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Spoonfeedin WOrld

Columnist – Pritish Nandy;Mystique of the white shirt

My memories of school are all about white uniforms with black Naughty Boy shoes and a black and yellow striped tie. There were two sets of uniforms at home. I wore one while the other was washed. And when the collar frayed, my mother would turn it over so that no one knew we couldn’t afford another shirt. The two sets lasted me a year. The next year, with new textbooks, came two new sets of uniforms stitched by the school tailor. White was the colour of my childhood.

When my father bought me my first pair of coloured trousers in high school, it suddenly opened my eyes to the world outside. I realised my friends were better dressed than me beyond school hours. So, now came along coloured shirts. I felt bigger, older, more fashion aware– till the King arrived. With him came rock ‘n roll, the twist, crew crop and drainpipe trousers. A friend gave me my first pair of terrylene drainpipes which, unlike my cotton trousers, didn’t crease. I wore that pair for a fortnight till my mother threatened to disown me if I did not give it for a wash.

Life changed entirely after school. I did a short stint in college, picked up a nondescript job, married young, took to writing. It began with poetry. Later, I became a journalist. My work uniform was always a white shirt and jeans but when I came to Mumbai I began to experiment. I even wore clothes few would dare. Slowly some success caught up with me and even though I always remained a writer, my clothes, my life, my cars changed. So did most things around me. I may have changed less than others I knew. But change I did. So did everyone around me. By the mid eighties the Age of Excess had arrived. Everything became larger than life. Bling and Bollywood came centrestage. So did the The Great Indian Wedding. Between them, they metamorphosed the way we looked and lived.

Our cars began to define our manhood. Our homes became flashier. Even people like me were no more embarrassed by the price tags of what we picked up or wore. People began dressing the way they saw heroes and heroines dress on screen. Homes started resembling film sets. Children gave up choir lessons and began to learn Bollywood dancing. Gyms multiplied. So did beauty salons, skin clinics, hair studios, spas that claimed to make you look a decade younger. People went more frequently to weight loss clinics and cosmetic surgeons than to their family doctor. The local darzi went back to his village while fancy designers set up shop. Even Selfridges did a month long festival of the Indian home.

Global fashion went the same way. Our own designers went bigger, larger, pricier. Barring Wendell Rodricks, who escaped to Goa, the rest fought to outdo each other. I espied (and envied) Rs 25 lakh watches on the wrists of people. At marriages, everyone wore such lavish designer wear that it was impossible to make out who were getting married. Even our movies changed. Sets, locations, costumes became everything. Story writers got paid less than a star suit. My mother owned one pair of chappals. No one owns less than 50 today. Poor Imelda Marcos was hung for her shoe collection. Today any rich Mumbai housewife can put her collection to shame. LV by now is a middle class status symbol. The Rolex is a yawn. And no one’s a Mumbaikar without a house in Alibagh or Lonavla.

It’s not just people. Nations are going the same way. We all know the world can’t afford another America. But China’s getting there too. They’re building cities, highways, factories at such a frantic pace that it’s really scary. We’re doing the same here, maybe not at the same chilling pace but at a colossal human cost. Our climate’s changing. We are being hit by tsunamis, floods, droughts. Our forests are vanishing. So is our wild life, mangroves, water resources. Our seas and rivers are polluting. Our cities are impossible to live in. No, it’s not just about over consumption. It’s also about showing off, telling the world we have arrived. Or else, why will we spend billions on a wasteful space programme or hire Nilekeni to create an Orwellian world of UIDs when we can’t feed our poor despite producing enough foodgrains? We waste money on nuclear technology and bullet proof vests that can’t stop bullets. But we can’t stop the 35% wastage of foodgrains every year which would have easily wiped out hunger in India.

One of the lessons of the recent recession is that excess tires and extreme excess is extremely tiresome. So I, for one, have gone back to my white shirt and frayed jeans. I find it far simpler in a world where everyone’s screaming, Look at me! No, it’s not about austerity, it’s about returning to the classic– the enduring mystique of the white shirt that even Armani celebrates.

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January 4, 2010 - Posted by | Uncategorized |

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