Some of India’s most powerful woman leaders are as much noticed for their firebrand politics as they are for their simple yet carefully selected wardrobes. Kanimozhi, a cultural icon turned politician keeps it simple with Kota sarees, Chanderi salwars and statement raw silk dupattas. Her sense of style is understated yet appeals to the everyday woman in Tamil Nadu.
Many of our female political leaders enjoy the admiration of lakhs of loyal followers. They are well aware of the hidden messages their clothes and body language convey and they are particular not to be seen as too flashy in the way they dress as an elitist image can distance them from their electorate.
Daaksha Pradheyini, an IT professional who saw Kanimozhi campaign during the recently concluded Lok Sabha polls, says, “Kanimozhi’s dressing is simple but the textures and colours are unique. She wore a monotone sky blue saree in jute with silver jewellery to match. It was whilst addressing her party men. It conveyed so much dignity and there was self-assured body language. A lot of the body language comes from being comfortable in what you wear too.”
Kanimozhi is known to shop at select designer stores in Chennai and also has a personal designer in Khader Nawaz Khan Road with whom she gets her outfits made. As an MP, her look has predominantly shifted from crisp salwar suits to well draped sarees in jute, organic cotton and raw silk. Sometimes she can be spotted sporting a colourful Sambalpur silk saree..
Stylist and well-known designer Tina Vincent says, “I design clothes for many politicians in Tamil Nadu. The brief is very simple, they want to be dignified and convey strength. I work on their look including the minutest detail of what a print may convey or a motif will reveal. Most politicians, and this includes men, prefer indigenous fabrics.
Although I give them options of great fabrics that I source from Italy and Thailand, they mostly prefer high quality cotton, linen and raw silks." She continues, "Kanimozhi’s look defines her as a person. She is very positive and giving as a person. The colours she wears are pleasing, approachable and nothing out of the ordinary. This works for her in the rural terrain too."
Sreemoyee Kundu, an author and keen observer of Indian politicians, says, "Comfort is essential. Look at Sonia Gandhi for example, she seems at ease while standing atop a campaign vehicle, running into the crowds and hugging people and managing long distances in sweltering heat. The clothes she wears are simple cottons and handloom sarees. She seems more of a weaves person than bold prints. Her taste in sarees is impeccable. Often we can see her in Khadi or Thelia Rumaal weaves from A.P. Nowadays, a similar sense of style can be spotted on Priyanka Gandhi."
Priyanka Gandhi Vadra is also mostly seen in Orissa, Bengal or Andhra textures, often teamed with a contrast blouse or a simple white cotton blouse. Sonia and Priyanka both ditch the fussy, embroidered look and opt for a subdued yet striking sense of style. In 2009, at a massive public rally in Amethi, Priyanka is said to have worn her grandmother Indira Gandhi’s heritage Orissa saree with tribal weaves and a border.
Sushma Swaraj, one of India’s most popular faces around the globe as foreign minister is said to prefer pure cottons but of no particular style. However, she reportedly wears colours for each day of the week as her astro charts indicate, while J. Jayalalithaa, as most are aware, used to wear fall-well sarees that would conceal her weight.
Politicians like Smriti Irani, Kanimozhi, Nirmala Sitharaman, Sushma Swaraj and even Sonia Gandhi demonstrate that saris are a medium to convey their concern and care. It is both symbolic and strategic of them to tell the people of each State that leaders at the National level are in touch with you, your flavours and textures. They choose their saris carefully, not as personal style statements but to also endear themselves to a regional audience when in their State.
For example: Smriti Irani wore a Kanjeeveram in Tamil Nadu. On the campaign trail in Silchar, Sharmishta Mukherjee, daughter of former President Pranab Mukherjee wore a stunning Bodo weave in Assam. On her visit to Andhra many years ago, Jayalalithaa is said to have requested the Late CM NTR’s wife Lakshmi Parvati to suggest places where she can send her staff to buy ikat sarees for a function she was planning to host for her family members. Sonia Gandhi, once on a trip to Kashmir, wore the local feran and the crowds loved it.
Former professor at National Institute of Fashion Technology, Fibin Raj who now runs his own fashion workshops in Kerala, says, "Be it a crisp saree or a handloom saree, the clothes worn by politicians are expensive. They are difficult to source because of high standards of quality and also pliability of the material to dyeing and any extra work that needs to be done. Whilst it’s necessary to create an image in the minds of the people they serve, they must definitely be comfortable. Hence, quality becomes very important and with it the prices of the sarees.
Speaking of Priyanka Gandhi, he says, "It’s not rare then to discover the 47-year-old Priyanka dressed in colour-blocked cotton sarees with contrast borders, whether accompanying mum Sonia in Rae Bareli, brother Rahul in Amethi or while campaigning in Ghaziabad. In Varanasi, she accessorised a stripy yarn handloom with rudraksh beads." At the other end of the spectrum is the extremely coy and classy Rekha who as the distinguished member of the Rajya Sabha turned up in exquisite kanjeevaram sarees. She is known for her over-embellished look teamed perfectly with her meticulously done make-up. Rekha is known to shop for her sarees from all over India and has a special fondness for a store in Chennai that she shops at when she’s here to visit her sister Dr. Kamala Selvaraj. It is said that Rekha’s taste in sarees is so refined that she is particular about the kind of zari that is used and each saree costs anywhere between ?65,000 to ?1,50,000.
Tina Vincent says, “Rekha is a champion of her roots from Tamil Nadu and flaunts the Kancheevaram at every event across the globe. It’s also nice to see her sashay into Parliament with so much style.” And asks, “Why must politicians dress only in simple handlooms to convey power or dignity.”
For some women perhaps this projection of image is not something they consciously work on. Kirron Kher, for example, is spotted in exquisite sarees and the finest jewellery. Even on her campaign trail she wears sarees that would cost anywhere between ?12,000-25,000. Hema Malini too turns up immaculately for every event and even while posing for a picture on her campaign trail she was spotted in a designer saree on a field in scorching heat. Whilst trolls went after her for sporting a elitist look, she trumped home with a victory for her party. So, perhaps dressing doesn’t really decide the destinies of our neta ladies.
Image consultant Sapna Handa, says “People have gone past just judging people based on their appearance and looks. Hema Malini was listened to and perhaps she struck a chord with the people. The sanskari look is overrated and Indians, be it rural or urban, are now looking at content and not just the façade. If you look closer, Narendra Modi who is tallest leader has transformed into one of the most stylish politicians who is wearing top designers and still has a rising rural votebank.”