If I have to talk about fashion in the east and about Bengal in particular, the immediate reference that I can associate is the strong British influence that has trickled down. Especially when it came to how women dressed with their long gowns and puffed sleeves. The puffed sleeves is still seen in traditional Bengali blouses. But besides that, I have to say that there has been nothing that comes to conscious memory when we are talking about Bengal’s fashion identity. Honestly speaking, I have to admit that for a long time besides the ivory sari, the red blouse, the big red bindi and long hair (all of which is worn by women during the pujas), there has been no strong fashion movement in Bengal. It has always been about dressing conveniently, never stylishly.
There hasn’t been a fashion aesthetic in the city. Even the rich Marwaris who made the city their home downplayed their wealth and adopted a restrained outlook towards clothes by following the rules. All of which contributed in Bengal not having a strong fashion character. You would hear stories of how films and actors in the 1960s and 1970s influenced how people dressed in other parts of India but that never really trickled down to Bengal. Even Bengali films made in that era did not touch upon style as it did with content, which is why, I suppose, they are considered to be masterpieces in a way.
Perhaps the reason for this could be intellectual snobbery. Bengalis have always been more interested in art, literature and culture and have never really bothered themselves with the fashion as it had never been so important in the larger scheme of things. This interest has often made them adopt a lackadaisical approach to fashion. Even the youth in Darjeeling, for instance, have a lot more swagger than Bengalis. Designers like Ritu Kumar and Monapali started here in Kolkata but eventually made their way to set up their base in Delhi.
Even the kantha and tangail have failed to be modernised or assimilate itself into mainstream culture. Even though I have made a kantha collection, it has never really remained as a permanent feature in my work. Only two names come to mind when it comes to promoting the states’s rich history with weaves. While Sharbari Dutta has created kantha stitches on skirts, Bangladeshi designer Bibi Russell has created hand woven masterpieces and presented the dhakai in iconic ways. Russell not only provides employment for over 35,000 weavers in Dhaka, she creates modern, high quality textiles in bright colours that show off the quality of hand woven fabric itself. She has also taken the traditional weave of the gamcha and transformed into a functional fashion accessory.
But I have to say that the last five years has been seeing a slow change in how people dress. Nobody is over the top in what they wear but they have understood the need to dress up or spend money on looking good. This is also evident when it comes to designer wear–a lot more people are open to the idea of wearing expensive, beautifully detailed and customised clothes. The importance of dressing up or even spending money on designer wear is slowly finding its groove here. While Kolkata is not exactly being catapulted into the league of a fashion destination, there is a slow movement where people are opening up to the idea of designer wear. Perhaps that is also because designers like Sabyasachi and Shantanu Goenka are bringing back the Bengali heritage of textiles and are repackaging and selling tradition and innovatively. By using their vast knowledge on textiles, and updating the weaves in a more contemporary context, often seen in their saris, lehengas and churidar kurta, Sabyasachi and Shantanu have made the rest of India take notice of Kolkata. But on the other hand, there is young talent like Kallol Datta who is purely global in his aesthetic vision, silhouette and design, and steers completely away from tradition. But what all three designers have in common is their inherent understanding of elegance and a deep rooted attachment to literature and culture, and a sensitivity to the ethos of the city, a rare combination of traits that smartly translates into their design aesthetic.
The writer is a Kolkata-based fashion designer