By: Rohit Chakraborty
Last summer, I chanced upon a box of postcards brought out by British Vogue in London’s Selfridges. Upon pulling out the tray, I found John Osborne in black and white, looking anything but an Angry Young Man. He leaned against the wall in an ordinary jumper, with a cigarette dangling between his fingers. He was a mischievous figure on the brink of anarchy. Then again, he might as well have been someone from the neighborhood at the gully teashop, had I not known who he was beforehand. It was sober, bereft of stripes and plaids and polka dots; it was a playwright, a man of literature they had featured in Vogue in his off-the-rack glory. It hadn’t looked like a set-up; a planned session where the background and the subject were only elements in the rectangle. He commanded the frame, he shone in his nonchalant attire and posture, and it was as if we had broken into a private, saturated moment, and he was more than welcoming with that teasing smile. Perhaps he was leaning to get out of the frame, but Vogue wouldn’t have it. I kept returning to his postcard for it stirred up something more than Twiggy, Gwyneth Paltrow, or Charles Chaplin’s cards.
When a poet or novelist decides to intrude upon their own train of thought, they often silently recite, between the spectrum of fondness and acute criticality, their verse or their prose. Upon this recitation, their eccentricities, their peculiarities, which can endear or alienate them, are encapsulated. It is mostly by means of what they do with the written word or how they wring the language, their mother tongues or the lingua franca, that we recreate them. Marilyn Monroe has been immortalized in her white Travilla, but little is said when it comes to Arthur Miller’s Harding. Of course, this is an unfair pitting. Cultivating style is not a frivolity for those flourishing off-screen, just as it is not an attending vice for singer-songwriters and actors who must grace pageantry. Hepburn’s Givenchy may have been a resort to iconography. It then disintegrates into the idea of a costume. A private sartorial decision, Amy Winehouse’s Ronette beehive, for example, is a serendipitous convergence of the personal style of the singer, who wanted to look like her heroes, and brand-building, the record company’s onus. The jury is still out on whether Pharrell’s Buffalo Gals hat was conceived with the same aspiration to “Impulsive Charity Shop Purchase = Unforgettable Grammy Moment.”
The uniform of the Indian schoolchild is a divisive garb, creating a tiff between style and brand. The designers of syllabi turn to it to cement their emblematic ambitions, for it is as essential to the brand as the school’s logo or names of the houses. It parts those who consider it a Suit of Servitude and those who don this Ensemble of Security. It would be far more exciting to read this by one of the former. However, there is great comfort in the delegation of one’s selection of daily wardrobe; there is security in the knowledge that the checkered shirt and the pleated grey trousers (a hideous shade, really), the belt with the school’s logo emblazoned upon its buckle and chewed prematurely by rust, the Kiwi-polished black Reeboks, the tube socks with precisely two blue lines around the mouth, veneer-free nails clipped short, and hair combed with a side parting above the left ear, as Mother had always done it, would pass the scrutiny of the monitor at morning assembly.
To be promoted to Class VI at eleven brought forth a little victory song from the boys who would also be graduating from the mandatory pleated shorts, “happants,” to those shuttling between Bangla and English, to the mandatory ankle-length trousers, the “fullpants,” ushering them gloriously into seniority. I, on the other hand, sang my song a year later for in Class VII, pupils cast off the pencil and wrapped their fingers around the permanence of the pen, subscribing to a life without erasers. No one was quite as excited about it as I was. I still have my very first Linc Ocean Gel, an inexpensive fine blue barrel, which I carried in my case.
A slight deviation from the gender binary would attract a cackle and a mockery, the bullies thriving, often silencing the teachers too. Seeing anything but the heteronormative, which is still aggressively propagated by mainstream Bollywood, and the immature are busy with their forked tongues. They all now pursue the “fuckboy” aesthetic, as I had always suspected. To display tendencies of individuality have proven quite perilous. It was at University that I found my crowd: aspiring writers and poets with a taste for thrift shopping. Anxiety churned in me ferociously every morning when I stood before my wardrobe. Having given three-quarters of my life to storytelling and academic mediocrity, a new monster stood before me. I did not want to stand out or blend in. I wanted to be seen then forgotten, as my favorite R.L. Stevenson quote goes.
At University, I was granted a novel freedom, which brought inevitable frustrations. It also happened to be the year I joined Instagram, where the inclusivity of all body types, races, and sexualities spurred my desires to explore the avenue of my own sartorial preferences. Before this, I could never walk into a store without my father, who would often critique something I picked out, then we deliberated over it together, always going with what he chose, thanks to my indecisiveness. Calcutta is a rather strange city when it comes to its fashion sensibilities. It has one foot in the resplendent past, and one foot hovering in the half-light to search for that stair-step. Its malls and stores reflect this well. What a benediction online portals had proved to be, bringing to the screen a plethora of alternatives. I became rather adept at the offering, and began building a wardrobe inspired by eclectic sources: the oversized sweatshirts a-la-YouTubers, the Bandhgalas that I have often seen my grandfather in, and Morticia Addamsesque shoes with spikes on them so cheap that I couldn’t not own a pair.
I have been myopic since I was twelve, and thus, glasses have, until recently, only been an accessory of convenience. I wouldn’t go so far as to romanticize those who embellish their casts when they break an arm. The spectacles, however, had remained a correctional tool, like braces. “Constant wear,” written in elegant cursive, which one does not come to expect of ophthalmologists, bore no glamorous tidings. The selection at the local store was limited, overpriced, and at my father’s disposal. I wanted nothing to do with size, shape, or color. I wanted to read the blackboard clearly as the teacher scribbled on it with a stubby piece of chalk so ferociously, that it seemed she was outlining her life story before us.
Later on, I turned to some of my favorite writers, practiced in Hindi and English, and upon their nose bridges sat fabulous pairs of spectacles. At school, I could hardly get away with oversized, leopard print glasses that made me look like a stylish 80s librarian. However, I had momentarily pushed away the glass rectangles that I had seen through the entirety of my high school years, and put on this wonderful pair, that sprung at me from a sponsored advert on Facebook. It cost me a first-hand Rushdie. It had arrived with little promise to stay. When I unclasped the case and tried them on at home, I was certain I was going to request a return: they were far too big for my face. Then I took a picture of myself in the glasses and sent it off to my best friend studying fashion in Bangalore. She forbade me to part with them.
I haven’t quite committed to a personal accessory as iconic as Zadie Smith’s gorgeous headscarves, or Premchand’s salt and pepper walrus moustache, and until I do, if I am ever cartooned, I sincerely hope that these glasses, bought without anyone’s intervention, and free of censorship, become by Shaggy green tee or my Doofenshmirtz lab coat.
The Bellfield pea coat I bought online in the autumn of 2015 was perfect for the South Calcuttan Winter, which is akin to the summers of London and Oxford. Before the pea coat, my winter wear comprised of my father’s hand-me-downs, fraying cardigans, and billowy pullovers, the works. For the first time, I owned a magnificent coat which was all my own and looked like a cross between my navy blue school blazer and Paddington Bear’s iconic duffle coat. Sometimes, I whimsically believe that by putting on the Bellfield coat, I turn into Paddington himself, although much politer, clumsier, and with a proclivity for staring hard at those who cross me. By the winter of 2015, it had been over a year since I had graduated high school, but I was still adhering to variations of the uniform with slight degrees of flamboyance. The New Look Quilted Backpack, the Koovs oxford shirt, jelly Chelsea boots, and the coat, might as well have been the winter uniform of my school, and I would have received a stern talking-to, for I had left my striped tie at home. But, at least I didn’t tuck my shirt into my jeans: that would have brought upon the wrath of a teacher or two in school. Deem it a reinvention or a reinterpretation of my winter uniform, if you will.
However many peans I sing for the Bandhgala, aren’t enough. Conceived during the British Raj, this formalwear spins the Orient and the Occident and gives the tired old tuxedo stiff competition. Suits are rather complicated ensembles; if you buy off the rack, it never sits right on your shoulders, and if you visit your tailor, they charge a fortune. At school, formal occasions demand that you merely wear your winter uniform for the day, which is in fact, a boxy recreation of the suit and tie. 2016 saw me at two ceremonies, which demanded grown-up award-wear and I was at my wits’ end. Before this, I’d end up at weddings and whatnot with a hoodie on. Then I recalled, with great exhilaration, the staple of Utpal Dutt in Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s “Gol Maal.” As a child, when I first saw the film, besides the sidesplitting Bhavani Shankar, I was taken with how sharply turned out he was. I did not know exactly what he wore. Was it a suit? Was it a sherwani, tailored to hang until the waist? The filters on the online portals were kind enough to enlighten me. Light and graceful, all you have to do is clasp those buttons and you’re well. The Bandhgala, contrary to its translation-the closed neck- was emancipatory for me. When I was sitting in the lawn of Somerville College, in Mr Button’s black Bandhgala, an unassuming American walked up to me remarking that I looked like a Japanese schoolboy, and I was beside myself with glee. That very spring, I had been introduced at University to the vivid, Tatami-shot magic of Yasujirō Ozu, and wished that the uniforms of the Japanese schoolchildren in “Ohayō” could replace our boring neither-here-nor-there uniforms at school. If you Google the scenes of “Ohayō,” the boys who play the farting game and I have the same thing on, although I wish my Bandhgala came with epaulettes. Then, with a jolt, I recalled a sketch of the Harivansh Rai Bachchan in a Bandhgala in my mother’s Sahitya textbook, and that settled it.
While those who really wanted to grow up would rather don the heavy blazer, channeling their father and their uncles, rather than the rippling school jumpers which kids of the Annexe ran around in, once I graduated School, winter could not be done without a sweatshirt; a singular layer which protected against the moody flights of Calcuttan weather. There is such comfort for an M concealing the rolls of fat underneath the extra fabric of XXL. In 2015, I’d have selected boring blank sweatshirts, but now, I wanted it to be slightly controversial, as I had tried to be in my final year of high school. What could be more controversial than boys wearing something aggressively floral? Bollywood’s experimental darling, Ranveer Singh, gets away with it, so why not I? Topman was most obliging; merging the round-neck jumper I slipped so securely into at primary school with the subtle, quiet challenges to what is considered traditionally masculine. And how wonderful does language seem, when as a writer, I am supposed to court the written word, but cannot make out the French on my own sweatshirt without Google Translate? There lies a convoluted approach to the linguistic struggles of India’s own literary scene, where the Malayali or Bengali writer is shrouded because they don’t write in what is considered the fashionable language, the lingua franca, the language that educates and sells, a baton tossed from the likes of Latin and French to English. The domestic politics of Mrinal Pande, the melody of Tagore, and the cutthroat satire of Premchand are lost to those who have no access to Hindi or Bengali. If I cannot even read “Welcome to Paris,” how will readers welcome me if French were to become the global language of panache tomorrow? Then of course, there are those who are called out if they write in English, if they succumb to the “Raj Hangover;” why would they reject the homegrown cadences? I bought the sweatshirt in French because it looked pretty, but all I could think of was Ranaut in “Queen,” running into a Parisian policeman in tears, confessing in Hindi that she didn’t know how to speak his tongue.
While we are on the subject of flora and patterns on fabric, I must talk about the Chaengra, a Bengali institution. Chaengra, usually male, is that ne’er-do-well who dresses the part and is sometimes taken to task. You have to be in Calcutta to see the Chaengra. Friends are often consulted before an eccentric purchase is made…does this look Chaengra? The Bidifookans, as my ma likes to call these bums, and their attire-the electric blue shades, the out of vogue spikes in their hair, and the v-shaped unbuttoning of their shirts to expose whatever little chest hair they have-an aesthetic skirted around when one decides to color outside the lines. I had my worries with these two shirts: one from Koovs, the other from Topman. Friends have assured me that I have distanced myself from the Chaengra aesthetic…for now.
I couldn’t stray a good distance from the white and blue of my school, the half-illuminated human for the logo, and the hideous checks or plaids…or whatever they were. I have still retained much of the symptoms of that pupil who prides in his Ensemble of Security.
The spinach green biker and the kaleidoscope bomber couldn’t be farther removed from the uniform. In them, I feel that I am that much closer to casting off the subservience that the uniform demands. A friend once said quite off-handedly, “I could never imagine you in a biker.” She was right; the leather was as faux as I. You wouldn’t expect Junior Soprano glasses to go with something Tony would execute someone in. That’s the novelty of personal style, it can be misplaced and miscellaneous, yet it’s cultivated by one’s self, lending post modernity to said style…if I can get away with making that claim. The bomber is rather Carmela-esque: proactive, versatile, and light, lending itself rather well to the archetype of the writer’s wardrobe, the dressier variety. I feel more at home in it than I do the biker, which goes on to prove how I still have a few years before I discard the school uniform completely.
Like the city, I have one foot on the lower, well-lit stair-step of the past, the other searching for my own iconicity. How fitting is it then, that I have finally found a perfume that instantly builds this shifting illusion of evenings with my mother, in 2004? The year I moved from Assam to Bengal and the year I entered the school I would graduate from, when I would glue myself to the glass of the cinema hoping my mother would buy us tickets for “The Incredibles,” while she shopped for moisturizers and face packs with salespeople ambushing her, the grenade-like perfume bottles ready to spray, in malls which are now wastelands of yesteryear consumerism. White wine, cinnamon, and tobacco leaves-the soul of the paan-the heart of conversations and reminiscing in my family are the top, heart, and base notes. This anamnesis is typical of someone, like me, who thinks that it’s the uniform that must come of age. There’s also the jaguar head bracelet, bought on impulse, free of history, yet memorable. Both were forbidden at school. Now there is aspiration to be recognized, noticed, debated about, mocked, and sometimes, appreciated. Oscar Wilde once said: “there is only one thing worse than being talked about and that is not being talked about.” Where’s the fun in that? Tease the fuckbois, the queerphobes, the purists, and the conservatives, I say.
Of course, this seems a lovely Bildungsroman for the wearer, yours truly, but it is equally about the coming-of-age of the uniform, that has begun its first metamorphosis and will endure several during my lifetime. The streets of Calcutta are peppered with a motley crowd of schoolchildren in white, blue, or patterns in the mornings and afternoons. When a boy in tide-swept white climbs into the metro, you play a little guessing-game with yourself: a Delhi Public Schoolboy, or one of those entitled bullies from La Martiniere, and when he turns and you see the logo embroidered on the breast pocket, the school and its brand confirm the personality of the kid. Adulthood is no different. Across the aisles, men and women scan each other, spinning opinions, creating categories, and branding. In a way, we transfer from one uniform to the other. What I wear now is an effort to merge preference and iconography, style and brand, to be as subdued in style as Osborne was, while simultaneously vehement in brand as that Vogue image tells all.