There may be no consensus about what could be considered India’s national dress, but over the years there is one garment that has played the role of a great unifier in urban India. Jeans, specifically women in jeans.
The latest to bring humble denim pants into headlines is Uttarakhand Chief Minister Tirath Singh Rawat. Speaking at a workshop organised by the State Commission for Protection of Child Rights in Dehradun Wednesday, Rawat felt it was an apt occasion to publicly share how during a flight he slowly scanned a female co-passenger’s attire, from top to bottom, and was shocked to find that her bare knees could be seen through her ripped jeans. Rawat, somehow personally offended by the woman’s choice to wear whatever she wants, denounced her for choosing clothes that were not part of Indian culture and accused her of “aping the West”.
From Adarsh Women College in Haryana to RMD Engineering College in Tamil Nadu, Christ College in Bengaluru to Dayanand Girls’ PG College in Kanpur, Amritsar’s Government Medical College to a ban on ‘tight jeans’ in SB Mahaveer Jain College and ‘low waist jeans’ in PES University, there seems to be pan-Indian agreement that wearing jeans is bad news. In 2018, one professor in Kerala actually suggested that women who wear jeans give birth to hijras and autistic children.
It’s sexist, stupid
Even non-educational sarkari spaces are no good, be it Maharashtra’s government offices or Bihar and Madhya Pradesh’s. Then, there are politicians like Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s Babulal Gaur who conflated jeans-wearing women with those who ‘drink liquor and dance with men’ and go against ‘Indian culture’, or the former Mumbai Police Commissioner Satyapal Singh who wanted to know how many men would marry a woman who wears jeans to her wedding — presumably in response to this viral bride from 2018.
Women, however, are tired of being told what to and what not to wear and the backlash has been swift. From celebrities like Navya Naveli Nanda and Gul Panag, politicians like Shiv Sena’s Priyanka Chaturvedi, women are either posting pictures of themselves in ripped jeans, or holding protests for the right to wear them.
But Rawat hasn’t backed down, and has gone so far as to say that ripped jeans make people look like “rich kids”, and they “pave the way for societal breakdown”. And here women thought all jeans did was make their legs look good.
The puzzling obsession with denim trousers does make me think of how jeans, specifically ripped jeans, can be actually quite polarising. Years ago, walking around in Cochin’s Fort Kochi area, I was abruptly stopped by an auto driver. With alarm in his voice, he said, “Madam, your pant is torn. Shall I take you to a shop to buy a new one?” I was almost touched by his concern till I saw his smirk and realised the joke was on me. Ripped jeans, I have found, are the most baffling thing a woman could be seen wearing on Indian streets. Even tiny shorts or a mini skirt could not elicit the confusion-cum-annoyance from bystanders that shredded denims exposing a bit of your thighs or knees can.
Hard labour to cool fashion
Jeans, of course, in whatever shape or form, have always been symbolically charged. They became a form of soft power that the United States exerted over the Soviet Bloc during the Cold War, when love for denim became an ammunition in the culture wars of the time.
Then they made their way to Hollywood films, being donned by heartthrobs like Marlon Brando and James Dean, and soon became most coveted by young men. In the ’60s and ’70s, female activists and hippies wore jeans to protests as a sign of gender equity, sealing their fate as a ‘rebellious’ fashion choice. By the ’80s, high fashion’s embrace of them added some sex appeal, with Calvin Klein’s campaign with Brooke Shield’s and Claudia Schiffer’s campaign with Guess.
Interestingly enough, the origins of jeans may not be that Western to India, as they are believed to be born out of a garment called dungarees — made from a dyed indigo blue made of a thick fabric known as ‘dongari kapar’, named after the area in Mumbai where it was sold. Eventually, the development of denim in France and the need for sturdy, serviceable trousers for miners in the US, along with some nifty metal rivets to fasten them tight, gave birth to an early version of jeans. A rugged uniform created for the working class, they came to exemplify no-nonsense sturdiness that could weather hard labour.
Colour me rebel
The significance of jeans for today’s Indian women, however, goes far beyond their function, aesthetic, or fashion capital. As journalist Sameera Khan once pointed out, “The larger worry seems to be that if today she wears jeans, tomorrow she will no more make rotis, she might seek a career not just a job, she will swipe right and choose dating over marriage, she might choose a man with the ‘wrong’ background, she may even prefer women to men”.
Jeans, therefore, have come to signify a heady cocktail for women — modernity, gender-bending, sexuality, independence and assertiveness. Ripped jeans take it one step further, they carry with them the flirtation of effortlessly saying ‘I don’t give a damn’, and looking quite chic in the process.
So it’s only fitting that Rawat chose to pick on a woman’s choice of wearing ripped jeans, because now they are rebelliously and defiantly back in fashion. As for the faint-hearted, Baba Ramdev’s ‘sanskari ripped jeans’ are always an option.
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