Whose Craft is it Anyway? Sabya Controversy Sparks Important Debate


Whose Craft is it Anyway? Sabya Controversy Sparks Important Debate

Runway models are androgynous, reed thin and tall. Bollywood showstoppers are bustier, with fuller bodies. And the real woman? They try to decode this body politics, unable to figure out which side to take…

The year was 1964.Meher Castelino, the first Femina Miss India to participate in the Miss Universe contest held in Miami was told to put on some weight. “I was considered too thin, my mother would force me to have milk with Complan to help me gain kilos. The aspiration for models those days was the voluptuousness of Marilyn Monroe,” says Castelino not a very tall woman either. Those were days when being exotic, curvaceous and pretty got Indian models name, fame and work. Here and abroad.

The year is 2010.Lakshmi Menon,Jesse Randhawa,Carol Gracias, Tamara Moss and many top models need a new, improved Complan to help sustain their painfully thin, flat-chested, narrow-hipped bodies. Aspiration? Androgynous international models – endlessly tall, with strong, skinny legs, small backs, cup size no more than B and flat, sunken abs. Ever since Sheetal Malhar and Madhu Sapre became supermodels abroad, the stereotype began to change. Malhar and Sapre were not androgynous, but they weren’t Zeenat Amans either. All girls who made it big out there came back with a new body language. Smaller busts playing hide and seek from XS shirts and plunging black tops, spines pulled back, toe-nails jutting out of vertigo inducing stilettos, a boyish charm on their faces. Like Michelangelo’s Eve in the Creation of Adam.

Between Meher Castelino,Persis Khambatta,Zeenat Aman,Sheetal Malhar,Madhu Sapre,Mehr Jesia,Noyonika Chatterjee,Ujjwala Raut and Tamara Moss lies an engrossing story of the female body in fashion. If Khambatta had voluptuousness carved on her face that took her on a Star Trek, Zeenat Aman’s bust was her PR agency. Contrarily, now Lakshmi Menon and Jesse Randhawa’s androgynous bodies with inconspicuous busts and hips make them ‘international’.

What makes this story compelling is two parallel but polarised drifts. In the last month or so, “breasts are back” is a breaking story on runways abroad. Miuccia Prada’s Fall-Winter collection at Milan Fashion Week this February celebrated the curvaceous and full-hipped woman. Marc Jacob’s ‘And God Created A Woman’ show for Louis Vuitton last fortnight in Paris reiterated the same idea. Both designers used fuller, Victoria’s Secret models, including Laetita Casta, Bar Rafaeli and supermodel Elle Macpherson. But in India, it’s the reed thin, no bust, no hip girls who bag the top contracts. On the ramp as well as for commercial or editorial fashion shoots. “I prefer flat-chested girls as clothes look and fall best on them. They are perfect clothes horses,” says Mohan Neelakantan, fashion director of Elle magazine and one of the most talented editorial stylists. While Neelakantan agrees that Indian garments do look nice on fuller bodies, the mix of global-local looks that most stylists now create need slim models with an almost absent bust. “You can pad them up if you want, but the other way round makes things difficult,” he adds. Model Smita Lasrado, one of the thinnest models with long slim legs, a small cup size and an even smaller back agrees. “Breasts? The smaller the better. We are just skeletons to hang the clothes on,” she quips. She should know. Lasrado has been on magazine covers in India and on the runway in Paris too, including for Vivienne Westwood. She remembers being given clothes worn by busty Dutch model Lara Stone for a Givenchy show which were ‘very loose’ for her. Stone, allegedly cup size 32 F, was recently quoted saying, “When you are a model, nobody calls you fat. What they say is curvy, but you know they mean fat.”

It is a fat debate. Some designers agree that a wider choice in body type amongst Indian models could help. But most follow the herd. Thin is win-win. With a few exceptions. Like designer Raakesh Agarvwal who makes glamourous evening gowns, studded saris, satin jumpsuits. He says that he prefers fuller models as his outfits look best on curvaceous forms. “I start my shows with Pia Trivedi, Carol Gracias, Bhawna but always end with a fuller model, one of my favourites being Lara Dutta. It is important to show who I create these clothes for,” he says. As a result, the stunning Diandra Soares, now with a shaven head on a perfectly sculpted body is left with fewer choices during backstage fittings. Reason? She is bigger on the bust than most of the other girls.

The ramp may have turned around the size of the perfect body but fashion in India is seldom only about models. Showstoppers are often busty Bollywood girls. In cinema, sexiness is still associated with a Rubenesque form and cleavage has a loyal fan following. As a consequence, the Indian female body stands at the crossroads. Dominated by at least three categories. None of these includes real women with bodies loyal to gravity instead of trends. On the one hand are angular faced, androgynous models. On the other are Bollywood showstoppers like Sushmita Sen, Bipasha Basu and Shilpa Shetty, women with breasts worth writing home about, real or surgeon-supervised is not the point. Then, there is a third type – front-row women – who are loyal fashion customers. They seem unsure whether to look like models or like Bollywood heroines. The way Kareena Kapoor smartly manoeuvered media interest in her size zero into a healthy vs fit debate was by walking both these lines – denying yet maintaining her size. So models want to look like actresses and actresses want to look like models. Front row fashionistas want to look like both. Jewellery designer Farah Khan, a front row regular and the Wills Twitter Face at the ongoing fashion week in Delhi was quoted in a recent issue of Vogue India saying, “I have no boobs, so I can wear anything.”

Indian fashion’s long walk from the drape to the shape defines the body politics. The sari is around but it is getting lost amongst short and shorter skirts, skirted sundresses, low-cut scoop necks, halter tops, figure hugging bandage dresses, skinny pants, bustiers, strapless gowns. These clothes need slim women to carry them off, not aunties. In this scenario, bra size 36, quite common in India, is pornography, forget fashion friendly. Where does that leave regular fashion customers? Sujata Assomull, editor of Harper’s Bazaar India makes a relevant point. “With the fashion industry’s increasing focus on the local market and with designers working towards Indian-International looks, the ideal runway body should be a ‘model’ in the Indian context, instead of an international one,” she says.

Androgyny is not size zero, nor is it exploitation, and a flat chest is unlikely to lead to model deaths. But at some level, this small busted, narrow-hipped ideal evokes unrealistic expectations from Indian women whose bodies are unsuited to becoming boyish. The complexities do not end there. A similar ideal is unleashed by fashion and beauty magazines with doctors extolling cosmetic surgery, featuring silicone-supported celebrities as winners and Botox fixes during the lunch hour. Silicone enhancements and androgyny are narrated as part of the same script, making resolution tough.

If Indian fashion must follow international trends,the London Fashion Week’s initiative in 2009 of bringing curvier,older models on the runway is a great example. As are recent shows by Prada and Marc Jacobs. Indian designers could make space for conventionally voluptuous models along with reed-thin, tall, angular, flat-chested ones and bring a slice of our diversities onto the runway. It may rescue fashion from becoming a zero sum game.