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How the gilet is redefining the look of Indian politicians | fashion and trends

How the gilet is redefining the look of Indian politicians | fashion and trends

The recently concluded winter session of Parliament was the news for many reasons: the passage of the controversial 10 per cent quota for poor upper-castes, the protests over the citizenship bill, and a bruising war-of-words over the Rafale jet deal.

But what may have gone unnoticed is a subtle shift in the sartorial tastes of some politicians, especially those from the younger crop. And, what stood out was the gilet, the humble sleeveless jacket, quilted or otherwise, that made its presence felt across the political divide this winter, from Congress president Rahul Gandhi and senior party leaders Jyotiraditya Scindia and Sachin Pilot to Bharatiya Janata Party MP Anurag Thakur, YSR Congress party chief Jagan Mohan Reddy and National Conference leader Omar Abdullah.

Fashion and politics in India have always gone hand-in-hand, right from the days of Mahatma Gandhi, says Parag Goswami, a professor at Pearl Academy, pointing out that one of Gandhi’s thrusts was on the use of traditional fabric and Khadi. “Gandhi used the semiotics of clothing and visual media to expose the British. That legacy has stayed and clothing of politicians continues to have a visual and psychological impact,” he says.


The gilet grabbed international headlines last year, as angry protests over rising taxes and fuel prices swept France and rocked the government. The movement was called ‘gilets jaunes’ (French for yellow vests) to signify the characteristic vests the protesters wore.

The gilet’s humble beginnings started in the 14th or 15th century with leather when it functioned to keep the wearer warm, while not restricting movement like a heavy woolen or fleece jacket would. As the popularity of the garment spread, the aristocracy took over and padded it – giving rise to quilts and various new fashions.

For most of the 20th century, the sleeveless jacket languished in the backbenches of fashion and was treated as a piece of garment for everyday use. But it roared back into high-fashion at the turn of the millennium when designers such as Calvin Klein used and updated the look.

The demand was further fuelled by celebrities such as One Direction member and teen heartthrob Harry Styles and Ginger Spice Geri Halliwell sporting the gilet, which quickly trickled down from high fashion to mass-market stores. The humble jacket had been reborn.

He cites the example of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who made the traditional jacket his own, along with various colourful headgear . “And now, the younger generation are subtly changing the dynamics. In a country with a large youth demographic, the gilet represents something youthful and current, because you can find such jackets on young people – and for as little as ~500.”

Dressing for politicians can be tricky. They have to look well put-together without going over-the-top and retain mass connect. In India, a number of politicians such as Jawaharlal Nehru (long coats), Indira Gandhi ( sarees), AB Vajpayee (dhoti) have used clothes to make a point. Regional leaders such as Mamata Banerjee or J Jayalalithaa have also left a mark with their trademark styles. As former NIFT professor Harmeet Bajaj points out, “historically, clothing has been a means of communication, of profession, status or personality.”

For Bajaj, the gilet represents a “slight innovation” over the traditional kurta pyjama . “They are connecting with the youth. It is also saying that you don’t need to look dowdy as a politician.” But she points out that many of the so-called trendsetters are men.

The gilet turn is not just a fashion statement, thinks President of the Fashion Design Council of India Sunil Sethi, but also about practicality. “It is a mass product produced by every high-street brand. To me, it is practicality over fashion. I personally think it shows modernity of thought, looks trendy and also resonates with young masses who wear it for day-to-day wear.”

But can the gilet become as big a political statement as traditional attire? Unlikely, say the experts. “This will never take away from the Nehru jacket and the Modi kurta,” thinks Sethi. And, Goswami feels there will be more experimentation with older fabric like Khadi. And, ultimately, the sartorial tastes of politicians is likely to revolve around tradition. “Look at our bandhgala, it easily fits into a setting with world leaders wearing bespoke suits. Indian-ness is the fashion statement of a politician,” says Sethi.

First Published:
Feb 22, 2019 23:10 IST

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