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Gender bending fashion for the new age?
NIDHI GUPTA  1st Dec 2012

[l-R] Designs by Arjun Saluja , kanika saluja and Aastha Sethi and Siddharth Arora

n 2003, designer Rohit Bal trotted out on the ramp a line of uber-sexy bare-chested men with kohl-smudged eyes, sindoor in their hair, wrapped in brocade skirts and elaborate lungis. This look, complete with flowers in their hair, was Bal's interpretation of androgynous fashion – men comfortable enough with their 'feminine' to wear it on their sleeve – and a rather bold statement in a land that was on the cusp of embracing a brave new world.

A decade later, as the world celebrates sexuality in all its forms and manifestations, androgyny has found new life – both on and off the ramp. One only has to visit fashion photographer Scott Schuman's comprehensive online diary of all things style related – the Sartorialist – to see just how masculinity and femininity is blending everywhere, from Istanbul to Tokyo. The dinner jackets, leather loafers, long hair on men and short punk styles on women and baggy pants make it hard to tell the difference. This ambiguity is now being hailed as a mark of greater equality. But does it make for fashion trend catching on in India?

"I don't think androgyny is a fashion trend – it is a mindset. Women have a masculine side to them too. Being able to dress up as a man only shows they're comfortable with it. It shows that they don't think or any less about themselves – and that is a paradigm shift in any society," says designer Kanika Saluja Chaudhary. With her shaved head, elaborate piercings and patent leather boots, she may as well be the embodiment of this way of thinking. Her collection Anaikka, showcased at the Wills Lifestyle Fashion Week in October, boasts of 'power dressing' for women. Her gladiator jackets and suspender pants are particularly popular with a fashion-conscious generation.

There are others within the Indian design fraternity who are choosing to experiment with androgyny in the wardrobe, amply showcased at the last two fashion galas this year. While Divyam Mehta's 'Spring Creek' range is a masterclass in different ways of tying a piece of cloth, which can suit both man and woman, which comes down to everything from ruffled skirts for men to plain dhotis for women. Debutante designers Aastha Sethi and Siddharth Arora's 'Comical Collection' stressed on stiff shoulders, sharp cuts and solid colours to make a gender-bending statement.

Arjun Saluja's spring-summer 2013 range under his brand 'Rishta' features oversized shirts and shapeless shifts for women, pant-skirts and chiselled jackets for men. "Androgyny has been a part of India for a long time – from the Maharaja who wears the turban to the politician who wears a dhoti, to all the jewellery that is part of the common man's essentials. So I don't think this is particularly new to us. What is new is the fact that there is more power to the woman – even at the grassroots level. This automatically means a stronger sense of self, which will be evident in the way we dress," he elaborates.

Androgyny may well be a marker of greater tidings as far as the gender debate is concerned, but on the couture street, it is still niche. "Androgynous fashion is still seen as controversial. For us designers, it is a fantasy to see these 'crazy' designs walking out on the road. But I do think it will spread like wild fire soon," says a hopeful Chaudhary, who has sold 700 designs from her latest collection. So if Anushka Sharma, Sonam Mahapatra, and Manasi Scott can pull it off, can the rest of us really be that far behind?

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