Of Small, Skimpy Things
By Anjana Basu
Little black dresses have become all the rage. Skimpy things slung on spaghetti straps with a rucksack toted behind. Or skintight jeans. Any-
thing goes as long as it is little or leggy or skintight. It's a pale imitation of the glitz of Bombay and Delhi, but it is there nonetheless and the sparkle is brightening by the day.
They crawl out of the woodwork at theme parties, even at Gariahat Crossing, balancing precar-
iously on stilettos--though mercifully some of them have taken to the new block heels. The more enthusiastic are the ones who look sixteen, with their age smudged under bright stop-sign red lipstick. You wonder whether teenagers were ever so skinny or whether this is a new anorexic gen-
eration. The diehards, of course, mouth the old phrases about Calcutta being conservative, but they are presumably looking in the wrong places. This new Calcutta boasts theme parties, tequila nights in the Salt Lake marshes, Checkpoint Charlie meets Rambo on New Year's Eve. It's the out-of-towners who tend to notice the differ-
ence. They walk in, blink and say, 'Whatever happened to Cal?'
But we were talking about clothes. One New Year's Even out in the open with the temperature dropping, in the middle of the thatched huts and the dressed up durwans toting rifles, sways a glittering lahenga and bare midriff. This chick is not even feeling cold, though perhaps the heat of the night is at work at 2 am. There are little bootpolish blackened asexual beings that later turn out to be Vietcong clones. Two of them are boogying with a skimpy dress and a backpack. In the middle of a Park Street disco one bright young thing changes her clothes thrice. No, not out on the dance floor--that would be too much for Calcutta to take, but in the ladies'. She slips out of the little black dress into a tunic and gold lame skirt and a little later into a bodysuit, for no apparent reason. She also has an apparently male body-
guard with her in a bustier. And because she's a bright young thing with connections, the whole room gapes.
Forget the bright young things and think of the young men who are going in for ethnic chic. They waft into auditoriums in long flounced kurtas trailing yards of dupatta behind them. 'No, not dupatta, uttoriyo,' expostulated a Bengali director in anguish. Anyway, these dupatta-
uttoriyos now have an Aki Narula tag attached to them--the more so since he left Calcutta for Delhi. His black tunic, black pre-pleated dhoti and black boots for the dacoit-of-the-Chambal at-the-wedding look is all the rage. Or even his nine-yard pleated shawl which tops a simple crinkled tissue kurta at one thousand rupees a yard. If the bright young things are black and skimpy, the male things are voluminous and expensive.
Tarun Tahiliani beckons from a corrugated card-
board wrapped rose. The spring collection, the summer collection, all yours for a few casual lakhs. Suddenly Indians have acquired such disposable incomes that designers are doing clothes for summer and winter. Most Calcuttans attend fashion shows very seriously. Everyone's heard of Tarun Tahiliani's attempts for Jemima Khan, but figuratively speaking, most clothes aren't designed for the audience. The bright young things may be into thousands but haven't quite graduated to the lakh stage unless Daddy can be persuaded to shell out for a wedding in the family.
The problem, because with Calcutta there is always a problem, lies in the city's pragmatism. Most designers will complain that the beautiful people of Calcutta refuse to wear a fortune. Or that a fortune for a Calcuttan is a few thousand rather than a few lakhs.They will be quite happy supporting Tarun Tahiliani or Ritu Kumar copies turned out expertly in a little place in Tivoli Court. Or they will discover sweatshops in Elliot Road where designers pick up their out-
fits and churn them out for the public after adding a few colourful stitches or altering the set of a sleeve. Or, 'I discovered the tailor Ritu goes to. He's in an alley behind the Bangladesh High Commission. If you give him a design, he'll turn it out for a fraction of the cost.' The fraction of the cost turns out to be between four and six hundred, if you can per-
suade your informant to give you exact direc-
tions, which in most cases are rarely forth-
coming. No one wants to part with their ex-
quisite copier, their master tailor or their secret designer.
Most mothers might be fretting about the dis-
appearance of the sari, 'If people go on dress-
ing like this, what will happen to the sari shops? They'll all shut down!' A disco in Bombay has banished the sari from its portals and it is certainly true that most designers have been unable to find anything rivettingly new to do to the sari. So they have pleased themselves by introducing smoky trails of cloth from flowing harem pants or sarongs and calling them du-
pattas, even though all those billows probably amount to six yards of material. Trailing the end of the sari in front is very Star TV but will not do for the local wedding, unless it is worn in true Gujarati style. But, even then, the sari is not the stuff fashion history is written on. The thrust is on power dressing. The new woman of substance, even if she is only eight-
een, dresses accordingly. What older, more substantial women are expected to wear, is out of the syllabus. The young-old Indian woman has to prove how liberated she is by bursting out of her trails and veils. The loose-draped, unstruc-
tured look could be a throwback to the days of yore when garments were not stitched. Mothers would favour it. 'Mother, this is a return to Hindutva. Please ignore the teeny weeny blouse. See how well covered I am.' But billows are, on the whole, out except for men and except for Muzaffur Ali's Lucknow courtesan styles. All over India the look is short and skimpy.What's most glamorous about fashion is not the clothes but the fact that it's displayed on human clothes horses and human clothes horses have recognizable faces. All the fashion magazines are splashing those faces. They're talking about how they move and how choreo-
graphing the show has become a fine art. Everyone goes to the fashion shows to watch those gorgeous girls from Bombay trailing all over the place. Close up, you can see the wrinkles where the clothes didn't quite fit and no one had the time to take them in with a needle and thread. One of the models had a lipstick-smudged T-shirt and someone's skirt was too short, so she tugged it down as she went back up the catwalk, so obviously even the models are bothered about skimp--or perhaps they're just bothered when they get to Calcutta. A fashion academy, NIFT, has opened its doors in Calcutta where enthusiasts can learn to make do with too little or too much cloth and some Calcutta designers have even been known to make an impact on faraway Delhi. Who knows, in a little while the streets will be sporting short skirts and long legs and the elders will roll their eyes heavenwards and long for the good old days of the 1970s, or whenever it was, when the only thing they had to worry about was bell-
bottoms.(Anjana Basu does advertising work in Calcutta. Formerly, she taught English Literature in Cal-
cutta University. A volume of her short stories, The Agency Raga, was published by Orient Long-
man, India. Her poems have been featured in an anthology brought out by Penguin India. Her work has also been published in The Wolfhead Quar-
terly, The Amethyst Review, The Blue Moon Re-
view, Kimera and Recursive Angel.)