The evolution of fashion in Delhi University, from Bell Bottoms to Bralettes.
Flashback to the 80s. Rekha is dressed in a low-cut black polka-dots blouse, and a pair of high waisted jeans procured from the Tibetan black market. Her friend Malini, in a belted midi dress and a side pony, hopes to look like her style icon Sri Devi. Today they would have to pool an auto to college, to avoid the discomforting gaze in public buses.
When I talked to my dad, KMC batch of 1985, about writing an article on the evolution of fashion in DU, he said – “Well that would be difficult, because students before the twenty first century hardly put any effort in styling themselves”.
But as Meryl Streep tells Anne Hathaway in Devil wears Prada that even her drab blue sweater will be considered fashionable at some point of time. So, I tell my father, “Even when you weren’t trying to be fashionable, you were still part of a kind of fashion.”
It’s hard to imagine a time without Sarojni Nagar – isn’t it? But before the reign of Sarojni nagar , Janpath and Kamla Nagar were the king of the game. The Tibetan Market was also a huge hit with North campus students in the 80s (Well that hasn’t changed has it?). “This was the only place you could get a smuggled pair of jeans” recalls Pooja Bawa**. Imagine a time, when you couldn’t slip into jeans and pair it with everything under the sun? She recalls how the only way to procure a pair of Levi’s jeans before liberalization (1991) was to ask your uncle/aunty going abroad to get a pair for you.
Low cut blouses, sleeveless, fitted kurtis and knee length skirts were considered quite racy at that time. As opposed to the outside world, women found DU liberating. By the late 90s, you could almost wear anything a “man could wear” and more. Or less. Ms. Pooja Bawa**, Hindu batch of 88 and now a teacher at LSR described the campus of Delhi university as a bubble, where you could wear what you wanted, and express yourself quite freely. But that protective bubble burst as soon as you got back into the DTC bus.
Fashion choices and transport have always been intertwined. What one wore would affect their means of transport, and vice versa. But has that really changed a lot?
Safety in Delhi has been work-in-progress, and a rather slow one. Yet the advent of Delhi metros in 2002 was not merely a technological transformation. Students of all genders could embrace bolder outfits and travel in a safer space. The birth of the women’s compartment was symbolic for freedom of self-expression. It welcomed women dressed in skirts inspired by Karishma Kapoor, short cardigans and bright nail paint from the streets of Sarojini. A large part of the journey could now be spent without looking over your shoulder.
What you wear and how you dress is often seen as an extension of your personality. Washing powder is often sold on the idea that your clothes reflect your confidence and panache. Even when clothes do not mirror one’s personality- stereotypes make you believe that they do.
Well Delhi University wasn’t aloof to this kind of stereotyping. Stereotypes related to clothing were also rampant in student politics. Maitreyi Solanki**, a graduate of Hindu College (batch of 1989), talks about the images of left wingers that had been created back in the day. The intellectual group of students would be identified by what they wore- a khadi kurta, jeans/pyjama, Kohlapuri Chappals and a Jhola. Aman**, a student of Delhi School of Economic talks about how his style changed to minimalist clothing when he came to DSE, then seen as the hub for leftists. He recalls that the aim was to not put too much effort and money in what he wore, since that would be antithetical to the ideology he believed in – Socialism. Currently, the left archetype is not limited to kurta and jeans. Graphic tees with images of Marx, and Che Guevara are pretty popular with DU students. Alia**, from LSR, tells us about her favorite T- shirt, which says – “Marx is my homeboy”. In today’s world of performative activism, your ‘wokeness’ should be worn on your sleeve, quite literally.
Sheila Iyer**, a student of Miranda House, batch of 1954 speaks of another stereotype- girls being divided into two groups based on their clothing. There was a ‘hep group’ that wore fashionable turtle necks, vests and blouses to college. The other group, referred to as the “behenjis”, would pleat their hair and wear sarees. With the advent of the Indo Western style, the archetypes of behenji and hep have seemed to blurred. Sarees, which were once considered too traditional are now a go to option for functions at college. Customizing saris with bralettes and crop tops is in! Other fusions include wearing the kurti with jeans and salvar with a crop top. When I asked a current Miranda House student about this division Ms. Sheila talked of, she said, “It honestly doesn’t matter anymore, fusion wear and comfortable style makes today’s fashion rather non-judgmental. Or at least it is like that in a girls’ college.”
DU has often been called a hub for multiculturalism and this diversity also reflects in the clothes people wear. Although most outstation students feel the ‘Dilli ki hawa’, they still bring with them pieces of home to this new city. Inaya**, a student of LSR, originally from Assam talks about DU’s receptiveness to diverse culture. She gave an instance of how she wore the Mekhela Chador, an Assamese outfit on Bihu, to college. She shares that for an out-station student, wearing little pieces of their culture makes them feel closer to home.
But diversity isn’t always accepted. Anushree**, a Gargi student from Kerala says she likes to wear a bindi every day. People often mock her, suggesting that it doesn’t go with her jeans and top. It proves that we at DU, are non- judgmental at our own convenience.
At each point in history, some elements of fashion are considered deviant in societies, but have been normalized in university spaces. Ms. Pooja** reminisces how coming from orthodox households to a liberal university was an eye-opening experience. “Fashion was rebellion and rebellion was fashion”, she says. Inspiring student uprisings like the Tianhmen Square protest (1989) called for revolution. It was time for experiments and change. Socio-political dissent was also reflected in the fashion trends of that time and led to the birth of an anti-fashion sub-culture. The Hippie movement of the West was a popular influence on many students, who now smoked pot, wore beaded necklaces, baggy tie-dye pants and advocated free love, environmentalism and anti-establishment sentiments.
“Holding an unlit cigarette between your fingers was also an element of style.” says Sumathy** from LSR batch of 87. Cigarettes symbolized liberation from the shackles of your patriarchal households where one had to conform to the archetype of an ‘ideal woman’. She shared that back at home, wearing “revealing outfits”, smoking and drinking was considered deviant. Tina Malhotra**, DRC batch of ‘89 recalls her mother’s warnings- “Wear whatever you want to, but don’t call attention to yourself.” 19-year-old Tina, who was reading feminist works of Betty Freidman and Judith Butler in class, was tempted to do the opposite.
To a simpleton outstation student, the metropolitan wardrobe options would often be shocking. Yet women who dressed “liberally” in short skirts and tank tops were considered “easy” by conservatives on campus, who often assassinated their character Style has always been strictly gendered. So has colour. Mr. Vishal** of batch of 81 tells us that it was almost taboo for men to wear bright colours such as Red and Pink to college. Long hair, nail-polish, nose and ear piercings threatened the typical 90s man’s sense of masculinity. For a brief period in the 90s, owing to Sanjay Dutt, men on campus would sport long hair. But, it was just a fad. The world existed in binaries and terms such as “Pansies” would be used for men who wouldn’t conform. Even trans persons could not assert their identities due to the fear of being singled out.
However, now men can embrace bold colours in their outfits. When I ask Ishaan Roy**, a student of Ramjas College about whether he likes wearing pink, he says he loves all its gradients. Trans students now assert their identities more freely through fashion as well. Many products sport the rainbow pattern, showing solidarity with the movement. There is a conscious effort to use yarns of every colour to weave the fabric of inclusivity.
Dresses here are never “too short”, shirts for men never “too pink” and make-up never “too bold”. But once you leave, and fall back into reality, you can never be free of the constant judgement from your neighbour aunty, the prurient shop keepers and lecherous uncles.
Rekha and Malini head back home as they catch the last U Special on the Ramjas Khalsa Route to Lajpat Nagar. They couldn’t miss the last show of Mr. India at Regal Cinemas. Rekha puts a shawl over her blouse, and Malini wears a jacket over her dress.
Freedom to wear what you want, only seemed to last till the Vishwavidhyalaya bus stop.
**Names have been changed to maintain privacy.
Featured Image Credits: Times of India