Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Six Degrees: Fashion and Politics

(L-R:Female impersonator Chen Yan as Mao Zedong, Vivienne Tam's caricature)

(L-R: Nehru, Beatles at Shea Stadium)

(L-R: Yassir Arafat, cow-boy styled kaffiyeh)

When you put fashion and politics together in the same sentence, the names that might spring to mind are Jackie O and her pill box hats, and Michelle Obama. If you think a little harder, there’s Queen Raina, and Carla Bruni and if you really stretch it, you’ll reach Sarah Palin. But you’ll be surprised to know that although these women are remembered for their sense of fashion (or how much of tax payer’s money they spent on it) it’s the men in politics that have left an indelible mark on fashion.

The most unlikely source of a fashion trend comes from the communist Chinese leader, Mao Zedong and is called the ‘Mao suit’. The tunic suit was designed to establish a dress code different from western traditions and found prominence in China’s convoluted political struggles under the reign of Mao. While western suit patterns are symbolic of affiliations with ‘offers that cannot be refused’, with the Mao suit, each pocket and button has a reference to the Chinese constitution and political philosophy. Unfortunately because of his controversial policies and the consequent disasters that followed, the Mao suit soon lost its prominence with political leaders. However Chinese designer Vivienne Tam, brought Mao and his suit back to the forefront with her quirky 1995 ‘Mao’ collection. In an attempt to soothe memories of her families struggle under his rule, the collection featured an image of Mao with a fly on his nose, among other caricatures. Perhaps the Chinese version of ‘Little Peter Rabbit’?

Another jacket that bears the name of a political leader is our very own, Nehru jacket. The jacket is fashioned as a hip length coat with a mandarin collar, and is usually worn on top of a kurta for more formal occasions here in India. In the 1960’s it gained international recognition, most famously being used by the Beatles in their 1965 concert at Shea Stadium. Apparently the fans went so crazy with yelling at the snugly fitted boys, that they couldn’t hear themselves play or sing. Such was the confusion that an amused Lennon began playing the keyboard with his elbows.

The most recent and perhaps most controversial borrowing that fashion has taken from politics is the kaffiyeh. The black and white patterned headgear was made famous by Yasir Arafat and is a symbol of the Palestinian struggle. However in the past year, the kaffiyeh has developed a cosmopolitan prominence. Such is the nature of globalization that the Chinese put the Palestinian manufacturers out of business to cater to America’s fashion trend of draping it like a cowboy scarf. Like all things fashionable today, it is made in China, sold in America and mimicked on Hill Road.

There’s one more thing that fashion and politics have in common. As the fur clad Anna Wintour and the Ukranian parliament discovered, it’s the affinity of having eggs hurled in their direction. Talk about six degrees of separation.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

When in Vogue...

(Left, American Vogue editor Anna Wintour, right, Vogue India May 2010)
If your bone to pick with Vogue is that it does not cater to your shopping abilities, with its alligator shoes and diamond studded bags, rest assured, it never did.

Vogue started off as a gazette meant to instruct only ladies of high society. Rather than journalists, it had socialites, and it was to be distributed to a very elite clientele. Eventually it was taken over by a man named Condé Nast who attempted to make it more mainstream, and that’s where fashion took over. Slowly he sculpted it into today’s monthly ‘fashion bible’ that preaches in 19 countries, the strongest of which are America, Britain and Paris.

There is no doubting Vogue’s contribution to fashion. It was Vogue that first published Chanel’s little black dress and it changed the course of fashion during the war years by encouraging American designers. The name most synonymous with Vogue today is Anna Wintour, who rules the roost in American Vogue. She embraced Hollywood, launching Vogue into a new era of celebrity fashion. Such is her influence over the industry that the Milan fashion week this March changed its dates to suit her schedule. Although her nature might be defined today by The Devil Wears Prada, in another film The September Issue, Wintour notes how her accomplished, brilliant siblings are ‘amused’ with what she does. It’s a rare glimpse into the vulnerability behind the dark glasses. Like other American royalty, who have a history of unnatural passing, so do the women at Vogue. Wintour's predecessors, Diana Vreeland and Grace Mirabella were both unceremoniously ousted from Vogue. There have been ongoing rumours of Wintour's dying reign, let's just hope her glasses aren't fogged over.

While the American Vogue remains relatively mainstream, Carine Roitfield, Wintour’s French counterpart, is anything but conventional. Known for her flippant attitude, such is her influence that she got herself and the French Vogue team banned from attending any Balenciaga shows. Apparently she sent a Balenciaga coat to Max Mara who quickly made a cheaper version to sell.

Vogue came to India in 2007, but has it revolutionized Indian fashion? Well that remains to be seen. What it does do is give an amazing stepping stone to upcoming designers. The Vogue India (vogue.in) website is also the first comprehensive online coverage of Indian fashion.

With Vogue India, the fashion shoots are where the genius of Vogue shines through. In shoots that focus on aesthetics, Grace Coddington (American Vogue) is queen, especially when she pairs with photographer Annie Leibovitz. The other kind of shoot focuses on wearable clothes. The cover has the new Levi collection with Jean Paul Gaultier’s version of his conical bra in denim. It also has the Chanel Spring 2010 tattoos which are very chic with their little pearly chains and links. But going at approx. Rs. 3500 for something that comes off in one wash, I’m sticking with Fusen Gum.

Of course if you are in the habit of dining with the President, please take notes. As Vogue’s 1921 article ‘Social Customs in Washington D.C’ instructs - the President and his wife should be seated before you are, and that although he is addressed as Mr. President, she is simply, Mrs. X. Sigh. So much for women’s empowerment. It needs a little revision though, to include the appropriate manner in which to address the royal mutt.