Even by the standards of India itself, where leaders have perhaps understood the use of clothing as a communication device better and longer than any of their international peers (see: Mohandas K. Gandhi’s adoption of the dhoti, Jawaharlal Nehru’s jacket, and Indira and Sonia Gandhi’s saris, made from traditional Indian khadi), Mr. Modi stands out. Literally and strategically…
Even by the standards of a world that has seen blogs devoted to Michelle Obama’s dress sense, the pre-election makeovers of François Hollande and Dilma Rousseff, and the canonization of Nelson Mandela’s shirts, the image-craft of India’s new Prime Minister, Narendra Modi — and its fashion fallout — has been something of a case study.
Indeed, even by the standards of India itself, where leaders have perhaps understood the use of clothing as a communication device better and longer than any of their international peers (see: Mohandas K. Gandhi’s adoption of the dhoti, Jawaharlal Nehru’s jacket, and Indira and Sonia Gandhi’s saris, made from traditional Indian khadi), Mr. Modi stands out. Literally and strategically.
After all, not only has he worn a unique garment so often that it is now officially named after him (the Modi Kurta, a revisionist version of the classic Indian tunic shirt with half-length sleeves), but the tailor who worked with him to create the said garment, Bipin Chauhan of the clothing chain Jade Blue, has trademarked the style and is taking it to Britain, the United States and Southeast Asia. It has its own Twitter hashtag (#ModiKurta), and there is an e-commerce site devoted to getting the Modi look (modimania.com) — begun because, the mission statement says, Mr. Modi “has become a brand not only in India but across the world.”
It all speaks of Mr. Modi’s success in associating his personal style with his political platform, to the benefit of both. Objectively speaking, the Modi Kurta itself does not exactly represent an extraordinary aesthetic advance; rather it symbolises a set of values. And therein lies its allure. According to Priya Tanna, the editor of Vogue India, “never before has there been such a strong convergence between what a politician in India stands for and his clothing.” At least not in recent memory, and at least not one that is obvious to the general public (not just snarky image obsessives) and openly acknowledged by the creator.
Ms. Tanna can tick it off on two hands. One: Mr. Modi’s choice of a kurta underscores a cultural image that is “100 per cent India.” Two: it is democratic — anyone can dress in the same way. Three: it supports local industry. Four: it differentiates him from his political rival, Rahul Gandhi, who favored simple white shirts to counter his family’s status as members of India’s elite, and who also came from the tradition of westernised Oxbridge dress. Five: this in turn underscored Mr. Modi’s humble beginnings (he was the son of a tea seller), as he does not need to pretend to be humble; he can embody upward mobility.
There’s more. Six: the fact that Mr. Modi’s kurta is always crisp and neat, and often colorful (he has appeared in orange, chartreuse and light blue, among other colors) provides a clear contrast to what ‘India Today’ called “the era of unkempt, paan-chewing (politicians) with pot bellies, crumpled dhotis and discolored kurtas.” Hence it suggests a clear embrace of professionalism and business. Seven: the fact that Mr. Modi’s kurtas are made from materials that include organic cottons and silks, combined with his unabashed fondness for nice watches (he has a Movado) and sunglasses (Bulgari), is the sort of aspirational dressing that mirrors the vision he has for his country and its industries. And eight: this is further highlighted by the story of his tailor, who began by sewing outside garment shops, and now has a chain of stores and has become something of a celebrity thanks to his famous client (who, by the by, approved the trademarking of the Modi Kurta).
For anyone who thinks this may be reading too much into it, note that the Modi look began to develop only when Mr. Modi moved from his job as a pracharak (a kind of political operative or activist, with its strictly controlled uniform) with the right-wing Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, to the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party in the late 1980s — the same time he began visiting Mr. Chauhan for his kurtas. The latter famously proclaimed, “Modi had once told me he cannot compromise on three things: his eyes, his voice and his clothes.”
This kind of admitted image-making often sits uncomfortably with modern pundits, especially in Western countries where there is some sense of hypocritical inappropriateness attached to appearing to have overly planned your clothing choice (see: Nicolas Sarkozy, a.k.a. President Bling-Bling). It creates an obvious attack point — and indeed, the rival Samajwadi Party leader, Mulayam Singh Yadav, was quoted as sniping that Mr. Modi “changes 500 kurtas a day” during the campaign.
But Mr. Modi has been consistently unapologetic about his sartorial tactics, going so far as to boast at a rally in Gorakhpur this year that he had a “56-inch” chest. The upside — the creation of a visual shorthand for a belief system that is widely recognised and, judging by the numbers who have begun to dress like him, approved — is worth the risk.
The question now is whether his style and message will change since he has assumed power; at his swearing-in, for example, Mr. Modi swapped his short-sleeve kurta for a full-sleeved button-cuffed version, sparking debate in the Twittersphere over whether the more-formal look was a positive sign or not. Either way, the sheer fact of the conversation means he has firmly established the idea that his clothing has meaning worth parsing. Which, whether or not Mr. Modi will, as Ms. Tanna believes, create more fads à la Sonia Gandhi and her cotton saris (which became a “cool” work look for many women), is perhaps the real trend worth watching.