You can be an extra small in a Rohit Gandhi and Rahul Khanna dress, but a large in a Monisha Jaising kurti; a small in an Alexander McQueen stretch knit dress, yet a large in a pair of Zara cotton trousers.
Yes, contemporary sizing can be very confusing. But fashion is reflective of the times. And size is a complex, bewildering issue today. Back in the 1950-60s, Marilyn Monroe at size 12 was considered a sex symbol. And the Indian leading lady in Bollywood was wide-hipped without fear. But things were simpler then. For one, the concept of size zero hadn’t yet become all-pervasive.
That, of course, changed everything. Consider that though the Kate Moss ideal seems to have given way to the curvier Kylie Jenner, Kim Kardashian’s half-sister apparently suffers from body image issues despite her 27-inch waist size. In India too, a land of curvy beauties, the fashion press attacks Sonakshi Sinha for her full figure; and if Aishwarya Rai Bachchan puts on a pound, she becomes “too out of shape” to be a red carpet style icon.
The price of celebrity (read paparazzi and snark) must be paid, but here’s the good news: In India, particularly in recent times, thanks to its heritage of custom tailoring, awareness of body types and an evolving fashion aesthetic, curvy women are increasingly less short-changed in the high fashion department.
For instance, despite their DNA being ‘ready-to-wear’, most fashion designers are happy to take custom orders. Even at online retail portals such as Pernia’s Pop-Up Shop (PPUS), you can have an outfit made to your size. “Since most outfits have the option to be custom-made, we can actually cater to women of all sizes and shapes,” says Pernia Qureshi, the founder of the website, who is also an actor and an author (Be Stylish with Pernia Qureshi, 2013). “In a country where almost everything designer is custom-made, there is no need to have a separate line for plus-sized women.”
Sounds utopian but this is a point Mumbai-based designer Nachiket Barve echoes. “We are a very accepting and customer-friendly market, especially when compared to global standards. You can easily place orders or even find large sizes off the rack. And honestly, what can be less size-ist than the sari?” In fact, many Indian designers keep their sizes more generous than their western counterparts as Indian women are curvier, he adds. “And because women feel better when they buy something in a size smaller than what they had expected,” Barve says. But this size evolution can be largely pinned to the new kids on the block.
It is interesting that a new wave of young designers with a more size-friendly approach has arrived at a time when Indian designers are more comfortable with being, well, Indian. It has been over 15 years since the country held its first Fashion Week; and the first ‘weeks’ were, inevitably, all about being seen as ‘Western’. Many of the designs on the ramp were simply watered-down versions of what had just shown in Milan, Paris and London. The sari as a drape was mostly ignored, and Indian fabrics were snubbed in favour of form-fitting synthetic fabrics. Now as international brands have made a beeline for the country, Indian designers have realised it is best for them to be comfortable in their own skin, and that being ‘Indian’ is what sets them apart.
Shefalee Vasudev, a well-known fashion commentator and author of Powder Room: The Untold Story of Indian Fashion (2012), observes that the sari is currently seen as “the showstopper garment of au courant fashion”. With the most recent Amazon India Fashion Week finale celebrating the weaves of Benares, Indian fashion has never been more Indian, but in a new and contemporary way.
But though high fashion in India is taking tentative steps towards free size, the curvy woman is still feeling left out. As Zahra Khan, a Mumbai-based former fashion editor and now the CEO and editor-in-chief of the newly launched fashion website Hauterfly, says, “Let’s not kid ourselves—larger women have been marginalised for a long time and the practice continues even today. If I go to a fashion-forward online retailer like Pernia’s Pop-Up Shop, I’m hard pressed to find a great designer garment in size L sometimes, and you can forget about XL. I’m not sure if that’s a call by the retailer or that the designer just doesn’t make garments for larger women, but it’s very disappointing. It’s like the retail equivalent of #youcantsitwithus. And God help you if you’re forced to check out the plus-size collections of other online fashion retailers like Myntra or Jabong; those pieces look like they were designed for your grandmother.”
Not surprisingly, social media has adopted this cause, sporadically. When Khan was the director of content and communications at www.stylista.com, a fashion online portal, they actively looked to use real people in their campaigns, she says. They found that this is what appeals to the online consumer. “I remember constantly hearing questions from shoppers like, ‘I’m sure this outfit looks great on a tall and thin model, but how will it look on me?’ So we started doing collaborations with bloggers to showcase our clothing on real-life women. It was a big hit for us on social media because it reinforced the idea that real women come in all shapes and sizes and we cater to them as well.” Even globally, hashtags such as #IAmSizeSexy help promote a more size-neutral approach, keeping the conversation alive.
Leading the way is one of Lancome’s most celebrated faces, actress Kate Winslet, who introduces a clause in her contracts with beauty brands about not retouching her pictures. Both her body and face must appear as it is, she insists. Even models like Gisele Bündchen prefer their pictures in campaigns not be retouched.
This attitude has trickled into India, thanks to actors like Vidya Balan and Huma Qureshi who believe in this body-positive approach to fashion. Qureshi has even appeared on the cover of the women’s magazine Femina saying, “I don’t owe you perfection.”
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(This story appears in the Jan-Feb 2016 issue of ForbesLife India. To visit our Archives, click here.)