Heat and dust and a melange of bright colours alternating with the quintessential white could be the mood board for fashion in election season in India if one were to look at the analytics of fashion of politicians as a communication tool. For long, politicians have used clothes, accessories and stylised hair as positions of power to communicate ideologies and identities. Rhetoric, slogans and of course, the fashion. In other words, power can be a relation created through performance, or a residual property of previous or repeated performances, writes Robert Hariman in Political Style: The Artistry of Power.
During the election campaigns, one of the most interesting things is the style stories of women politicians, who have more room to experiment with ambiguity and can be more potentially controversial given the diversity of choice vis-à-vis men who are almost in uniform’ in India with the age old khadi’ kurtapyjama set in white.
While men have been experimental in a contained manner still largely wearing the white kurta-pyjama, which is also distinctly Indian, women politicians have been using their sartorial choices to challenge the marginalisation of feminists in the political sphere by a more measured and confident style that they have made their own. The media’s attention to the fashion choices of women in politics is problematically gendered but compared to men, women politicians in India have mastered the art of political messaging via their sartorial choices such as Priyanka Gandhi Vadra who has always invoked nostalgia with her dressing or former Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh Mayawati, whose style is dictated by the Dalit story of oppression and aspiration.
Sonia Gandhi has been featured on the best-dressed list of many international publications and has been known for her ethnic handspun saris that are very sentimental to rural India. In channelising the same associative fashion technique, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, who has been at the forefront of campaigning, has been seen wearing local weaves as per the place she is in just like her mother who chose chanderi or maheshwari in Madhya Pradesh, or an ikat in Odisha. There is an instant throwback to her grand-mother who also sported short hair and wore woven saris as opposed to zari or even very garish colours. She is an inheritor of her grandmother’s legacy. She knows her country manifested in her choice of weaves. And because Sonia Gandhi has often been referred to as a foreigner’, the daughter and mother both have made it a point to only wear saris for their political appearances. In fact, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra has been wearing red and other bright colours like purple and yellow on campaign tours signalling a subtle shift.
In fact, the power of appearance is something that women politicians have known and used to their advantage in a country as diverse as India. If one looks at the Dalit history of imposed deprivation where they weren’t allowed to wear the sacred thread, Mayawati has hit at the core of identity politics with her handbag, which signifies social and economic mobility. From ponytail to memsaab bob cut, designer handbags, diamond earrings and pink salwarkameez, Mayawati’s sartorial choices echo the aspirations of Dalit empowerment. For her followers, especially the Dalit community, the fact that she can afford a conspicuous lifestyle that was earlier seen as a privilege of the upper caste sends forth a strong message of pride and a sense of achievement. On the other hand, short hair, based on anecdotal views of how it relates to masculinity and rejects gender norms, can also be used as a statement of confidence and strength in a space dominated by men.
From Angela Merkel to Hillary Clinton and Theresa May to Julia Gillard, think of the powerful women leaders across the globe, all of them
sport short hair, says Nandita Abraham, CEO of Pearl Academy of Fashion. In her recent poll campaign rally in Odisha, the BSP leader was seen wearing her customary off-white salwar-kurta. It was perhaps the women’s liberation movement in the mid-1960s with its anti-feminine and anti-fashion message that unisex looks emerged. Mayawati’s chosen silhouette is a reflection of the same.
While Mayawati’s style symbolises aspiration and ambition, Mamata Banerjee’s white saris are an ode to poverty. She is called didi’ and most recently made a strong fashion statement at the Ambani wedding of their daughter, where she wore her customary white sari with her slippers among the sea of people dressed in utmost luxury. She was provocative in her message this is India’s common woman and she can assert her presence everywhere without being unnerved by wealth and capitalism. It also invokes an image of Mother Teresa who wore the customary white sari with a thin blue border. For the common people, it creates an impression of sacrifice of luxurious pleasures that they are clean and has no materialistic desire, they are just there to serve the people and power has not gone to her head.
What I feel is each of them is making a statement of who they are. Clothing is a way to communicate your clothing. For instance, women in Indian politics mostly wear saris. Everyone becomes amma Urmila Matondkar was all flashy and now it is sari and no glamour. Entire politics has that image of Bharat. Sari is very strong. White and khadi have always been strong in india and representative of the freedom movement. White is supposed to symbolise power, says Nandita Abraham.
While the Gandhis are known for minimalist fashion, Smriti Irani, who is heading the textiles ministry in the current government, wears a lot of colours and it works for her because she is representing every part of India. It is fun and vibrant. She has got dynamism, says Sunita Shanker, a Delhibased textile designer. And although chiffon-and-pearl look might not be the best look in Uttar Pradesh’s fractured land, BJP’s Vasundhara Raje’s chiffons and colourful motifs work in her native Rajasthan. She is sticking to Rajasthan. Bold and colourful and relatable to Rajasthan’s bleak landscape, says Nandita Abraham. With her towering personality, and excellent oratory skills combined with colourful leheriyas and diamonds, Vasundhara Raje’s power dressing has its own way of commanding respect in a conservative men-centric electoral constituency.
As we inch towards the end of election season, the women politicians have dealt with insults, name-calling and trolling but they have surged ahead with determination wearing bright colours to stake a claim to power in style.