This is a story I did for HT Brunch Quarterly(Nov-Jan issue) with some additional images & text. It’s mostly about drawing analogies between trends I documented in small towns & urban fashion+ my experiences and how I started. Feel free to add.
“Photographing street fashion started as a weekend thing for me on a trip to McLeodGanj, Dharamsala. I’d gone there to volunteer for 2 months; ended up staying for 4. I was teaching at one of the centers that work towards cultural rehabilitation of the Tibetan refugees, and every week I had evenings & weekends to kill. I would sit by the sidewalk and take photos….
I’m often asked why I photograph the kind of people that I do. I don’t think I’m looking for anything in particular. I guess I just want to make good looking photos that might be socially & culturally relevant. At the same time I’m also taking photos for the sake of personal documentation. Conflict.
Bollywood:The biggest trendsetter in India.
Undoubtedly, Bollywood hero is the ultimate fashion idol for the common man whose style inspirations, conscious or not, are Bollywood films. For instance, men wearing shirts unbuttoned with their chests exposed, with or without accessories, is the most common trend seen on the Indian street Romeo, on the “Indian MTV” niche, and on the ardent Bollywood fans.
Some shops in small towns were still selling FRIEND caps from Maine Pyar Kiya & friendship bands from Kuch Kuch Hota Hai. Clearly, these Bollywood films still had an impact on the local fashion a decade or two later. In a few towns, men were wearing skinny jeans-not a Bollywood inspiration & the only digression-possibly a remnant of the skinny jeans trend that became rampant when some Indian denim brands(I worked for one from 07 to 09) launched their skinnies/slimfits in 2007-08. A shopkeeper in Bareilly who stocks skinnies for men says his contacts in Delhi, where the stock comes from, tell him what’s in.
Also, there was, and perhaps still is, that time where masses in urban sphere related colours to sexuality. A guy wearing pink would be instantly tagged as ‘gay.’ This mindset is yet to reach small towns. In Aurangabad and other similar towns, men wore pink shirts and walked around holding hands. (related: Stuff Indians Like #170: Holding hands).
I think the notion of relating colors to sexuality lies somewhere in the process of: observing > emulating > forming opinion > accepting/discarding. These small towns seemed to have no such process. So while there is observation and emulation, the lack of opinion building, its consequent acceptance/rejection & blind aping makes Bollywood the biggest fashion trend.
Why runway trends don’t permeate to mass fashion in India?
And then cerulean quickly showed up in the collections of eight different designers. And then it, uh, filtered down through the department stores and then trickled on down into some tragic Casual Corner where you, no doubt, fished it out of some clearance bin. Anand Bhushan quotes Miranda Priestly and adds, “We don’t imitate runway but Bollywood. Remember the C-O-O-L neck chains of SRK…?”
Bandana says in an interview, “Bollywood is by far the biggest marketing tool for anything that you do in India.” Fashion, sadly, has to go through Bollywood if it has to reach the masses. I’m going to digress here. Does the common man follow Indian runway fashion? Where is the vision and interest of the masses? Is there even a need for Indian runway trends to reach masses?
For a long time, I used to think runway trends don’t reach masses because there are no great Indian high street brands like Zara that may bring the runway fashion to masses for cheap. Isha Bhansali, stylist at Femina(studied fashion forecasting at LCF in 06) says, “runway trends don’t go mass because there is no link between Indian high street fashion and Indian fashion on the runways unlike markets abroad. Just how Zara follows catwalk to boardroom procedure…Indian high street labels like Chemistry do not do that with catwalk; they follow international high street.
About two years ago, I read a book called Ramp Up by Hindol Sengupta. Somewhere in it he blames the designers. “Unfortunately the appeal remains niche and confined as designers make little effort to really reach out to a wider consumer base. In many ways, runway fashion is the circus of the rich but that’s true for perhaps the entire high-end leisure industry. The thing about the clothes industry is that unlike caviar farming or customised jets, it does not necessarily have to be elitist. The young with dispensable incomes should be addressed by these designers.”
But if designers don’t want to do so, it should be alright. Anand says, “I design for a niche market. These are the mega mansions one would expect out of a luxury label. I don’t want the world to own my clothes but crave in for a desire to own one. Restraining the supply chain in essential.”
Trends in small towns
It’s impossible to find an urban middle class person in a small town(or even in a big city?) wearing the same piece of clothing – branded or not – as a rickshaw puller. Limited perspectives I guess – not wanting to be seen wearing the same scarf as a rickshaw puller, irrespective of how it looks.
In these towns, clothing style of regular working class people going about their daily jobs seemed completely effortless & practical. From the old town in Jodhpur to the streets of Shillong-great style is pretty much everywhere. David Abraham agrees and says, “Often the most beautiful textiles and clothing are worn by the simplest and the poorest in our society. And with great style.” In Salem I found an abundance of men clad in madras checks lungis. IOU- a brand based in Spain – makes all its clothes out of these madras checks crediting everybody involved-particularly their karigars. (watch their 3 min video). I bought a piece myself, made a jacket out of it for a friend, and photographed it on her. It’s kind of ill fitting..a bit of alteration is required..the lining needs to be changed.
In Asansol, I liked what the daily wage workers wore; Lungis combined with gamcchas, mostly worn out of practicality & necessity. While in Jodhpur, men wore colorful turbans with buttoned-up shirts, tailored jackets with dhotis, and even some jewellery. Women wore vivid saris and plenty of jewelry. Not so surprisingly, Shillong was full of hipsters, unlike any other part of mainstream India. For most, the influences varied from Korean pop stars, to Japanese films, to the regular American sitcoms and music videos…
Connecting street style and fashion trends. I am not looking out to do that ever. Sometimes the connection presents itself+ there are hundreds of fashion blogs that talk about trends and styles, upload photos from fashion shows, scans from magazines, etc. and just browsing through them occasionally is good enough to make connections even if you don’t intend to. You can see backstage photos from Missoni’s show or spend hours browsing through lookbook and compare it with what you have seen locally.
Photos: a fashion writer for NYT at Lakme Fashion Week; man in Aurangabad.
I found the scoop neck tee & cotton pants worn by working class men in all four small towns I went to. The pants were selling on the streets for about rs80. I picked a pair and photographed them on a friend.
Photos: Torn. Ekta Rajani, senior fashion editor Grazia; drifter in Shillong.
Photos: Sacha the Shopkeeper at LFW; man in Salem.
Taking photos on the street is a bit tedious. People around have different reactions to it.
I was once detained & questioned for two hours by cops in Aurangabad as I was taking photographs inside the High Court premises(I was sitting in an open space for 40 minutes in the parking area.) It was a two hour long ordeal during which they cross checked with my employee for this particular project, made me delete all the photos, took photocopies of my passport, before finally letting me go. I made a copy of the photos before deleting; that also implied the entire ordeal was pointless.
In Salem, I was taking photos in front of a Church; the cops asked for an id. They told my cab driver in Tamil that my visiting card seemed “not genuine” because it didn’t say I was a photographer & didn’t have my house address. Asked me to leave. The visiting card reads: “wearabout.wordpress.com – documenting street fashion & individual style in India,” with just my name+ phone number.
I was mobbed in a small clothes market in Bareilly. In five minutes there were about twenty people around me. People saw the camera and wanted me to take their photos. They were genuinely intrigued. I fed them the information they wanted but lost a lot of daylight.
Once I was followed by two drunk men who first asked me to take their photos..then wanted money and the camera; almost a scuffle there but it was sorted.
In more tourist-drawn places like Dharamsala/Jodhpur it’s easy if you’re a photographer. People are used to photographers and they don’t really care. But in smaller towns-that are not quite on the tourist radar-it’s a bit difficult to manage a single photograph without drawing some sort of attention.
Shillong was awesome. I stayed there with an amazing family of 5(including a dog). I should be going back there again this year.
Photos: Recycling girls & Paloma Monnappa.
Indian streets are stimulating, colourful, unpredictable, and make for great photos.
Documenting streets – to stand in one spot for hours doing nothing, observing – needs some patience. People talk, linger, stare, get mad. It’s inevitable. But it is nothing out of the ordinary.”
Next up: Preview of the project I was working on during Nov-Dec. I did street casting + a few other things for a TVC. Below is a pre-preview(?); the lady is Priyanka Bose(actress).