By Tejaswi Subramanian
Veena Balakrishnan is a 20-something fashion designer and one half of Two’s Company, a Chennai-based sustainable practices consultancy. Balakrishnan also recently got married. As might be expected from her, she put together thoughtful and sustainable bridal attire, which was also suitably sentimental for the occasion.
Where other Indian brides might splurge on statement-making silk sarees for their ‘big day’, Veena wore the same saree that her grandmother bought for her trousseau. She complimented it with family jewellery, and the combination came together beautifully. Her grandmother was also present at the wedding, and watched her get married in a saree that she had passed onto her. “After all, it is proven that people who invest in experiences over products tend to be happier,” notes Veena, proudly.
Veena’s story struck a chord with me. In my head, it aligned nicely with stories I have been reading about women who live their lives in the public limelight, and their choice of outfits.
Tiffany Haddish’s white Alexander McQueen dress, which cost her $4000, is one of my favourite fashion moments of the year thus far. She wore it to this year’s Oscars (where she also took off her heels and put on UGGs to be more comfortable, and thoroughly won my entire heart) and before that, on the Girl’s Trip red carpet and while hosting Saturday Night Live (SNL). She even commented on the dress in her SNL monologue saying, “I feel like if I pay good money for something, I wear it when I want, however many times I want, as long as I Febreze it.” Like a true fashionista, she mixed it up by doing her hair differently and wearing different pieces of jewellery for the three occasions. In fact, I am now excited to see how she might wear it the next time!
Gone are the days of Carrie Bradshaw, who famously never repeated the same dress twice. But what’s the harm in repeating the dress if you can put together a different outfit, I wonder. After all, fashion is all about creativity. The people who turn our heads with their fashion choices aren’t the ones who are wearing a new skirt or toting a new bag every day. They are the ones who have exquisite taste, a great eye for colours, and a natural tendency for aesthetics. They use fashion to make a statement about themselves and to express better.
In fact, Parisian women, who have been famous for their fashion sense since the days of Coco Chanel, are known for their lack of interest in keeping up with trends. They update their wardrobe with the choicest of pieces, few times a year, if not rarer. The emphasis is on developing an individualistic style, a signature look. Even fashion editors at top magazines are picky about what they choose to buy. They see their clothes as an investment, and rarely pick things on a whim or just for an evening. Don’t believe me? Google it!
So why is it that the rest of us feminine mortals feel the heat when we might repeat our outfits and accessories? According to a study by London-based sustainability firm, Hubbub, 41% of young women between the ages of 18-25 years feel the pressure to wear a different outfit every time they go out. The pressure is felt by women of all ages alike. The same study reported that 33% of all women consider an outfit to be ‘old’ after wearing it fewer than three times!
The way I see it, this is a problem in two highly important ways.
Firstly, this is a ‘woman’ problem. Women are made to feel this way by the media, the male gaze, and by the anticipated judgment from other women. Most women take their (pseudo-)responsibility of being trend-setters and keepers of beauty standards, way too seriously! It’s not just me, but I have two fashionable powerhouses agreeing with me.
Former US first lady Michelle Obama spoke about how it gets her goat when women are scrutinised for repeating their outfit. In her post for Vogue, she cited Susan Bardo, professor of Gender and Women’s Studies at the University of Kentucky: “Women have to calibrate their outfits carefully to avoid being too schoolmarish and too sexually provocative, and to regulate their emotional presence to be both warm and charming and ‘tough enough to handle the job”. All the while, “many male politicians can relax with a pretty standard dress code and are rarely criticized for being too ‘serious’ ‘gruff’ or ‘ungracious’.”
Why is there this double standard? I am not propagating that women stop caring about what they wear. I am, in fact, insisting that they begin to care about what they wear deeply. They ought to care enough to defend their outfit from an onslaught of criticism for the laughable crime of ‘repeating it’.
Media baroness Ariana Huffington believes that this attitude can help us women focus on what’s truly important to us in our public lives—the work that we do, the causes that we care about, the fun we are having during an evening out! She kickstarted the #StyleRepeats movement and pointed out that, “women are at a competitive disadvantage with men—we waste an enormous amount of time and energy on picking a different outfit for every occasion.” She goes on to suggest that we “level the playing field by buying something you love—I am not against beautiful clothes—and wear it again and again and again.”
There is another issue at play here. One that Veena emphasises in her work through Two’s Company. The fashion industry is the world’s second-biggest polluter, second only to oil. The ‘fast fashion’ trend, which is led by popular labels such as H&M and Zara, thrives on this modern-age tendency to shop for a low-price, low-quality piece on a whim (or on the regular, as e-commerce platforms announce sale after sale), wear it once or twice, and then discard them as they go out of trend or for fear that people will notice it as having been worn one too many times!
Women, take your (this time, real) responsibility of being trend-setters and keepers of beauty a little more seriously. Be thoughtful and mindful in making purchases for your wardrobe. Turn down peddlers of cheap, flimsy clothing for timeless pieces than become part of who you are in your public life. Recalibrate your idea of beauty to that of a greener planet, and become a trend-setter by not selling out to mindless trends.
Tejaswi Subramanian is a senior sub editor at Qrius.