Monday, August 21, 2006

5 Steps to Fashion Whorism

It is not every day that the opportunity to be flippant, shallow and snarkalicious lands on my platter oh so casually. But then, I don't really read Indian newspapers every day. Especially the lifestyle sections. But when I do, goldmine dahlings! May I present Seema Goswami, whose bio from the Hindustan Times website reads:

A published novelist, a familiar face on television, a senior journalist, Ms Seema Goswami is best known for her popular weekly column, Spectator, in Brunch, the Hindustan Times Sunday magazine.

So far so good. Apparently Ms. Goswami's novel is entitled "Designer Passion" and unfortunately no reviews of the work could be found, and to cut all unnecessary evil from this post, I'll refrain from the severe itch to judge a book by its title.

Ms. Goswami's column focuses on society, fashion and other such fuzzy logic categories. It is rambling at worst, and doesn't even benefit from the guilty pleasure of bitching and name-dropping. Anyway, on to the column that appeared this Sunday (August 20) which was all about how to tell a true fashionista from a fake one (the HT website requires a free registration to view content, but here's a Yahoo India link to the piece). Anyway, according to Ms. Goswami, here are the characteristics of a true fashionista:

#1 "The Gay Walker: Even if she has a husband/boyfriend/lover, no fashionista worth her Fendi baguette is ever above cheating on the side with a Gay Best Friend."

Congratulations gay men, one more strike for gay civil rights. You've officially acquired the privilege to be the lifestyle accessory to a bored rich housewife. And Seema honey, when you're done hanging your gay accessory back in his closet, read the fashion press. The Fendi baguette went out of fashion since, like, when the second season of "Sex and the City" ended in 1999 (an episode in the show had initially popularized the bag).

#2 "The Pet Designer: The true fashionista always has her ‘favourite’ designer – well, okay, maybe one for every city – though the person in question may change from time to time."

Pet Designer? Ok, besides the obvious silliness of the expression, the concept is utterly and hopelessly redundant. You buy clothes that match your personal style. In the process you have a few favourite brands and designers who seem to design with your colour, style and silhouette preferences and body type in mind. This is not the prerogative of a "fashionista" (whatever the fuck that means), and simply sticking to one brand or designer does not make you automatically stylish.

#3 "The Limited Edition Hand bag: It doesn’t matter what the label or how long the waiting list, she takes pride in nabbing the handbag of the moment even before it has hit the stores."

I'm sure fashion houses and designers secretly have their own cruel terms for describing the women who spend every waking hour filling up waiting lists for handbags. But let me try. victims? Fashion magazine brainwashed sheep? Cash cows for high-end brands? Women with zero confidence in their own taste who would rather be validated by celebrities and their handbags? Women with far more money than style? Ok I need to stop, but you get the idea.

#4 "The No-Repeat Policy: To be seen twice in the same outfit is a social solecism in her book. And to be actually photographed in the same outfit more than once – frock! horror! – spells social death itself."

To be photographed in the same outfit twice is a breach of good manners and social etiquette? And I suppose no savoir vivre and etiquette is being violated in shamelessly pestering designers to borrow their clothes for such social soirees. What about the Page 3 sort who seem to unfailingly appear in every social event in town every single day? Do they have a new outfit for every day of their lives?

#5 "The Bastien pedicure: ......Needless to say, this procedure is impossible to schedule unless you’re Very Very Important Indeed, like our true-blue fashionista."

Fucking insane. So now we have pedicure pissing contests? Ok wrong metaphor, women technically don't have pissing contests. But equivalent thereof. I bow to the utterly superior marketing genius of the French. Really, scraping off dead skin from the foot elevated to the ultimate in style. Who would have thunk?

So ultimately, I think what Seema Goswami seems to be telling us obliquely, but is perhaps afraid of identifying the elephant in the room directly for fear of being labelled classist is:

Style = Money.

To a certain extent, I agree. Let me explain. The best craftsmanship costs money. A beautifully crafted dress with expert cutting, complex details and superb tailoring from a brand with a reputation for excellence like Lanvin, Dries van Noten, Alexander Mcqueen, Rochas, etc., will not be dirt cheap. A Savile Row suit is worth every penny you pay for it, given the numerous fitting sessions, superior fabric, and cutting and stitching techniques that are unique to tailors in that tradition.

Real Jamawar shawls are painstakingly brocaded on handlooms, which is why so few of them are in existence and the market is flooded with cheap imitations. An excellent Lucknawi chikankari garment would have countless motifs using very fine versions of the murri and jaali stitches and the finest work is usally reserved for tone on tone embroidery, mostly white on white. Most of the cheap chikankari that is available in India is made with the coarse bakhiya stitch or very poorly executed murri. High-end Banarsi and Kanjeevaram sarees are always made with real gold thread and 100% silk, driving up the price of the finished product significantly.

However, Ms. Goswami's article was not so much about high-end fashion and style that is distinguished by finesse, but more about what involves the maximum waste of cash. It is obvious that her ideal fashionista is a woman with a good chunk of money to splurge, but very little cultivation of taste and understatement. And then there is that offensive fetishizing of gay men right at the top.

If this is about humouring and validating rich, desperate Page 3 camera-hogs that the world at large thinks that they are faaaabulous dahling, absolutely fabulous, and oh so chic and stylish, then fine, go ahead. I can read it as an amusing parody and be done with it. However, if this is meant to be some sort of normative guideline for all things chic, then I'm sorry to say, but what this would produce is a caricature, the sort of woman who befriends gay men solely to appear cool, slavishly follows everything fashion magazines tell her and name drop obnoxiously at every opportunity. In short, just because your subject is shallow, doesn't mean you have to plumb the same depths.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Omkara and Being Accused of Harboring the Oedipal Complex

To move on to something totally different, which is what I wanted my earlier post to be about, but I started getting fish cravings and it became something else. Anyway, so the Indian blogosphere has been abuzz with reviews of the film Omkara, and how wonderful it is, and how everyone should go see it. And every single review seems to devote a large section of the text to the fact that the lead male characters abuse and use swear words freely in Hindi, and how that injects a sense of earthy realism in the movie because it captures the ethos of small town and rural North India. The implication being that the coarse expressions become signifiers of rusticity for the audience, along with the locale, the costumes, etc. (caveat: haven't seen the movie, just paraphrasing from reviews).

To this I say, you urban Indians grew up around some mighty polite people it seems. My Presidency College-educated, Fulbright-recipient uncle thinks nothing of using words like bokachoda (roughly, idiot fucker, but more nuanced) and haramjaada (bastard) in his everyday Bengali conversation. My very urbane microbiologist cousin uses gandu (asshole) as a term of endearment. In Delhi, in my high school, we thought nothing of peppering our conversation with chutiya (cunt), but once I casually used it in front of my father, and he was not amused. My college classmate Sandy, who later went on to greater things at IIMA, could not say a sentence without using behenchod (sister fucker) in it. He also did Shakespearean theatre. I can be quite potty mouth when I want to, but then you already knew that about me, right?

My point is, use of swear words is neither a class, nor regional marker or attribute. At least the Indians I know use swear words regardless of class or urban-rural origins. There is some gender difference though, some words seem to be exclusively used by women. Chhinaal (whore) and kanjari (kept woman) are mostly used by women towards other women. But other than that, the use of swear words follows a near identical pattern in urban and rural India. Swear words are used freely in the company of peers, especially young men in the company of other young men, however, they are almost never used in the presence of elder family members. This is even more so in the villages, where the hierarchical family structures ordain deference to older, specifically male members by the younger members. And trust me, despite what your impressions might be, no one in his right mind would swear in front of his family in rural Uttar Pradesh. Ever.

So with this background I fail to understand why urban Indian filmmakers try to get their rural characters to speak in a barrage of swear words to presumably emphasize their authentic rural context. If so, it is only fair that their urban characters should incorporate swear words into their speech given that urban Indians swear as much as rural Indians do. But it seems that for a lot of urban filmmakers, rural = coarse everyday speech, regardless of context.

It sort of reminds me of a bunch of non-mainstream Indian films that are ostensibly based in slums and show female characters who look like shit with ratty, messy hair, no make-up and dishevelled clothes. Makes me wonder if any of these filmmakers have seen an actual slum or interacted with women in the slums. When I worked in a slum a few years ago as a social worker, the younger girls all eagerly traded skin care tips with me, and were better put together on any given day than I was (not hard to do, as the last post has shown). Even the women who would stay at home and not work, would neatly brush their hair and tie it in a bun, apply kohl to their eyes, stick a bindi on their forehead and had at least a few ornaments, mostly cheap glass or metal bangles and necklaces. None of them looked like the "graduated from fugly-wins-award Charlize Theron school of acting" women acting in these films.

In the same way as no-makeup becomes a shorthand for edgy and alternative for women, it seems swear words have become the same for men. Except that the shock is not so much that there are men in India who swear so much, but the fact that in the past film dialogue has been so over-sanitized (thanks to the censors), that anything approaching how people actually talk (though exaggerated) seems so revolutionary. Unfortunately, this fairly normal, everday aspect of speech has somehow been associated only with the rural underclass and urban criminals in Hindi films, thus perpetuating yet another set of stereotypes which would only set to alienate the rural and urban underclass, not entice them to contemporary Bollywood.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Fishy Folk

Last Tuesday, I was at my local Korean grocery, picking up some grub because I decided I was too lazy to cook. Ok so...wait, digression, what is it with all the Korean women at the grocery store? I mean, here I am at 10:00 a.m., eyes barely open, with my ratty t-shirt and skirt, looking for all practical purposes like the cat-loving spinster who sits on her couch and eats a gallon of ice-cream and moans about how men never get women. So I look like shit. And then I stand in the check out line. Behind the chichest chic woman ever, flawless makeup, gorgeous outfit, with a $2000 Fendi Spy bag casually slung on her shoulder (I kid you not! Who goes grocery shopping with $2000 bags?).

I look behind, hoping to be reassured by catching a glimpse of some harried housewife. And find another flawless woman, in a designer dress, daintily pushing her cart, this time with a $1000 Gucci bag. I look around, and even the grandmas seem better dressed than me, looking gorgeous with their coiffed hair and pearl necklaces.

I got my vanity taken down several notches, but at least I didn't get food poisoned. At the fish counter I got very tempted to buy a sushi assortment, which though pricey for a grocery store, was several dollars less than what I'd pay for a comparative meal in a sushi restaurant. I asked the fishmonger, who was Hispanic, "Was this packed today?" He looked at me, and then in a conspiratorially low tone said, "No, on Monday", and then motioned with his eyes that I should drop the packet. That's one of the big advantages of looking Hispanic, I get loads of brown solidarity and insider tips. It's especially helpful at fish counters, because they always steer me away from the bad buys towards the truly fresh stuff.

Speaking of I had the best, best sushi I've ever had a week ago, and I truly believe that it was so sublime that it probably wouldn't be topped by any other sushi meal, even if I go and eat a $500 dinner at Urasawa some day (this is of course subliminal rationalization, I know I'll never be able to afford that $500 meal at Urasawa). But truly, this was divine sushi. It was toro, or the fatty part of tuna, something that I generally order at every sushi meal, but thist had all the creamy, velvetty texture of butter with none of the queasy feeling of consuming pure fat.

The restaurant, Sushi Gen, is fairly reasonably priced by sushi standards, but the meal can get pricey pretty fast if you keep consuming stuff like toro. Also it gets packed like crazy at meal times. Apparently people start lining up at 10:30 a.m. and the place starts serving lunch at 11:15 a.m., and the average wait for a lunch table is 1 hour. I got lucky because I was alone and they took me straight to the sushi bar, where the head sushi chef (who's apparently very well known) flirted all the time with me, and made me promise that I'd be back in dinner and drink sake with my meal.

It's funny, but sushi is one of my rare indulgences that I tend to do on my own. It just feels like a very adult thing to do, to sit alone at the bar, concentrate on the simple, incredibly fresh flavours, minimal conversation with the chef. For some reason, I never feel like eating alone at any other kinds of restaurants, so when I'm out for work and need a quick lunch by myself, I always look for a sushi restaurant.

Also, is it just me, because as an Indian woman, I feel especially awkward eating by myself at an Indian restaurant. The one time I did that I got stared at by everyone, I mean, counter guy, chef, waiter, every other male diner, and after a point it was so persistent that it became uncomfortable. I'm sure the Japanese men stare too, heck they flirt, and Japanese public transport is pretty notorious for sexual harassment, but here in LA they seem more subtle. Or maybe I'm biased.