Monisha Jaising might not have meant to capture the secret desire for sexy dressing head-on, but she did. Her sensual cutout gowns, slender wrap dresses, the glamorous blazers and kurtis in jersey and muslin were a female-first way to talk about a woman, her body, the way she dressed and teased. “It was a different place and time. The focus in India and world fashion was aligned to what women wanted,” she says about the brand’s subtle sex appeal that was centre-stage in the early 2000s.
“On social media, the definition of sexy is either show all your guns or streetwear clothing. What happened to subtle sex appeal?” asks Monisha Jaising
By comparison, in 2021, the clothes that fill the shows at India’s fashion weeks and the filtered posts on social media seem to be building blocks for the assumption that Indian women don’t like to feel or look sexy anymore. So, while riotous conversations on gender and diverse sexualities are in full swing in the country, the acceptable tone for womenswear is antiseptic and as sexless as a Tupperware party. “[Sexy clothes] have definitely taken a backseat in recent times. First, it was the slow economy [to blame]; Brexit to some extent too. But the lockdown has skewed clothing tastes hugely in favour of athleisure wear,” adds Jaising, revealing plans to launch a new eveningwear line next month, her first after a brief hiatus.
Now that the travel and social calendar is unlocking gradually, how many tracksuits and tunics do we have to scroll through until fashion wakes up from hibernation?
Industry insider Sabina Chopra believes communication is in a hot mess; here, rules of social convention trump rules of attraction. She has observed that 90 per cent of fashion communication is concentrated around the bridalwear space; the only category of consequence in this country. “And within this culturally sensitive category, communication can’t be overtly sexy. Secondly, to promote sensuality in an authentic way, one has to be clever about photography, use of models and mood; not too many of us have this maturity. That’s why communication is kept sexless, thus safe,” she adds. Most clothing ideas hover on the surface, forcing themes of “sustainable” or “genderless” without really changing your eye about clothes. “Headlining ethical practices through fashion collections isn’t exciting anymore. Being sustainable is a given for every brand. What else do you have to say?”
Anjali Patel Mehta
Anjali Patel Mehta agrees. She argues that conscious fashion does not have to translate to unsexy. “That’s where we confuse our messaging.” The designer celebrates sex appeal in her clothes by using the ergonomics of the cascading drape seen in her resort to ready-to-wear brand Verandah that features dresses in varying lengths and styles of toga, maxi and knee-length shapes, swingy long jackets, kaftans, and the bestselling shirtdresses. It also translates to her personal choice of clothes, including when she wears her own designs. “Sexy clothes are about fit, confidence, empowerment; why should women get penalised for feeling this?” That India is a tough market to please doesn’t help either. She thinks India lacks curated retail spaces for brands like hers who are not interested in designing yet another type of ghagra-choli. “Stores don’t seem interested in looking beyond what’s selling. Why fix what’s not broken?” Mehta retails from her studio at Lower Parel, and via a store in Goa.
“Fashion can scream sex if designers want to,” laughs Narresh Kukreja of the eponymous brand, Shivan & Narresh. He argues that every fashion purchase is subconsciously made with the intent of feeling attractive and of being seen and admired. When the designer duo launched their brand synonymous with sexed-up clothing options for skiing, surfing and safari holidays, they had doubts. They were unsure if their concept of “sex” clothing as playful escapism would survive the fixed mindset. A decade later, interestingly, they found their audience in millennials and generation Z. “Our brand stands for sex, a term we associate with pure self-love. It was a sartorial declaration of intent, and to reframe conversations around, how do you feel in a garment? Men want to look hot too. This intimate conversation, we thought, was missing. When sales and profit outplays sex appeal, fashion gets clinical,” explains Kukreja.
“Good design is about problem solving. Indian women are not tall, so high-slits shift proportions, giving an illusion of long legs,” says Narresh Kukreja (left) of Shivan & Narresh
The women empowerment narrative sometimes, strangely, doesn’t work in favour of the expression of sex. Cultural gatekeepers, some feminists, politicians and the public, all act as inadvertent censors, sometimes fed by the sweeping generalisation that shifting emphasis from fabric to skin makes men vulnerable to sexual arousal.
It’s curious then that Chopra’s first post-pandemic purchase was a pair of red high heels. These are associated variously with fertile female fantasy, and even fetish. But seldom as personal joy. “I wanted to do something indulgent for myself, look good for myself. It’s secondary if it invokes desire in someone else,” she says plainly.Internet Explorer Channel Network