Ms Representation: The price of fashion
This weekly column is a rumination on how women are portrayed in cinema and this week the author writes about the forced expectations on female actors to look different
My late grandmother, a homemaker, had a thing for the kind of clothes and fashion the multi-faceted Bhanumathi and MS Subbulakshmi espoused on screen and stage -- think Chinese collar, puff-sleeved blouses, short pallus for sarees. My mother and aunts grew up admiring Savithri, trying to recreate her onscreen looks -- the high bindi, the loose braid... My older cousins had Nadhiya – oh Nadhiya, who brought a splash of colour into our lives: calf-length skirts, white-cut shoes, and colourful earrings. And later in the 90s came Heera, whose sense of style was impeccable in films like Idhayam and Sathi Leelavathi.
And then something was lost. After the 90s there haven’t been any sweeping fashion inspirations from our screens for women. No, Trisha’s look in 96 doesn’t count because it wasn’t a consistent image and did not build on her personality or charisma off-screen. For all these other women, their ‘image’ and look onscreen spilled on to real life, blurring the space and creating a female fan base that flowed seamlessly between the two.
What changed? Is it that women’s careers became so short that there just wasn’t enough time for them to make a splash like this? Or was it that women were offered such a wide variety of roles, and by inference weren’t before, that they didn’t feel the need to create one ‘image’ for themselves? Or perhaps was it a mix of both these reasons?
What an ‘image’ offers is stability, a reliable fall back, and a sense of continuity. It builds a larger-than-life space, like Rajinikanth and his style, for someone and allows them to stay relevant longer than others. For actresses today, to take a leaf out of Bhanumathi and Savithri to experiment with their ‘image’ and then to stick with it, to create a legacy and style statement could seem daunting, what with all the pressure to showcase variety.
Today, the work of actresses’ spills from cinema halls onto red carpets and Instagram pages. All of this is fun of course, but also places a disproportionate burden on women in cinema.… How much is enough? Are you really big enough if you opt out of this side of showmanship? Have you really arrived if you aren’t walking the red carpet for some designer in Cannes? On top of this are tabloids that are obsessed with what women wear and who repeats their clothes -- rating women over their choice of fashion, giving them thumbs ups and downs and making fun of their sartorial ‘misadventures’. Entire industries thrive on actresses and their personal fashion choices. Wardrobe malfunction is a genre here. Recently, Jennifer Lopez revealed that the plunging neckline of a green Versace dress she wore (taped to stay in place to avoid wardrobe malfunction) was the reason Google image search was invented.
Last May, actress Kristen Stewart walked the Cannes carpet barefoot protesting the unfair rule that women were not allowed to walk it without heels, while a similar rule did not exist for men. This year at Cannes, Greta Bellamacina’s film Hurt by Paradise was to be screened in the market section. Greta was ‘outraged at the absurdity’ of the backward attitude of the festival which did not allow her to bring her infant to the festival. “As if female filmmakers needed further obstacles to equality in our industry,” she said in a press release.
Finding the balance between the sexist standards of our world and having fun, wearing what we want and looking the way we want to look, is a concern all of us have apparently: regular women and those who star in multi-million dollar projects.