I attended a seminar yesterday. The topic was the title. The presenter was a well attired blonde woman, with an MBA and a MS in psychology who had spent decades in image consulting. I was interested in what she had to say.
Before I landed there, I had two weeks from registration to event occurrence to build my mind up in anticipation. The idea to me was "Judge the book by the cover". What you wear matters in the eyes of who beholds you, including yourself. My mind, still Bengali and a tad Amriki, thought things over.
Growing up in Kolkata, your dressing is dictated by how much you sweat. For two hours a day, on a very auspicious day only, you tend to wear your finest. Once the demo is over, you bundle the thing up and run to the household in-charge, in my case, my mom, and ask her to do the rest. Which means dry cleaning or laundry. On the next auspicious day, you perform the same demo of your superior attire, but with new pairs of eyes ogling at you. Just like crop rotation, you would like your audience to rotate between the viewings.
As a child, I honestly thought it didn't matter what I wore. Summers were brutal. Humid and hot, every single kurta and top, wore out their colors in a week. It didn't matter how much percentage cotton your clothes had, Kolkata was sure to take it to test. And I learnt something at a fairly young age - Sweaty is not Pretty.
Winters were better. Cold and pleasant, you could think that a Bengali can be dressed in their best then. That would make you not just wrong, but also a non-Bengali. Because it defies a basic Bengali winter rule. Monkey cap and baggy sweater.
No self respecting Bengali can step out without those on. My mother insisted on placing a tight red monkey cap on my just styled hair, and a maroon one on my sister's. My sister mutely accepted her fate. I rebelled. My hair styling had taken me good two hours and yielded two curly locks dangling right in front of my forehead. (I was into that fashion for exactly two weeks after I saw Asha Parekh movies)
"Naa ami porbo naa!" I yelled.
(No! I won't wear it!)
My sister looked at me aghast. Was I out of my mind? I stared right back at her, like a angry young Bengali. I personally believe that Mr. Bachchan senior copied his trademark angry looks from the streets of Kolkata.
I was naive.
My mother pretended that she did not hear me.
She pulled out two sweaters from the wardrobe. Both were two sizes bigger than us but one was way shabbier than the other. She smiled at my sister, who was still holding her shocked pose, and asked in her "rosogolla" voice,
"Shona, which one would you like to wear today?"
My sister snapped out of her melodramatic posture and beamed.
"That", she viciously pointed at the non-shabby one.
As my mom, lovingly helped my sis get into her sweater, I slumped down on the floor. When it came to clothing and food, I reigned supreme. I always chose the best available, left the remainder, hung around to see my sister's dejected face, and gloated away. In food, I made the choice, gobbled my piece of "sondesh" and then waited to break away a chunky part off my sister's share. Obviously, incremental changes of my devilry had all accumulated to a grand total, forcing the forces above to take matters out of my chubby hands into theirs. The conspiracy included my mother as well.
Bundled in a double sized faded sweater, topped with a red monkey cap, the only visible elements of my body were my big eyes and my fat limbs. It didn't matter that I had my pink ruffled top inside. It didn't matter that there was a beautiful flowery pattern on it. All that one saw was a lopsided sack on legs.
So winters were out, fashion wise. A non-Bengali might argue, what about Spring, and Fall seasons? There are Fall collections in stores here, there must be something like that in Bong land, no?
Well, looming large on all those videshi fashion seasons, were our Monsoons. The torrential downpour, the lighting and the thunder of a Kalboishakhi could easily topple fashion sense out of a business classy person. His blazer would be atop a banana tree, his tie would be a noose around his neck and his trousers would be frayed out of proportions from the thorns biting into his ankles. Kalboishakhi tends to do that. And just in case you were able to stand your ground, you would be cowering under your big black umbrella. Your body, trying desperately to use the umbrella more like a tent for shelter. I doubt there is much fashion inside a tent.
My fashion sense was tightly twined with Kolkata. I eventually stopped wearing two sizes larger, not because I grew a new respect for fashion, but because two sizes bigger than my size ceased to be available any more. The last time I visited Pantaloons as a teenager, the attendant helping me find a pair of jeans said,
"These are all the teenage sizes we have. For your size you'll have to go to the back room. We keep our XXLs there. Can't really display them, you see."
I squarely blame my mother for inculcating in me the necessity to wear bigger-than-your-size clothing. Every time my measurements were taken for the school uniform, she would instruct the tailor to make it two sizes bigger. If the tailor asked why, her response would be,
"She grows in length and breadth rather quickly. Taratari boro hochhey!"
That phase ended in teenage. Confidence always came from my academics, my rank in class, and my ability to do something well. Clothing wasn't a contributor. Undergrad life in the deserts of Rajasthan, ushered in a new era of fashion. I etiolated in the scorching sun of Pilani - the moisture and the color drained from my face and my clothes equally.
I noticed that the brown desert induced the people to wear very colorful clothing. A lot of delicate weaving, needle work and mirror work. It was a great contrast to the barren land behind. I observed and admired, but couldn't make it a part of my wardrobe. The same faded jeans, the same kolkata salwars made it to the classes. Assignments, tests, tutorials, practicals demanded all my available bandwidth.
Shopping was an unheard term.
Amrika was a turning point. I must admit that my first year and half at UCLA I still clung onto my Kolkata roots, wearing the same thing in Beverly Hills as I would in Ballygunge. Professional life really changed my clothing sense.
That brings me right back to where I began. The seminar.
Knowning what to wear to make you look best was important. You never know who's noticing. Professional attire had a lot of "Do's and Don'ts". Point was it really was possible to look your best. All you needed to do was to invest some time and money to identify what colors make you rosy, what patterns shone on you, and what clothing flattered your body type. It didn't matter where you worked, it was imperative for you to look good in that setting. If tattered jeans and T-shirt could get you by, that didn't mean you did that. You still wore professional clothes. She emphasized on harmonious dressing- choosing clothes that went with your body, texture and size. If someone said, "What a nice dress you have on", it meant disharmony in your clothing match. The compliment you should be looking for is "You look great! Not your dress."
Following the seminar was shopping. The seminar was held in Ann Taylor Loft and as soon as the speaker finished, the forty females ran amok among the clothing aisles. I
found myself an orange top and turned around to find the speaker helping others choose their purchases. She turned to me and said,
"Yes you can carry that off nicely."
I beamed. My confidence in my clothing inflated two sizes. It reminded me of the day in Pantaloons - when the attendant pointed me to the XXL section. My mother had stepped in between my sadness and the attendant's sarcasm. She had said the very same thing.
"My daughter can carry it off very nicely. All sizes look good on her."
That defined my clothing sense. And I am holding onto that thought for the rest of my fashionable days...