Why the little black dress is a fashion icon, but the chikankari saree is not

I don’t wear a saree. I know next to nothing about them – what makes a good weave, what to look for, what makes a design stand out, the different styles, how the fabric will fall when worn…J buy saris, however very rarely. I do it as much on sight as by taking a leap of faith that the saree and its wearer will go well together. And for that, I usually stick to a few trusted stores where I can’t go wrong with Willy Wonka.

What I need is someone to give me tips on how to see sarees in a firm but nice way. Not the history of sarees, or their types across geographies, or socio-economic treatises on weavers, or documentaries on saree-wearing traditions. What I want are regular, informed and engaging opinions on a collection, individual pieces, a new line – someone who can keep me up to date on a quality that makes a particular saree worthy of admiration – and not only on its price and its basic info on equipment, accessories, yada yada.

My understanding of fashion is very limited – that limitation which, to be honest, I wear frequently on the sleeves of my t-shirts. But I loved reading Suzy Menkes’ candid, fearless, and wise fashion column in The International Herald Tribune. Menkes gave a dogged meaning to individual designers and their garments, things far removed from – and yet paradoxically integral to – the industry’s TMI.

Critical engagement – ​​what to appreciate and what to disparage and why – is a valuable tool. We are used to books, films, music, art being “reviewed” and commented on beyond the “ratings” racket. Well-conceived, subjective opinions are shared, not only adding value to individual ‘products’, but also lending weight to the inclusion of these creations in the larger ‘cultural’ sphere. Gangs of Wasseypur is a great movie that adds value by being called a great movie by credible, informed and trustworthy voices.

In the times we live in, which Eric Hobsbawm would surely have called “the age of food”, opinion about all things edible – and drinkable – has become ubiquitous, a good opinion about food seen as a noble activity in itself. I am fascinated by the 12-minute Chinese episodes of the documentary series Flavorful Origins. And I can’t even cook, not to mention the dishes I watch with passionate, HD attention.

When it comes to smart and engaging opinions on clothing in India – especially sarees – there is a big void. No columns, no shows, no reviews. Fashion journalism (sic) is usually relegated to the more enthusiastic “background reporters” with little or no knowledge in the sense of sartorial aesthetics, and is regularly featured as a prop of Bollywood coverage.

Take Anavila Sindhu Misra’s linen sarees. A stunningly beautiful saree in its simplicity on a model in a photo caught my eye as I was scrolling to buy a saree two years ago during the pandemic. I wanted to know more. What I got was an old interview done during Lakme Fashion Week that asked questions like “Who is an Anavila woman?” and ‘How do you create sustainable collections?’ Essentially nothing on an Anavila saree. A leading fashion (sic) magazine shed more shade than light with the single line: “Anavila Sindhu Misra’s collection titled ‘Mohenjodaro’ is distinguished by the use of rich shades like green mehendi, l metallic gold, navy blue and rust red.”

For value to be given to anything beyond price, there needs to be a second leg to stand on, a critical device. It took a Giorgio Vasari for future generations to confirm the genius of a Renaissance master like Giotto. There have been books that I have enjoyed even more after reading engaging voices telling me why they are so valuable.

Quality Indian clothing – fashion – can do with such mainstream guides. Voices that tell us not only about the availability of a bridal collection, or which brand stood out at which fashion show, but those that give us the real cheez to consider. There’s no reason for us to marvel at the cultural significance of the LBD, while gawking at the chikankari saree.

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