How do you pronounce Levi’s? Do you say “Leeve-eyes”, as the phonetically-aware would, or “Levees”, like the plebs? At one time, the way you pronounced this famous denim jeans brand name of 1853 vintage immediately segregated the vernacular brigade of Calcutta from the smart set. Today, even if you call them “jean pant”, you are, as one slogan in the Levi’s website goes: Destined for denims.
Suddenly, Calcutta with its permanent air of despondency, network of cratered roads, traffic moving at a sclerotic pace, disruptive rallies, and a plethora of ugly, new buildings has become part of the global village. The majority of its citizenry sports mobile phones, and, jeans have become the standard uniform of the masses, irrespective of gender.
Homogeneity is an inevitable fallout of globalisation, and everyone wants to act and look alike, irrespective of economic status and the degree of volition. Everybody is turning out to be a clone of each other.
The mobile phone became a powerful communication tool for everybody from the garbage picker to the CEO, for unlike the Net, it is quite affordable. Now a pair of jeans, irrespective of provenance, label and price, gives the wearer the same sense of belonging.
The dhoti had fallen from its prime position as the national dress of the Indians long before Independence, and now denims have usurped the sartorial sovereignty of the drab pant and shirt. For very practical reasons, the salwar kameez had long overtaken the sari. Now the hard-wearing jeans have become the last word in non-gendered habiliment.
My friend’s daughter Ayesha Dutt, who goes to Loreto House in Middleton Row, wears them and so does my maid’s son, Sapan Shaw, who is engaged as an apprentice in an electronic goods repair shop in Lake Town. A denim devotee, this lad from Titagarh in his early 20s wore jeans to his recent sagai.
Perhaps there is a difference of a few thousand rupees between the jeans that Ayesha and Sapan wear, but it is the same article of clothing and faith as well. They both wear them because they are comfortable and trendy. And both feel they are with it in them. As the 15-year-old Ayesha puts it: “You can wear them as casuals and formal wear as well. For formal occasions I wear black ones.”
Young people would be seen in nothing else but denims not just at parties and weddings but at shradhs too. This would have welcomed outrage a few generations ago. Now it is matter of course. Dudes with well-muscled and gym-toned bodies hang around in packs at street corners and puja pandals, occasionally with predatory intent.
Jeans are often not particularly flattering to the Indian female form. Yet, girls of every age, size and conceivable shape flaunt them. It has become an indispensable part of their wardrobe, and the last Puja provided adequate proof of this. They brave the hazards of the local train and bone-rattling buses in denim ensembles, albeit flashing with bling.
The old order changeth
|Calcutta with its permanent air of despondency, network of cratered roads, traffic moving at a sclerotic pace, disruptive rallies, and a plethora of ugly, new buildings has become part of the global village. The majority of its citizenry sports mobile phones, and, jeans have become the standard uniform of the masses, irrespective of gender.
A cottage industry in churning out cut-price jeans exists in Chatta Kalikapur of Mahestala on the southern fringes of the city. Sheikh Anaul Karim, 35, who manufactures them, says: “We have been stitching trousers for generations — must be 30 to 40 years. Now we manufacture jeans. There are at least one thousand small tailoring establishments here where jeans are made. They are mostly Bengali Muslims and send supplies to Mangalar Haat in Howrah, Metiabruz and Harisahar Haat in north Calcutta. During Durga Puja we had to step up production — 500 pieces per week. Each pair costs anything between Rs 180 and Rs 300. Computer embroidery is very popular. The software enables 12 to 20 pieces to be embroidered at the same time.” Tailoring has gone hi-tech in suburbia.
Neha Dutt, 26, who went to La Martiniere, Calcutta, studied at the London School of Economics, is now a banker in London, and is still a frequent visitor to this city, in a lengthy email, sent her views on the jeans revolution in this backwater: “Back in West Bengal, Bollywood/Tollywood movies for one, have been instrumental in influencing people’s tastes in clothing — when you see Prosenjit in House Full or Bollywood’s blue-eyed boy Ranbir Kapoor in Wake Up Sid, donning a pair of casual denims, people begin to associate that style of dressing with being cool.
“From a societal perspective, elders no longer attach the same level of anti-Western stigma to their children wearing jeans anymore — that’s old game now. This form of apparel has insidiously slipped under the radar of hawk-eyed, overly jingoistic saffron brigades, who often wear jeans themselves when embarking on yet another irrational lathicharge outside Archies on Valentine’s Day, oblivious to the fact that they are contradicting their own cause by doing so… jeans are no longer limited to the reach of elitist cliques of haute couture — they have become a quintessential addition to every wardrobe — a bare minimum measure on the barometer of socially accepted trendy attire.”
Jeans have wormed into the homes of orthodox business communities, too. Modern High, La Martiniere or Loreto-going daughters can’t be expected to wear anything dowdy. Earlier, post-marriage, those very girls would leave behind their girlish ways and drape themselves in yards of silk and chiffon. Not any longer. Girls are regulars at gyms and beauty salons today, and matrimony is not incompatible with jeans any longer.
Anjana Jaipuria, a homemaker, who herself sports jeans, says: “Unlike the older generation, that unquestioningly conformed to the rules of society, jeans is second skin to today’s generation. Mindsets have changed. There is more exposure now, and globalisation, too, has influenced our way of life.”
True, the old order does not hold any longer.
Rare to regular
The sway of jeans extends beyond social gatherings, educational institutions and workplaces bearing the stamp of safety and respectability. Red-light areas, however sleazy, have turned à la mode, and noctilucent ladies of the night in heavily sequinned jeans and evening gowns have become the most shimmering features of the city’s underbelly.
One need not plumb the depths of Sonagachhi to discover this. Just a drive down Jatindra Mohan Avenue, that is the extension of Chittaranjan Avenue, Beadon Street onwards, around midnight would prove me right. Thanks to TV channels, one needn’t go to NIFT to be well up on fashion trends.
Jeans have travelled a long way from their origin in the Wild West. In the Swinging Sixties of the famous student uprisings, they represented radical chic, and they became de rigueur in a certain college on Park Street. Here, a charmed circle of students from upscale (read Westernised) families felt more at home in Woodstock that held a promise of a weed-induced nirvana. The greatest snob value was attached to faded blue jeans, which only the truly privileged could lay their hands on.
Krishna Sen, who teaches English in the post-graduate classes of Calcutta University and was herself a student of Loreto College, says: “In those days a pair of Levi’s was as rare as Swiss chocolate. It was a cult thing.” They came to Calcutta via Clint Eastwood movies. College Street was immune to fashion’s foibles, for, as Sen says, those were the tumultuous days of the Molotov cocktail in that street of learning.
“By a strange reversal of values” jeans have lost their exclusivity. The “transnationalisation of urban youth” was behind the sudden expansion of the denim domain. Jeans rode piggyback on Bruce Lee films and slowly found their way into the conservative heartland of the city.
At her institution, Krishna adds, the “catchment area is a little less elitist” than, say Jadavpur University, and girls feel more comfortable in salwar kameez, as “skimpy tops are not safe on suburban trains.”
But jeans paired with kurtis are fine. In the same breath she declares that this combination is the rage at Marks and Spencer in London. If it is a rage in Calcutta, can London be far behind? That is the way of a topsy-turvy world.