Everyone has a dress they wish they could wear all the time. Here’s one: a cylindrical grey article of jersey with baggy, pin-tucked half sleeves, picked off the sale rack at bhane in Delhi’s Meharchand Market. Its wearer gets separation anxiety when she puts it in the laundry. She runs her fingers over it after every wash, rueing the micro-tears she can’t quite feel, anxious that it’s now one step closer to coming undone. Every time she puts it on, she thinks: what happens if I outlive this dress?
In the year since it came to live in her wardrobe, this grey dress has acquired a small collection of siblings. There is a gun-metal cotton jhabla that encloses the elbows and cascades down the shoulders; a camo-coloured viscose dress that looks like it should be worn with beige churidar leggings from FabIndia; a checked brown frock whose poppy-red pockets can only be discerned by a wearer (or an undresser). These garments shroud everything in their way; they fade aggressively into the background of muddy Indian cities and muddy Indian complexions; they fit in ways that make mothers despair. (“Why do these clothes balloon around you? Crack.”)
Everyone has a dream self, and this wearer’s, it turns out, is the irrepressible Fräulein Maria of The Sound Of Music. “You’ll have to put on another one before you meet the children,” sourpuss Captain von Trapp says to his family’s new governess on their first meeting. The pert blonde ex-novitiate has turned up in charcoal-coloured homespun, a fit-and-flare calf-length number layered with an unfortunate shrug of the same material in cement tones. She doesn’t have another dress, she tells him: she gave all her clothes away upon entering the abbey. “What about this one?” he frowns. “The poor didn’t want this one,” she says.
Perhaps some people are born to this aesthetic, which has blossomed on Indian runways over the last couple of years as normcore/ anti-fit/ minimal/ what-have-you is popularised. But others achieve it only gradually.
A too-literal admission: our abovementioned closet also includes a voluminous black ankle-length dress whose checkout button we mashed as soon as we saw what its designer called it: a ‘habit.’ Perhaps some people are born to this aesthetic, which has blossomed on Indian runways over the last couple of years as normcore/ anti-fit/ minimal/ what-have-you becomes popular. But others achieve it only gradually, after long years of believing the gospel of sensible separates, after a struggle with high street polymers and a desperate flirtation, no doubt inspired by the sangeets of others, with embellishment. (If you were brought up by a Fräulein Maria of your own, throw in a childhood spent trying to clothe yourself in such a way that only Jesus will love you.)
Some Indian designers call this the embrace of the universal; some find it rooted in Indianness. To this wearer, the Fräulein Maria aesthetic is both about the conservatism of the ageing and the liberality of a growing-up, no-fucks-to-give attitude. The neutral colours and tubular fits are a reprieve, but also a challenge: if you know me, you’ll see me. “How New York of you,” a friend from Manhattan teases, but it’s not that. A Delhi friend, a fashion scholar, points out an emerging tendency in Indian design to embrace a sort of aristocratic minimalism, signalling that you have too much money to care about how you look. Maybe it is that: the Fräulein Maria clothes erase the markers of geography, but retain the markers of class.
There is, in clothes such as these, a utility that carefully contains their beauty. The Maria look is both about self-abnegation and self-improvement. Fashion critic Cathy Horyn makes a similar point while taking in the New York shows: that the art of disguising fashion is what makes a garment truly modern. Talking to Ruchika Sachdeva of the minimalist label Bodice underlines a key connection: the seeming formlessness of such clothes offers the freedom of the sari - a garment which takes up the other half of this wearer’s shelves.
“It isn’t really that the concept of simplicity is alien to India,” Sachdeva says. “The sari isn’t even a stitched garment - how much simpler could it get?” Bodice’s clothes have an austere discipline that must come from how closely Sachdeva studies - among other things - pictures of what people wore in the freedom movement. Those clothes signalled a break from imposed Western silhouettes and fabrics but not from modernity.
The Fräulein Maria aesthetic can be a feminist rejection of fits that impose controls on the body, but let’s be honest - it’s also useful as a form of impostor syndrome in materio.
The Fräulein Maria aesthetic can be a feminist rejection of fits that impose controls on the body, but let’s be honest - it’s also useful as a form of impostor syndrome in materio. It is a signal that the body wearing it isn’t quite sure it belongs. This dress is labour made visible. I’m just here to work in these rough seams and earth tones, it says; I'm a hard worker, please believe me (and also, don't mind me). Its structure isn’t defined with darts and zips; its natural fabrics aren’t meant for the eye to absorb and forget.
But what is an impostor, after all? A bahurupiya, a faker; but hardly ever a slacker. A person who says don’t look at me, but is there to be looked at; a body that may want you to forget what you think it is, but remember what it thinks of itself. “I’ve always longed for adventure / To do the things, I’ve never dared!” Maria trills in her poor-didn’t-want-this-one number. “Then why am I so scared?” Well, who isn’t? That’s why the song is called ‘I Have Confidence.’ That, in some indefinable way, is this little corner of our closet is trying to declare, too.
Thanks to Meher Varma and Shruti Narayan for their inputs.
Photograph from @bhanelove
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