New Delhi, India – Trend spotters have predicted “austerity chic” will be in this year across the fashion hotspots of Milan, Paris, New York and London.
That will be nothing new in India, where for more than 60 years male politicians have worn white traditional garments to suggest a certain austerity and purity.
Whether north Indian politicians who wear kurtas and pajamas, Bengali politicians who wear the traditional dhuti, or Punjabi or southern politicians who wear spotless veshtis and shirts, white is their colour of choice.
“Indian politicians are smart, canny and wily. They dress to woo voters. White works. White is the ultimate sartorial statement,” says novelist Shobhaa De.
De’s latest novel Sethji is a caricature of a corpulent and corrupt Indian politician. She admits that while working on the novel, her main character wore white in her mind’s eye. “I couldn’t visualise him in anything but white. That’s how deep and powerful the ‘white wash’ is”, she says, tongue firmly in cheek.
Leading Indian fashion designer Rina Dhaka says white is an important colour for the Indian clothing and garment industry. “White works in our tropical country when the heat is merciless and politicians are expected to go out to meet people,” she explains.
“The colour white has been … a favourite among political leaders traditionally, as they were expected to be ‘spotless’.”
– Shefalee Vasudev, culture writer
She says independence leader Mahatma Gandhi’s use of white garments was political, while the trademark white churidhar kurta with a red rose tucked in the buttonhole of the dapper Jawaharlal Nehru – the country’s first prime minister – added elegance to the male politician’s good looks.
The choice of wearing white has had political and social connotations in India since pre-independence times. “Ironic as it sounds, the colour white has been … a favourite among political leaders traditionally, as they were expected to be ‘spotless’ – untainted,” notes Shefalee Vasudev, a popular culture writer. “Like blank slates, open and available for the service of their people.”
Mahatma Gandhi, dubbed the “half naked fakir” by ex-British PM Winston Churchill, wore khadi, white handspun cloth, as a mark of protest until his death, refusing to don formal western clothing even during his meetings with heads of state or other luminaries.
Gandhi’s civil disobedience ideals included having Indians spinning and manufacturing their own yarn to make khadi, instead of buying mill-spun cloth from England forced into the Indian market before 1947.
Although many Indian politicians are perceived as corrupt today, the colour white continues to be their favourite – from old men like Gandhian civil activist Anna Hazare to the young Rahul Gandhi, the great-grandson of Nehru largely perceived to be a prime ministerial aspirant.
Associating purity with the colour white isn’t just confined to India. In much of the world, the colour white has stood for high moral character and virtue.
In the US, for instance, TV commentator and Washington socialite Barbara Howar gave the term “white hat” popular currency, referring to a good man or a hero. And American political writer William Safire in his political dictionary calls the colour white a “Western-movie metaphor where good guys wear white hats and bad guys black”.
The colourful female leader
Indian women parliamentarians, however, don colourful saris and do not conform to the “white code” of male Indian politicians.
Dhaka, the fashion designer, points out that “for the Indian male, wearing white is a uniform to suggest moral honesty in political and public life. For the female, white has a traditional association with widowhood – hence it makes sense that female politicians choose to [not] wear [that] colour.”
Congress Party president Sonia Gandhi wears the best of traditional Indian handloom saris from across the states.
Women chief ministers like Mayawati from Uttar Pradesh wear shiny polyester and silk salwar kameezes, Mamta Banerjee from West Bengal wears traditional Bengali saris, and J Jayalalithaa from Tamil Nadu often wears the auspicious colour green.
Former actresses and female parliamentarians like Jaya Bachchan and Jayaprada wear designer saris and salwars in deep and bright colours while southern MP Kanimozhi wears colourful weaves from her home state, Tamil Nadu.
“The fact that female politicians do not subscribe to wearing white as an obligatory diktat is because their sense of individualism seems to be stronger,” says Vasudev. “If at all, I am very glad as an observer to see that certain female politicians are able to make a contrary or an individual point.”
Some are sceptical about whether the devotion to white will continue. Former federal minister and leader of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, who admits to often wearing white himself, says the young Indian male politician is changing. “He’s a global citizen, and the old Gandhian call for wearing white swadeshi or Indian cloth is waning,” he says.
But apart from a few feeble protests, the majority of Indian male politicians continue to wear white on public platforms. Politicians “think it helps white-wash all manners of sin before the public,” quips Prahlad Kakkar, a popular culture commentator.