Thursday, July 28, 2005

The Islanders

The other day I met someone who had worked in Brazil for a couple of years. When I asked her what that was like, she said that the best part of living in Brazil was getting to speak Brazilian Portuguese. She told me that she'd never enjoyed speaking any other language as much. She loved the way it rolled off her tongue, the way the words gave a name to her most delicate feelings, the way it allowed her to articulate so many different things. " I always thought I spoke the truth much more when I spoke Portuguese."

Personally, I don't know any language well enough to be on the same page as my friend. My literary expression is still limited by a numbness; by a routine inarticulate verbosity. And this is exactly why I've always been fascinated by how people in different islands of life tell their stories. And this is how I've become so enamored by this fickle and difficult island, 'Fashion'.

But it wasn't always like this. I went to a school where homogeneity was a scholastic aspiration. We had uniforms and rigorous punishments for those who didn't dress like the others. The blouse was white, skirt was checked, shoes were black or brown canvas, and ties were the 'House' colour.

And yet there were girls who stood on this unaccounted for pedestal. Their white blouses were fresh and starched and creaseless even at the end of the day. Their skirts fell politely a little below the knee and had slim symmetrical pleats. Their ties were always bright and the school badge never lost its lustre. The coating of their hair clips never peeled off and the lace edges of their hankies never frayed. Their nails were not just clipped but filed into perfect petals. They had a pact with the dust and wind that these forces of nature would touch them only with the highest regard. Sure, these girls wore uniforms - but in a toney, country club sort of way. And in my school, teachers regarded this sheath of grace as 'fashion' and dismissed such girls as 'spoilt and stupid'.

I learnt from my teachers.

Later, in college, I experimented with 'my look' - but I still coloured within the lines. I however saw other students flirt outrageously with style. There were bold circles on tops and seriously tight jeans; plaid shirts and black nailpolishes and fishnet sleeves - and of course, it all came with a South Mumbai stamp. In contrast, students from the suburbs had to use public trains at 7:00A.M. to get to college, so a lot of their style was functional.

One day, in the college canteen, a group of these stylish people huddled over a magazine. A guy in flannel and Dilton Doiley glasses walked up to them and asked for the mag. They rolled their eyes and tossed it over. Flannel guy was flipping through it and asked them, 'What's Versace and Christian Dior?' He'd pronounced the names as 'Wurs-ace' and 'Christien Dire'. The group laughed a tad too loudly and pulled the mag from him. The flannel guy only heard 'middle-class' from the derisive chatter as the group pushed him aside. I'd seen all this from a distance and decided that fashion was superficial and cruel.

Then, to me, fashion was that island that was inhabited by people who couldn't see beyond their noses. They were shallow and parasitic - they could only feed their egos on other people's faults. Fashion was not for the real. It was not for those who sought meaning in their lives. It was an agglomeration of breasts, waists, arms, hips, legs - and nothing to hold them all together. Show me a person who likes 'fashion' and I'll show you one self-obsessed cadaver.

Then, as now, there were magazines that pegged everything to fashion - ambition, love, fulfillment, sexual appetite, wealth, intellect - everything. There'd be one paragraph about an environmentalist and her campaign; there'd be two others on the cut of her blouse or the shade of her sari.

Fashion - that island of clueless slaves.

And then I picked up Vogue.


It was some anniversary copy and was dedicated to the color Purple - that shade of aristocracy. With every page that I turned, each little bit of my fashion belief got dismantled. Here was this unabashed Fashion magazine that did not couch in that limp category of 'Lifestyle.' Here was this Fashion magazine that had drawn its map around a color. And what a map it was! Each picture was a cartographic milestone.

There was one picture of a shimmering Pacific in purple. There was another of a purple Tahiti sunset. Yet another photograph spoke the story of a bird with spectacular purple feathers. And another that captured the purple blur of New York traffic.

Purple was the robe of the musician who played outside a café in Venice. Purple was the sheet of poetry a Lebanese man read to his wife. Purple was the orchid that a girl in Singapore was gilding. Purple was the velvet for crockery in England.

The map had marked out other places as well. There was purple in the wine that lay spilt across ivory silk. There was purple in the crystal and silver perfume bottle of an Arabic lady. There was purple in the earth of Korea; there was purple on the eyelids of a sleeping Japanese transvestite.

And this mad canvas of exquisite compositions is what Vogue called Fashion. This island wasn't about flippant sophistry - it was about crafted genius.

Then there were the clothes and the language that described them. Since I was a foreigner on this island, I looked at the models with marble skin tones and fabulous bodies in exquisite clothes; but when I walked around taking in the sights, I slowly saw the human form dissipating. I found that the distilled essence of Vogue was the clothes - no matter how beautiful the model or how accomplished the designer. It was about the form and fit of the cloth - and really nothing else.

And each dress that was featured in the magazine was created twice - the first time by the designer and the second time by the writer who wrote about it. As I read the description of one wedding gown, my fingers traced the beads on the bodice of the dress. These were artists who wrote so evocatively about the folds of satin of an emerald cocktail number. Or a vein-blue gown in crepe. Or latte colored pants or a burnt gold and rust skirt.

The language was so visual and tactile. One writer had described a skirt as 'something you'd walk through a garden in and find that spring had stuck to it.' There was this other piece on some designer where they'd said, 'She made a colour out of black.'

My favorite bit was about classic wedding gowns. There was a model with ebony skin in a snow-white dress. She stood in a bare music room with only one open window. Outside the window, you could see a European winter - it was stark, grey, and still. She had a single long stemmed rose in her hand, and one petal of this rose was falling to the wooden parquet. As the petal fell, the photograph must have been clicked. So the petal was a stunning crimson smudge on the gown's white vista. This gown, for its classicity, was described as something you wore when you 'must simply say I do.'

It is with these words and this picture that I fell in love with the island. How do these islanders think like that? How do they write such drama?

People who live on this island look at the world and drape it in their fabric. They are not superficial cadavers. They thrive and throb with life. Just as Carl Jung stood before a Picasso painting and decided to study the artist's psyche through it, these islanders walked through the earth and got Purple.

Yes, they had their language - one that I am besotted with now. They look at an outfit and describe it in a way that makes you snap your fingers and say 'That's it.'

I was watching a fashion show where one of the designs on the ramp was a black tulle dress with lace details and a stiff, leather corset on top of it. That contrast of soft and hard was weird yet wonderful. An islander described it perfectly. She said, in a heavy accent, 'Thees drez eez boothiful..it'z like maan on tawp of wumaan.'


Yes, that's it. Man on top of woman.

Fashion, as I know now, is a wild and spectacular island..and a very sparsely populated one at that.

5 comments:

d-Snob said...

Yep! I do agree with your observations about 'Fashion', but IMHO, Fashion is NOT about wearing things that you normally don't see in everyday life, but Fashion is more about making yourself comfortable with the clothing gear that you are wearing. Fashion is all about being comfy and the clothes that one wears should feel like your second skin and NOT an external attachment. Fashion is also about carrying the right attitude with the kind of dress that you are wearing, i.e, a bride cannot walk like a girl wearing a jeans, swaying her hips left and right, in her bridal outfit, righto?
There has to be some kind of elegance in her walk when she walks the aisle...ya know whatiamsayin' sista?

Rabin said...

I agree with you on your point. Early in the post I thought I'd have a hard time, when I read the line "My literary expression is still limited by a numbness; by a routine inarticulate verbosity" (you really have to explain that someday, my limited language skills fail me). But what followed was pleasure to read.

I think fashion conjures up different things for different people. In the leather or apparel export industry 'high fashion' is supposed to mean cheap, glitzy products. So they have high fashion on the one hand and high quality on the other. (Incidentally lables Versace, Hugo Boss etc are supposed to be High quality)

tablemannered said...

I don't agree or disagree... I just LURVVE this post. Love the way you've written. And of course, the way those people must have written in Vogue... you rock, girl!

Mukta said...

Hullo d-snob,

Well, there is fashion, there is style, there is glamour, there is beauty - and there's a whole subjective thesaurus out there.

Hi R,

You know, how sometimes you feel something that is so clear in your head but it comes out all fuzzy when you explain it to someone else? Thats what I meant by my literary expression being numb.

Hi tablemannered,
Really cute name, by the way. And thanks for dropping by. Of course, that Vogue edition was ...aaaah!

Chandrika said...

That was awesome. T love the sheer extravargance of your writing. And yes, I think of fashion more as you did the pre-vogue period. Thanks. will be able to see fashion in a new light now.