I used to be so wary of journalists who would ask me questions on fashion trends. I’ve always felt uneasy when it comes to talking about fashion authoritatively. I never studied design, and just because I do design and make garments for a living doesn’t make me an expert. However, I do have opinions on some trends, and although my experience running a store is very limited and caters to a niche customer base, I’ve got some thoughts on how women in Chennai engage with fashion and make it their own.
So recently, when a journalist from Femina magazine spoke with me over the phone about changes in fashion over the last few years in Chennai, I had a lot to say. I didn’t have any time to give a pre-meditated response and my answers were very much guided by her questions. I read the paragraph that came in Femina the other day, and I felt bad for coming across as harsh on Chennai. I sounded, on paper, like the stereotypical person from Mumbai or Delhi who thinks of Madraasis as conservative people from a village. Of course that’s not what I think- I wouldn’t have started a business here if that was the case.
But before I explain, I have to say that it is tough to make generalizations about a city- especially any Indian city because they are growing rapidly and the culture of each city changes as the mix of the population changes. Chennai today has so much more access to media and a larger segment of the population today has a relative who either lives abroad or at least in Bangalore or Mumbai (where dressing in western clothes is a lot more acceptable). Each socio-income group has a different take on what is acceptable and what is appropriate, and this is what I’ve learned from interactions with customers at my store over the last couple of years.
1. Showing skin is only a night-time thing
For the longest time my customers complained that I had too many sleeveless clothes in my collections. They felt it was either inappropriate for their work place or their age, or sometimes they just felt it was too revealing. But then when I made halter dresses and tops with a low back, they flew off the shelves. What does this mean? Maybe some things are not considered appropriate for day wear, but different rules apply for evening wear? Or perhaps the evening wear attracts a totally different customer- one who wouldn’t really wear the Brass Tacks cotton clothes during the day anyway.
2. Hips need to be hidden
Brass Tacks clothes are pretty fitted- this means that even if they aren’t tight, they are shapely. I also try hard to work on cosmopolitan silhouettes, so aside from tunics/kurtas that go with leggings or tight pants, I stay away from that genre of “indo-western” wear (i.e. kurtis). My reasons on staying away from the kurti have a lot to do with how I am convinced they are not very flattering – but more on that in another blog post. Many women above say, 35, hate wearing clothes that don’t cover their hips. The thinking is that if the hips are covered, they are hidden and no one will ever guess how big they are.
True, they are hidden in a long kurti, but in my opinion the logic about disguising the hip size is faulty. The looser the kurti, the bigger the hips must be, right? Anyway, my point here is that many women in Chennai want their hips covered. This makes it hard to sell a look that isn’t the conventional indo-western kurti look. It also makes me think that a lot of women are in their comfort zone with the kurti look so they are averse to experimenting outside that. Does this make them conservative? Not necessarily, but it does – in my humble opinion- mean that they are fearful of experimenting or being adventurous with fashion.
3. Sexy: desired but forbidden
I often have customers who try on something that fits really well, but the customer ends up buying one size up because they felt the first garment showed off their figure in a way that is not appropriate. I usually just attribute this discomfort of contoured, shapely clothes to years of wearing loose, ill-fitting clothes. A few months ago a customer came to buy a dress to wear at a friend’s wedding party. She was with her friends and she tried on many dresses. I passed by as she tried on a silk dress with an organza layer, and I remarked that it looked very flattering on her- the dress had taken her body shape nicely. “That’s the problem”, she said, “it fits too well”. I learned from her that her family and relatives will be at this party, and it would not be becoming for a woman of her age (she couldn’t have been older than 32) to wear something so sexy.
This is by far the most interesting thing I have learned. Something about Tamil culture makes many women think it’s immoral or frivolous to be fun and sexy. Those sort of clothes are alright when you’re very young (when you still have the body of a teenager) but as you grow older you have to “dress your age” or “dress sensible” which usually translates to a sari, or clothes that are not fitted. I was once at a lunch party with many women who were in their 40s, and one of them said (in reference to why she would never shop at Brass Tacks), “we should dress our age, and we are no longer in our twenties”. I’m not commenting on what’s right or wrong here; just observing the effect this must have on purchases. Just imagine if your entire friend and family circle had such strong views on what is age appropriate, surely that must influence what you end up buying. This is Madras after all, and what people say and think matters to many of us.
Still, I have to say that there are women who are adventurous, bold, and just dying for opportunities to experiment with different colours, silhouettes and fabrics. Chennai is changing, and along with change comes different notions of what is age-appropriate and what is “too sexy”.