bottoms, wide lapels, maxi skirts and long hair defined the decade. At home, screen sirens Parveen Babi and Zeenat Aman were fresh, modern trendsetters, and abroad, Jackie Kennedy Onassis, with oversized sunglasses and scarves, and Bianca Jagger in her Halston halter jumpsuits, continued to inspire millions.
Next came a wedding. An iconic one that would change the fashion industry as we knew it. A shy young blonde married a dashing prince, and from the time she entered our living rooms in the first globally televised royal wedding in 1981, Princess Diana stole our hearts and our appearances. From her earliest flouncy gowns and military-inspired outfits, to her ‘revenge’ dresses, the people’s princess was the ultimate pre-Instagram fashion influencer. While designers and fashion glossies continue to revisit her looks, today, her elegant and always-on- point daughter-in-law, Catherine, Princess of Wales, follows in her footsteps and is often compared to her — though she lacks some of the bold clothing choices Diana embraced.
Even as princess style headlined the 1980s, also emerging was pop style, Madonna Louise Ciccone. A Detroit girl who prowled the downtown New York music scene before bursting into popularity with her first albums, she sported headscarves and sundry chains, baring her midriff. Every young girl wanted to be desperately seeking Susan.
Meanwhile, halfway around the world, a stunning Indian movie star was making the traditional cool again.
Rekha brought silk sarees back into fashion, especially Kanjeevarams, as well as gold jewellery, updating a classic look into something quintessentially modern. After years of synthetic six yards, silks were cool again, with Rekha also urging Indian women to treat their bodies like their temples, encouraging fitness training and providing beauty tips at a time when we had little choice on both fronts.
At the same time, a quiet movement from the land of high simplicity was also afoot. Japanese designers like Issey Miyake, who started his career in 1970, as well as Rei Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto in the 1980s, were textile and silhouette innovators. They were purveyors of an understated elegance favoured by the likes of Steve Jobs, who famously bought hundreds of his now famous turtlenecks from Miyake. Another Asian who influenced global style is Chinese-American Vivienne Tam, who, along with David Tang of Shanghai Tang, helped push forth Chinese- inspired design.
The late 20th century ushered in the technological revolution that changed fashion irrevocably. Fast fashion became a reality as supply chains, distribution and logistics used tech to optimise. Runway looks hit high-street racks in days.
Technology also shook up old social hierarchies. Celebrities, whether movie stars, musicians or reality TV stars, became the new trendsetters. With the advent of Instagram and other social media platforms, it’s people like the Kardashians who are now massive style influencers. With their constant facial transformations, coupled with their LA casual daytime attire, the idea of what’s dressed up has turned upside down. If your face is completely done up but you are wearing athleisure, are you well turned out? Yet, the Kardashians’ high-wattage red-carpet appearances propel brands like Balmain into the stratosphere of ultimate cache.
Singer Rihanna is another style icon of our times. Unparalleled, we could say. Her beauty line, Fenty, is a runaway success, while her celebrity is testimony to the huge power a person can wield over the public today. Rihanna’s is a unique and original voice, unafraid to take risks. Women respond to that.
Thanks to social media, our phones today are filled with alluring fashion from around the world. The Gulf is a case in point. Long a luxury-loving market, their royals like Queen Rania of Jordan and Sheikha Moza bint Nasser of Qatar are widely emulated throughout the region. In fact, Sheika Moza can be credited for single-handedly turning the turban into a sought-after accessory for women.
In our hyper-saturated world of constant imagery and ubiquitous fast-fashion, what sets the truly stylish apart is creativity, individuality and, most importantly, given the state of the planet, the ability to recycle. Sustainability is the most pressing issue for fashion, and the truly stylish will increasingly consider how to incorporate eco-friendly practices into their wardrobes.
After all, what you wear helps define you. The flair with which you tie a scarf, accessorise a pair of jeans, style your jewellery, or just make a simple cotton saree your own — that is style! Something to which many aspire, but few achieve.