Ground Report | Small-town blues


Ground Report | Small-town blues

For girls in Meerut, Uttar Pradesh (UP), today, jeans are a feminist flag—nearly a quarter-century after blue jeans became the currency of casual chic among urban Indians, with the growth of brands like Wrangler, Lee, Levi’s and Flying Machine; more than a decade after Levi’s bold 2002 campaign on “low waist jeans”; and over a month after the mahapanchayat, an autonomous body in Barsana village, near Mathura in UP, ruled that girls should not wear jeans. An old narrative in a metro is an expression of modernity in Meerut, a town caught in the wrangle of feudal mindsets.

Located in western UP’s badlands, Meerut is a few hours drive from Bareilly, the hometown of Hindi cinema actor Priyanka Chopra, who is now the face of Guess Jeans worldwide. Chopra, a former brand ambassador for Levi’s, is a role model for young Meerut girls keen to compete in beauty pageants and find a foothold in the film industry. Glamour girls like Mandakini, Achint Kaur, Deepti Bhatnagar, Chitrangda Singh hail from this town, which has a film and television institute, 32 engineering colleges, four universities and innumerable coaching institutes. In clothing styles, however, Meerut is considerably conservative.

It is 10.30am at Devanagri College, a bustling moment in the co-education institution as classes are in recess. Street dressing outside the campus, saturated with industrially embellished salwar kameez or saris, blurs as jeans take over—a range of blue, black denims and tight-fitting printed trousers and many jeggings. This is as modern as Meerut girls get publicly. So say Rimsha, Shipra, Reena and Sonia, all first-year BCom students. “Jeans are most comfortable for us, incredibly more than salwar kameez. They are also our only way to look modern,” says Rimsha Ansari. Wearing trousers too boldly with clingy or short tops would incite parental wrath, she adds. Sonia Singh agrees that pairing jeans with modest tops is an acceptable compromise between personal independence and family diktats on dressing (nothing flashy, revealing, sexy or attention-seeking).

A girl in the upmarket Abu Lane area wearing jeans as an Indian separate with a long Kurti.

Identifying with the garment’s modernity but subverting the very essence of jeans to tweak it into an Indianwear separate is the crux of this story. By doing so, the girls show their unwillingness to listen to parental instructions to resist fashion even if they are seemingly conforming to diktats on dressing. Who would think that a piece of clothing would symbolize an ongoing assertion of personal freedom?

“Jeans, like sleeveless garments, are viewed as a flag of women’s freedom, so they are censored by traditional families fearful for the safety of their daughters. Even though more girls favour them now,” says Prabhat Roy, a former Indian Administrative Service, or IAS, officer who coaches aspiring IAS students. Adds Reetu Bharti, director of the Amatya Educational Society, “Decorum in dressing is one of the disciplines I enforce upon my students but there is no repressing of jeans.”

In the 12 years she has run her coaching centre, Bharti says the way girls wear their jeans mirrors the transformation they undergo when they come from villages to study. “From traditional suit-dupatta sets, they begin wearing long kurtis with jeans, then the dupatta becomes a stole till it slowly disappears and girls start wearing tops with jeans…the more confident they become, the bolder their choices,” she says.

Like Mamta Rani, 23, who was raised in Bulandshahr and now lives in rented digs in Meerut to study for the IAS. In attire, she admits, she has come a long way from village dressing, where she is expected to cover her head. Jeans are her breakaway garment of choice to pursue education and independence. “I can’t wear jeans in my village but I no longer feel pressured to cover my head, nor am I fazed by what the village elders say,” she adds in chaste Hindi.

Her fellow student Shivoli Mathur, 25, is more sceptical. She recounts the jeans experience from Odisha to New Delhi; London to Meerut. Daughter of an IAS officer, Mathur was schooled in various towns before studying in London, UK. She was dressed in blue jeans—Meerut style, with a long top—when we met her. “People here associate liberal personal habits and arrogance with girls wearing jeans so they need to be worn differently,” says Mathur.

Interestingly, the entire denim grammar of acid washes, faded patches, flares, fits, loops, dyes and cuts has been “Meerutized” in sync with the social attitudes, and fulfil, to some extent, the wearer’s aspiration. “My wife’s father was a member of the legislative assembly (MLA) from Saharanpur who didn’t want her to wear jeans. Whether she would be able to do so or not in her marital home became a question when our wedding was arranged because she saw it as liberation,” recalls Lakhan Tomar, a construction entrepreneur and an Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) volunteer. His wife Indu, 42, now a social activist, was in blue jeans paired with a kurti when we met the couple in their Sarvodaya Colony home.

“Seventy per cent of the Indian jeans market is driven by men’s jeans. The women’s market has grown rapidly upwards of 20% per annum, on a much smaller base though. It is driven by tier 1 cities which contribute 30-35% jeans buyers. In tier 2 and 3 cities, jeans consumption among women is at 20-25%. This is contrary to established jeans markets in the world, where women lead the way, contributing to 50-55% of total jeans purchased,” says the New Delhi-based Shyam Sukhramani, a former marketing director for Levi’s for India.

Sukhramani is the founder of Goodpeople Clothing Company, which will launch its first online collection of clothes—a line of jeans, two fits for men and one for women—this month. Sukhramani, who has been in the jeans business for 20 years, says jeans are indicative of how progressive a society is. “The top 26 cities in India would contribute to 75-80% of sales of most major denim brands that are priced at 1,200 upwards,” he comments.

Meerut hasn’t made it to India’s jean pool yet but it is on the cusp. It is fading in.–Smalltown-blues.html