Clothes make the man, goes the adage, and the ability to choose the right costume defines the power and personality of the person. PM Narendra Modi is the world’s new sartorial icon, his carefully chosen wardrobe in full display during the recent visit of US President Barack Obama.
There was much discussion in the media and in Delhi’s salons that perhaps the PM was overdoing power dressing, like wearing his name literally on his bespoke £10,000 pin-striped suit. Even some of his Anglophile toadies thought it was a vulgar display of dress sense. But anyone who has examined Modi’s actions will know that he doesn’t do anything randomly.
Every word is carefully chosen, every modulation of voice is deliberate, and every gesture is calculated to prove a point. Decades ago, he started as a fashion trendsetter with the half-sleeved kurta, which became a hallmark that set him apart from other leaders. It was as if he was getting dressed for destiny. Obama even joked, “I was thinking about wearing a Modi kurta myself.”
Dress conveys a sense of self, what a person is about or wants to be perceived as. It can be a sign of defiance, surprise or even reconciliation. The first Indian leader to make a fashion statement was Mahatma Gandhi. His white half dhoti and simple cotton shawl projected inverse nationalist snobbery, and when he went to meet the Queen of England, he chose to wear the same, standing out among the Savile Row clad British leaders.
Winston Churchill in his pin-stripe, three-piece suit, with cigar and bowler hat, disparagingly described Gandhi as a “half-naked fakir”, but eventually it was the Empire that fled India with a tattered Union Jack on its back. Gandhi’s disciple Jawaharlal Nehru’s knee-length bandhgala, a rose worn jauntily in its buttonhole, became such a fashion hit that the Nehru jacket was named after him.
His daughter Indira Gandhi was a sartorial delight in her subdued, starched handloom saris chosen carefully with Usha Bhagat, which communicated a simple yet haughty sense of power. Her daughter-in-law Sonia follows the matriarch’s style, with similar saris and high-necked blouses. Both cultivated distinctive hairstyles — Indira’s hair had a carefully nurtured white streak while Sonia wears a bun at the nape of her neck.
Their heads would be covered at public events, emphasising their Indian-ness. Indira even chose her clothes according to the State she toured.
Sonia chooses to wear Chanderi saris while addressing rallies in Madhya Pradesh and a Sambalpuri ikat in Odisha. Like Indira, she wears a man’s wristwatch with a thick strap on her right hand. Mrs G wore a rudraksha mala, while Sonia sports a red sacred thread on her wrist.
Rajiv Gandhi, followed by Amitabh Bachchan, wore a long shawl draped across the torso instead of over it, leaving the right hand free, setting a fashion trend. The break from tradition signified that a change was in the air. And it was.
V P Singh’s fez cap, L K Advani’s three-button, long-collared Nehru jacket and A B Vajpayee’s round neck Nehru jacket were deliberate image identifiers that mixed personality and tradition.
Modi has never been a traditionalist. He changes clothes five times a day, dresses for the occasion and personalities he is meeting. At the banquet given by the President for the usually stiff Vladimir Putin, Modi was a casual contrast in a tie-less jacket and a woollen scarf.
Sometimes, his dress code is smart casual even for formal occasions. At ease in both Indian and western clothes, Modi’s message is that India is a globally pluralistic society. His love for Movado watches and Bvlgari sunglasses, and his vast collection of hats signify that he is a man corporates can identify with. Modi wears saffron a lot, signifying his nationalist ideology.
Unlike earlier leaders, he is flamboyant in silk kurtas paired with matching vests that signal India has changed colours from black and white, and is a vibrant democracy willing to engage with the world.
Speaking to students recently, he wore a classy black cashmere jacket with a silk pocket handkerchief, and an open-necked blue shirt. The message of Modi couture is that India is no longer apologetic about its pursuit of prosperity, leaving the homespun hypocrisy of the Socialist era behind. While Obama, Cameron, Putin, Abe and Xi wear expensive conservative clothes at state meetings, Modi ambushes world leaders with his extravagant sense of style, as if it is a mind game meant to distract them and pull off surprising coups. His colourful turbans signal that he is very much Indian — a PM who represents the united colours of India.
Worldwide, political couture defines personalities and cultures. Etonian David Cameron, known as Britain’s exponent of political chic, loves bespoke Savile Row suits. Obama’s personal style is subtle but expensive with his trademark wool-cashmere-blend Hartmarx suits: the fashion house even put out an ad that said ‘Dressing Presidential.
Pick your power suit’. Mark Rutte, the PM of the Netherlands, sports rimless glasses and a youthful hairstyle, like the gemstone-loving Laura Chinchilla, President of Costa Rica, whose shoulder length hairdo makes her look youthful, according to haute fashion magazines. Enrique Pena Nieto, Mexico’s president, loves to match conservatively bespoke pinstripe suits with colourful striped ties. A decade ago, Hamid Karzai’s exotic ensemble made him the fashion darling of global media.
Standing out among the crowd, while at the same time identifying with it, is the hallmark of a true leader. Modi couture is a sign of the times, indicating that India is not ashamed to wear style on its sleeve.