She just doesn’t get it. Last week Pakistan’s first woman foreign minister, Hina Rabbani Khar, slammed the Indian media for its “frivolous” focus on her dress—the South Sea pearls, her Roberto Cavalli shades and Hermes Birkin handbag. “A guy in my place would never get such attention...nobody would be talking about his suit,” the enraged Khar later said. But they would—they always have, and still do. The what-shall-I-wear question has been a political rather than a personal dilemma in the subcontinent for at least the last 200 years.
In a nation fathered by a man who understood and harnessed the symbolic power of dress, our leaders could hardly afford to ignore it. President Rajendra Prasad, for instance, agonised over it three days before the first Republic Day. Nor did he think his dress dilemma was too frivolous to be openly discussed. In a letter dated January 23, 1950, written on his official letterhead with the crest of the Constituent Assembly, he appealed to Nehru, the greatest arbiter of style in free India. What should I wear? he asks plaintively. “General Cariappa suggested to me...that I should wear a black or grey achkan and churidar pyjama.” Over that the general suggested he wear a blue or orange sash with the Ashok Chakra symbol. He even sent across a sample for trial the same evening. “I am the last person to have any opinion in such matters,” admits Prasad, who usually wore a dhoti and kurta, “and I would like to be guided by you.”
In style Nehru meets sister Vijaylakshmi Pandit on his 1949 US visit (Courtesy: Roli Books)