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The turning point in history when India’s working women got bold and glamorous

Quartz india
Quartz india

When did glamour come to India? Some would say it’s always been there: Madhubala’s smile, a maharaja’s Rolls Royce collection, a maharani’s pearls. Fashion too: Sadhna’s haircut, the Nehru jacket. Certainly there was an inherent glamour in our over a hundred-year-old celluloid history and the lifestyles of former royals. But the contemporary version of glamour exceeds the coterie of royalty and film stars, permeating different spheres around us: images, billboards, clothes, make-up, magazines, gadgets, homes, bags, shoes.

“As a word, glamour carries talismanic qualities,” wrote historian Stephen Gundle in his book on the history of glamour, “a magical power capable of making ordinary people, dwellings and places seem like magnificent versions of themselves.” Gundle identifies a series of historic images, icons and moments that, when accumulated, contributed to the popularly understood idea of glamour in the West: Jackie Onassis, Marilyn Monroe, Princess Diana; designer Gianni Versace making a relatively unknown model, Elizabeth Hurley, a sensation overnight by putting her in a dress made of safety pins; finally defining glamour as “a language of allure and seduction in capitalist society.”

But how and why did glamour emerge? What were the economic, political and social conditions that allowed it to flourish? How did it snowball into an economy generating magazines, pageants, television programming, a retail revolution, even a deeper shift in values from parsimony and unselfconsciousness to conspicuous consumption and giving unquestionable importance to looking good?

[…]

In the 1970s and 1980s, when we wanted a dose of glamour, we bought a Filmfare or a Stardust at a railway station, or tuned in for the weekly medley of film songs in “Chitrahaar” if we had a TV. With television’s entry into middle class homes in the 1980s, glamour was closely linked with television advertising played on state-owned channels.

Advertising was a small industry operating largely out of Bombay. Commercials were shot there, usually with local models, by a limited number of filmmakers, photographers and Bombay-based advertising agencies.

Models for these ads were recruited by “spotting” young women in colleges and public places in Bombay where the agencies, filmmakers and photographers were based, or at the Miss India pageants. These pageants, held by two women’s magazines, Femina and Eve’s Weekly (based out of Bombay), were sparsely contested. Often, contestants had to be pursued, cajoled and personally invited to participate by the editors of the magazines.

Fashion shows in India have a scattered and barely-documented history. The earliest we hear of are Sylla and Nergish Spencer, or the “Spencer Sisters” as they were known, who put together dazzling shows for select audiences in the 1950s. Then came the era of “Jeannie and her Girls.” Jeannie Naoroji was known to be the grande dame of fashion shows who, with her troupe of models in the 1960s, presented choreographed fashion shows of different kinds: “ship shows” held in luxury liners docking in Bombay’s port, exhibiting Western designs but with Indian textiles or embroidery; “travelling shows” or tours across the country organized by textile mills to advertise and sell a newly launched textile; “fundraising shows” with dancing and spectacle for a cause; and niche shows for a select clientele, such as the opening of shopping arcades at five-star hotels such as the Oberoi or Taj. Fashion shows in India have a scattered and barely-documented history. 

Jeannie’s Girls were expected to be Jills-of-all-trades—dancers, performers, graceful gliders (usually barefoot, the era of high heels was still to come) and costume wearers, all recruited by Jeannie and her hawk-eyed assistants. They were college girls from elite South Bombay colleges, secretaries in advertising agencies, young women spotted by the assistants in markets or movie halls, telephone operators or friends’ daughters. This motley crew of amateurs were not always conventionally beautiful, but almost always “Westernized,” and always graceful.

Jeannie’s monopoly was broken in the early 1980s by newer choreographers, including some from Delhi, who brought other skills to the presentation of a show: lights, stagecraft and the pizzazz of theatrical production. Vidyun Singh was one of them. She and her business partner Asha Kochhar went on to become pioneers of the choreographed fashion shows as we know them today. In her Delhi office, neatly filed with boxes of paperwork from shows done over the past decade, she reminisced about her big break: ‘There used to be Trade Fair shows at that time in Pragati Maidan, where every November for a month there would be an evening slot for a fashion show. It was the hugest draw. And that time, the shows would be from Bombay, because there was no person in Delhi who was considered to be at par. Jeannie Naoroji and Vimla Patil from Femina, they would be getting contracts and doing the shows. And I have to repeat: they were the hugest draws at the Trade Fair. So when my partner and I did a presentation before the committee and got our first show at the Trade Fair, it was a big deal.’

Vidyun and Asha had a theatre and stagecraft background, and pitched for the Trade Fair contract after some experience of producing and choreographing such shows at the college level. “We were just lucky,” she says of the success that came later, and of the vocation that within a decade became their playground. “In hindsight, nobody thought it would be as big as it has become today. We were in the right place at the right time.” Vidyun and Asha’s business flourished through the 1980s, supported largely through state-sponsored shows that promoted handicrafts—sometimes for tourism, sometimes for trade in textiles. “The government support was a lot more at that time. It could be the textile corporation, handloom promotion board, or even a collaboration with a state emporium highlighting a particular fabric. We had textile-driven and not designer-driven fashion shows,” says Vidyun.

This wasn’t surprising, considering that a central element of the contemporary fashion show was entirely missing in this era: the fashion designer. This problem was soon solved when the state set up the National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT) under the Ministry of Textiles in 1986 in Delhi, with a vision of ‘establishing Indian textiles and Indian fashion on the world stage’. From this was to come India’s first batch of official fashion designers.

By the end of the 1980s all the elements were coming together to create a fertile ground for the birth of a new era of fashion and glamour. The fashion show had evolved from a song-and-dance affair to a presentation of textiles and garments. A new breed of professionals had risen who were “choreographers” of these shows. Fashion design had been introduced into the system, even institutionalized, and the first batches of fashion designers were getting ready to wiggle their toes in Indian waters. Television had become a central part of people’s lives, reaching remote corners of the country. Advertising, as a result, was doing extremely well; and increasingly, a lexicon of images—a bikini-clad Karen Lunel (the “Liril Girl”) under a waterfall, the Garden Vareli ladies swirling in swathes of chiffon, the Charminar man astride his bike with pillion-riding girlfriend—was entering the mainstream to help us define this new form of glamour. The stage was set. By the end of the 1980s all the elements were coming together to create a fertile ground for the birth of a new era of fashion and glamour. 

[…]

A series of overlapping coincidences after 1990, the year India dismantled its barriers to foreign capital, or got “globalized,” helped bring glamour further into our lives. As satellite media arrived, television became all-pervasive. Import-export restrictions were lifted, and items that had earlier been luxury goods with high levels of taxation began to enter the market at affordable prices. This was accompanied by a boom in advertising, driven by multinational products entering the Indian market, the explosion of TV channels due to satellite media and the entry of many new magazines. Music channels with smart, international-looking VJs brought pop culture and Western fashion into the world of young Indians. In addition, the advertising industry had developed significantly by now, and began to look outside Bombay for new faces.

As the NIFT experiment proved successful, new fashion designers became rich and famous. Private fashion design schools came up across the country, giving an impetus to design as a profession. This, in turn, led to renewed interest in the “fashion show” as a forum for the showcasing of clothes designed by the growing breed of designers. Ramp modelling came into prominence in 1989, when international fashion houses from Europe, Pierre Cardin and Yves Saint-Laurent, came to India. With the media build-up around this, and the selection of some Indian models to go to Paris, ramp models came into the spotlight.

Meanwhile, India saw spectacular international success at beauty pageants in 1994 when two young women, the 19-year old Sushmita Sen and the 21-year old Aishwarya Rai, won the titles of Miss Universe and Miss World respectively. Social commentator Madhu Kishwar wrote caustically that Indians were celebrating like Americans did when Neil Armstrong landed on the moon.

Even though the 1994 wins were perceived as being the turning point, it was the preceding years that were actually the game-changers. The 1990s saw a change in the demographics of participants in pageants. No longer just elite South Bombay college girls, they were now a wider, more diverse group. Girls from non English-speaking middle classes took to modelling: one of them, Madhu Sapre, came from a traditional Maharashtrian family. She won the Miss India title, later garnering third position in the Miss Universe contest in 1992.

[…]

With Sapre’s win and the consequent world titles feted globally, these women became the role models for many girls from modest socio-economic backgrounds. It was clear that an elite background was no longer necessary to be successful—the requisites could be acquired with dedication and exposure.

[…]

“The time was ripe,” says Sathya Saran, then editor of the women’s magazine that organized the Miss India pageant. “Indian women were CRAVING glamour.” Sathya was instrumental in transforming Femina, a magazine that had been a housewife’s trusted monthly into a vehicle for glamour. She had two silver bullets. With one, she was going to make Miss Indias the next big thing. With the other, she would shoot holes into the drudgery and domesticity of the middle class Indian woman and do something no-one had done before: make her feel good. “We (the magazine) weren’t very glamorous ourselves when we realized that the Indian woman was craving glamour. We started helping her decide whether Indian products are making it up to the grade with foreign products, letting her pick the right things off the shelf, giving her know-how. Not being critical of her but being informative, being like a consultant.”

The magazine upped their beauty pages from two to 15. The “upping” of fashion and beauty pages coincided with the entry of several new cosmetics and lifestyle products in the market in the country, and within months the two were intimately entwined. It was a marriage made in heaven. “Big names were coming in because now the market was ready. The Indian woman was ready.” “The Indian woman was craving glamour.” 

Which “Indian woman” was she catering to? Sathya says, “The urban Indian woman. The aspirational Indian woman who wants to look better, feel better, be a better partner, worker, colleague, whatever. We are talking to HER. And beauty is part of her arsenal for being better.”

But the promotion of Western products doesn’t mean she compromises on Indian values, Sathya stresses. “I’m telling my readers: don’t ‘progress’ at the cost of anything else. You want to be Western, be Western. But it doesn’t mean that when you see an elder person you don’t touch their feet. It means that yes, you are old enough to take a flight and go to another city, and say, I am doing business tonight, tomorrow morning I’ll come back. You are bold enough to ask your husband to take care of your child while you go out tonight. You are bold enough to tell your employer, buddy, I need this cash, if you can’t give it to me I am finding another job. That is being Western, it’s not saying, I don’t care, and putting your parents in an old persons’ home. It’s not saying, I don’t care, I’m using plastic because everyone in the West is using plastic.”

With the introduction of this cocktail of binaries into the magazine—the material West and spiritual East—circulation numbers began to rise in thousands. Or “THOUSANDS” as she says. “Circulation was 63,000 when I took over in 1992. In one year it doubled.”

If these ambitions for the urban, aspirational Indian women were still modest, her drive to make Miss Indias “World Ambassadors” was less so. Conspiracy theorists may think the boom in Indian beauty queens was driven by a world awakening to the potential of India as a market for their beauty products, but not Sathya. “No no that’s not true, India did not happen because it was opening up as a market,” she says, “India happened because we made it happen from here.” She waves a delicate wrist around her, indicating the office and the building that houses the media giant.

“Here inside the walls of this building.”

Excerpted with the permission of Zubaan Books from Mannequin: Working Women in India’s Glamour Industry by Manjima Bhattacharjya. We welcome your comments at ideas.india@qz.com.

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