One of the most often repeated quotes from a leader of fashion is the late Diana Vreeland’s remark that “pink is the navy blue of India”. There are arguably few comments that tell the story of India in all its dizzying diversity better. It is hard to count the colours one sees while walking down the street or watching the crowds thronging a village festival. Colourful saris and dupattas appear to have been conceived with colour combinations that seem anarchic, yet work brilliantly.
Vreeland was uncontestably right—and yet also wrong in her idea of India. She was referring to the better half of India: its graceful women. From those working as agricultural labour in our villages to the grande dame in a Kanjeevaram at a dinner party, Indian women make their style statements in a kaleidoscope of colours. By contrast, most Indian men might as well be from another planet. Our leaders, regardless of their political affiliations and their net worth, wear Khadi white kurta pyjamas. Look around offices, meanwhile, and you will see men wearing an adaptation of school uniforms in white and light blue shirts and grey, navy blue and black or khaki chinos.
In countries such as the UK, Italy and France, men wear wildly colourful shirts and even jeans with elegance and elan. When I worked in London more than a decade ago, shirtmakers from Thomas Pink to Richard James seemed to revel in introducing colour to the city’s grey overcast streets. This summer, colour and contrast have been noticeable everywhere overseas, from the Cannes film festival to the ongoing Fashioning Masculinities exhibition at the Victoria & Albert (V&A) Museum in London.
In early May, actor Sebastian Stan spectacularly ignored the “Gilded Glamour” dress code at the Met Ball in New York. He wore electric pink, from his jacket and T-shirt to matching pink shoes and pink socks. Daniel Craig similarly redefined black tie and black tuxedo evening-wear protocols when he arrived last September for the London premiere of No Time To Die in a hypnotically fuchsia pink double-breasted velvet blazer, immaculately paired with black trousers and a white shirt. The ensemble left more of an impression on me than the film. A few months later, I was feverishly quizzing a friend on where she had sourced the heavy cotton pink upholstery for a sofa before deciding to put the idea on hold. A jacket so bold seemed best left to movie stars but as the V&A show on men’s clothing in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries reminds us, such conservatism about colour is a recent phenomenon. As a miniature 18th century billboard in the show declared, “2 yards of pink cloth can make a gentleman.”
Contemporary timidity about colour bedevils most men’s everyday office-wear choices, both in their choice of shirts and in traditional navy blue suits in the West. Thankfully, these are being driven out by the dress-casual codes adopted by Silicon Valley and private equity funds alike. I am not sure, however, that dress-casual, in general, counts as a great leap forward for menswear—the banishment of the tie notwithstanding. But the fact is that a white shirt and grey or khaki pants not only allow you to blend in, as a dark blue or black suit did, but also make dressing in the morning a simple task, rather than a multiple-choice examination.
In May, Robert Armstrong, the Financial Times’ chief US financial news commentator who doubles as its occasional men’s style columnist, offered compelling reasons as to why men the world over prefer to dress in this repetitive, dull manner, day after day. He highlighted this paradox by putting under the microscope the dark suit, white shirt and sober tie aesthetic of one of the richest men in the world, Bernard Arnault, the head of the fashion group LVMH. “The standard reason provided for wearing the same thing every day is to preserve mental energy for other, more important decisions,” he wrote. Reading this, I was instantly reminded of former Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh, with his sky-blue turbans and white kurta pyjamas, seemingly worn as if they were a uniform during the working week and Sunday rest. When I interviewed him in the early 1990s, he struck me as having little appetite for anything other than solving the enormous macroeconomic development riddle that is India.
Those of us Indian men not tasked with such big challenges have little excuse to dress as plainly as we do, however. Returning to Delhi a decade ago, after over a quarter-century away, I elected to wear the fabulous geometric block prints of Anokhi and the spectacular florals of the less well-known Rashid, both based in Jaipur. I mostly dispensed with conventional work shirts. For the first time in my life, I was working 13-hour days and six-day weeks; the loud shirts lifted my spirit.
In Delhi’s furnace-like summers, the cotton used by Anokhi and Rashid also has the advantage of being so light that the shirts feel like a protective skin. During the first lockdown two years ago, I experienced this almost hallucinatory, mood-enhancing aspect of wearing vibrant colour again when a literary agent friend suggested I wear my Sri Lankan sarongs as my work-from-home uniform.
Uniform is the one word no one could use to describe the wild colours of Barefoot sarongs. My collection, some inherited from my unconventional late mother, extend from a Craig-like fuchsia pink lungi with a gold band running down its length to a red, mustard and gold yellow lungi. Managing this sensory overload of bright colours is something Indian women do as gracefully as if they were born with a degree in Fauvism and Impressionism, but it is a challenge, especially with trousers and lungis. I have decided after many clanging misses that the best accompaniment to the fuchsia lungi is a short white kurta with intricate appliqué work. I struggle also with what to wear with the bright canary yellow Levi’s jeans and pink Paul Smith chinos I bought because, as often happens with bright coloured jeans, they were on sale. I have decided that the shirts I have tailored from my late father’s Kerala cream mundus seem to work well with these pants. Still, both these solutions are a stylistic cop-out because I am toning things down.
As with so much in life, dressing up is a balancing act. One does not want to spend too long coordinating colours because there are other things to do. Being a fussy male also usually comes with its alter ego, best expressed by Bertie Wooster: “There are moments, Jeeves, when one asks oneself, ‘Do trousers matter?’” The answer is an emphatic yes.
A couple of years ago, at a Delhi dinner party, actor Sharmila Tagore charmingly said my purple Paul Smith jeans worn with a tweed bandhgala reminded her of the kind of thing her handsome late husband and former India cricket captain, Mansoor Ali Khan Pataudi, would have worn. More recently, wearing a bright purple cardigan, a mauve and white checked shirt and pistachio-green jeans, I boarded a British Airways flight from San Francisco. The head flight steward approved of the colours so vociferously that my reception might have been mistaken for that accorded a celebrity.
A serial name-dropper, I have told and retold these stories but there is a moral to them. For many of us, colourful clothing is almost as crucial to happiness as a sunny day. If it also amuses, even pleases, other people, so much the better.
Rahul Jacob was the travel, food and drink editor for the Financial Times in London and is the author of Right Of Passage, a collection of travel essays.