Categories: FashionLongform

Why My Work is My Dress and My Dress is My Work

By Paromita Vohra

The second in our new series in which we ask women why they wear what they wear to work. Read parts onethreefour and five.

Paromita Vohra. Photo by Reshma Pritam Singh

Now I will write about what I wear to work and prove why I don’t do well in exams.I’m not sure about how to understand the phrase ‘going to work’. My confusing workplace status is mirrored by my polyamorous dress code (but code is too responsible or bro-ish a word and as for me it is bras before bros). I blame my grandmother. But wait, let me stick to the point for some time at least (more coffee please).

I think I chose a profession where I would never have to wear proper clothes (though in college I’d been a dresser-upper — Delhi University was like that). But wait, the point the point). At 21, when I started working, it was a profession where going to work in jeans and T-shirts was fine, maybe expected even. My first job was as an assistant to the filmmaker Anand Patwardhan. My workplace was his pre-Independence era (yaniki huge) flat in Dadar. It had big quiet windows, high ceilings with long-stemmed fans. When we slept in the afternoon, which we all did, you kind of got that Apocalypse Now feeling. There was a very exciting market near work — junk, antiques, engineering parts, kal-nirnay were all sold there, as also heaps of 10 rupee T-shirts (yeah yeah, I was 21 a long time ago). From here, I purchased an inexhaustible supply of T-shirts which were  voluminous, or very brightly coloured or had funny things written on them and sometimes all three.

Paromita Vohra (center). Photo courtesy Paromita Vohra

I think this casualness was rooted in three things:

Anti-formality: Formality was for grown-ups and dweebs and people with ‘regular’ jobs we did not intend to have either (ha bitter ha).

Gender: We didn’t want to be girlish in my youth. We associated dressing up with being more interested in dressing up than work and conquering the world (that was the general plan). Lipstick??????? Aur main????? Kabhi nahin, thoo! Also we saw it as conveying that we cared what boys thought of us, and we (thought) did not. Plus, you should have seen the boys I worked with.

Poverty: Yes, could not afford anything else. This was also partly why (aside from being fat and extremely over-serious and non-yo) that I got turned down for a job in an ad production company. Thank god. If I had got it meri toh clothes department mein chutney ban jaati. Because girls in advertising, even production types, were good looking, thin and nicely dressed. I don’t think it was intentional, surely. Anyway.

Only thing was, I wore all kinds of earrings and thingies in my hair. I had always loved earrings and being unable to afford or find what I liked, I began making my own in college. After some time Nirmala di, Anand’s mom, who was a famous potter and who approved of this DIY tendency, began making pottery beads and giving them to me (she also called me Pyrometer, an instrument for measuring heat in the kiln) and therefore I spent quite a bit of time making earrings at work. Nirmala di did not like the fact that I wore black nail polish, considered a little goth, but not called that in those days. But she was very tolerant. So was Anand, who scolded his mom for enacting subversion in the workplace and sidetracking his assistant (yaniki me) but never really stopped me from this earring making (and selling) pursuit, or from drawing fishes on the sides of the cupboard with glass markers. He will always have big love from me for this.

Paromita Vohra. Photo courtesy Paromita Vohra

My earrings+jeans+T-shirt combo I like to think was influenced by Zakia Pathak who taught me the classics paper in college. She wore nylon saris with extravagant earrings to college as if she were Penelope in disguise. Due to entertaining such fanciful ideas during class, and discussing them after with friends, it surprised no one, except Miz Pathak and I, that I got bad marks in this paper. Anyway.

Later, I met some feminist ladies at work and I noticed that they were quite ok going to a morcha in danglers (ikat sari+danglers was kind of a feminist uniform in the 90s) so this should have put sense in my brain. But sense is not really much of a motivator for me so I didn’t change yet. I did feel validated about the earrings though.

Paromita Vohra. Photo by Sanjeev Saith

But after some time, in this ‘alternative’ space, where everyone dressed kind of like this, my soul began to feel suffocated. I was being conformist but I didn’t have the spare cash to non-conform. Luckily, my job required me to go to several parts of the city for this and that and I would roam about in all the small markets and began to find other cheap options and dodgy darzis. For a while, I began wearing dresses with dropped waists made of block print fabrics, which were very cheap in Kutch where my dad worked then, and which were not yet fashionable. After that I began wearing very short divided skirts made of some fine checked lungi material that I now identify as Bengali. Basically at work I was doing some pretty boring things at that point so I think I entertained myself and pursued beauty, always a weakness, by conjuring up and then wearing such clothes. I would also go to millworker morchas in them and get rebuked for impropriety but I never noticed a single textile mill worker objecting to or caring about my clothes. They accepted me as different from them. Middle class political types have lots of sartorial self-doubt though, so most of my 20s and 30s were spent with my apparently arty and liberated colleagues commenting nervously or in ‘you-na’ fashion on my clothes. The few who simply enjoyed it are my friends still.

From a brief period of jeans-T-shirt monogamy, I returned to my helter-skelter fashion of fashion. Soon after, I also moved on from this job because I think my dressing style had changed irrevocably and it just began to expand, and expand in this way to incorporate more and more styles of dressing as if I were trying out every cocktail ever invented. And that obviously meant my brain and heart had changed into something that didn’t quite fit or belong in that location, so off I went, just not sure what to.

Photo courtesy Paromita Vohra

For years, I remained committed to dressing in a style which was then nameless (yes, I am also old enough to have lived in a time when dressing styles were nameless). Not sure what it is called now, but basically tangerine jeans and marmalade tops and yes, I had golden socks and blue shoes and some purple hair, I will not tell a lie. I travelled in the local train and admired the 1,001 days of dressing that the women there displayed and wanted to try them all. And kind of did.

Maybe that is why I became swiftly unemployable. I never really had a job after that, but worked either from home or for short periods in other spaces where I was always itinerant. People laughed at my queer dressing a bit — it’s never ‘normal’ they said — but maybe this was an overly clear indication that I did not want to belong and they better not try to make me (pathetic, I know, but youth, kya karein). I began wearing lipstick at this time, not to confuse others, but because I had long loved Madonna and well, four words – Russian Red by Mac and then there was no going back (well, except sometimes to Cyber, a beautiful silver-black-purple or Oranges Are Not The Only Kiss, a cinnamon-flavoured burnt orange I bought in some hipster store in New York once. Lately, I’m persuaded by a muted scarlet, like I’m glamorous but don’t need to discuss it with you from Elle 18, yes, called Rockstar Red, obviously).

From 1999 onwards, as the new millennium dawned, I only worked out of home. Hence my workplace dress was whatever other people wear for spring-cleaning or Holi parties for quite some time and many of those 10 rupee T-shirts were still going strong, along with every T-shirt I’d ever bought at a film festival or feminist rally, so I was taken care of. By evening, I would feel extremely bored of this lifestyle of the un-rich and un-famous. I would then dress up and wear earrings and lipstick and go out every evening, mostly just to some friend’s house where they wore disguised nightwear, yaniki artist log ka lounging couture. For this reason, I believe it’s possible that my building watchman has some pursed-lip notions about what my job is, given I wear quasi-nighties by day and short skirts by night. Anyway, due to this reverse schedule my every fantasy came true in clothes — I had skirts, dresses, salwar kameez, pants of all types, frou-frou, flapper tops, red shoes, big rings, yellow nail paint, purple boas. For most of my films, half the costumes have come out of my cupboard. One time the production person looked at the growing heap of items for dress department coming out of my closet and said: do you buy clothes to wear or to use for films? There is no answer. The answer is I don’t know yes, no, maybe, accha, oh, ain, but isn’t life a movie? Or am I confused here? Did I not get some memo? Oh that’s right, I don’t work in an office, so no memos hahahahaha, Mogambo khush hui.

Paromita Vohra. Photo courtesy Asheesh Pandya

Once at a funding workshop I was cheerfully walking to lunch in a black skirt, a mulmul top the colour of deepest blue Jaipur pottery (I never found that glorious shade again) and the best cupid with arrow silver earrings of which now one is lost, when the commissioning editor of a Japanese channel said to me, “Paromita, you are dressed differently every day, how come?” I was deeply perplexed and became un-cheerful. “I like clothes,” I said. “Yes, but some day girlish skirt, some day Indian dress, every day it is a different genre.” “He he he.” I laughed in awkward teenager fashion. I’d never got the point that you had to be just one type of genre of lady-filmmaker. Never got the memo, never got any funding in that workshop (or any other) either. Serves me right for making films like I wear clothes, with colours, and frills, and earrings and lipstick of course. We may be poor but we’ll always have trimmings.

One time, I wore a white salwar kameez and a red chheent dupatta with gold rick rack to a meeting in a cool type place. The producer I was meeting looked uncomfortable. After some indecision, he said ‘Namaste’ and never met my eyes throughout the meeting. I guess he thought I was behenji types who could not make something cool and was embarrassed I was in his office. I didn’t work hard to contradict him by making pop culture jokes, but just kept to the point (I know it’s hard to believe but…) Needless to say we never got the assignment. Thank god. Can you imagine having to work with such an ass?

Then in 2012, shock of shocks, I worked in an office for two years at the late age of 40 something. It was a corporate media office. Dress code: Tight. Like, 100 surya namaskars a day tight. Needless to say I could not comply. I was intrigued by how gendered a corporate media office is and how it shows up in the work-dress but oho, I have to stick to the point, as bindis stick to a Bengali diva’s forehead, na.

During this time, I discovered the late (and fleeting) pleasures of a regular pay cheque for the first time in 20 years. It was thrilling. Kinda sexual TBH. As a result, I bought a pair of the best pink high heels ever made. Not hot pink, not baby pink, not quite bubble gum pink, but if you combined them all, a marzipan-rich, grown-up, mouth-watering pink. If that pink were a sound, it would be a low ‘mmm’ in the middle of your throat that you make after the first sip of a tinted champagne cocktail with someone you really, really fancy.

Paromita Vohra. Photo courtesy Swati Bhattacharya

If I sound a bit emotional, well, they were my first pair of high heels that I wore (I had bought a black and white checked pair on 19th and 3rd in New York once, but I was kidding myself) — and well, you know what they say about the first. But when all you need to do to get to work is get in an auto and then a lift and then an AC office where you tell other people, “woh logging ho gaya, woh edit ready hai kya, coffee denge,” there is an opportunity to practice high heels balancing. I learned this in that office — though in general that scene was a toxic swamp, I am grateful for this. Those fuck-me-or-well-come-to-think-of-it-I-could-fuck-you-too shoes were beautiful and I wept when finally they wore out. As were the espadrille style heels with the floppy light pink flower over the toes, the black and white heeled two tones, also now worn out. Sigh.

Now I do not wear such high heels, but an in-between type. It might change if someday the perfect pink ones come along, the kind I love. I cannot say that I’ve locked my heart and thrown away the key. I live in eternal wait of romance.

It’s unlikely to happen in my current workplace because reader, I now have an office of my own. I go to it wearing sometimes jeans, sometimes skirts, sometimes churidar kameez, sometimes dresses, sometimes borderline quasi-nightclothes dress. The other day an intern wrote asking if we have a dress code. I started laughing till my colleague said: yes, I have informed her, our dress code is smart casuals. I stopped laughing till we both laughed again. Now that my general Catholic and catholic dress has a name, now that it’s been institutionalised, I admit, I have been feeling dissatisfied.

To my relief in 2016 I discovered saris. I’d never worn them more than three times my whole life because I believed one fellow, whom I went on only one date with at 26 (yes, yes, I can also believe fools when they tell me assholic things sometimes) that I look bad in saris.

Frankly I don’t know if I look bad in saris or not — I don’t think so. But those saris sure do look good, yaar! All the colours of fantasy fruits and midnight clouds and secret rivers, winking pinks, moody blues, ambivalent greens, morning-after yellows, fabrics that hug you and let you go, tease you and comfort you, remind you what you forgot, and oddly combine the young you and the old you which is just what a woman needs in middle age, right? Now that I don’t make earrings at work, I do spend some time staring out of the office window wondering what blouse to make for a sari.

I wear earrings, rings, flower clips, bangles and all sorts of trinkets to office. Usually I take them off while I am working and then put them on again. Sometimes I do keep them on while having sex though. But not always. Some days I don’t wear them.

Paromita Vohra. Photo courtesy Paromita Vohra

Fine, I’ll say it. If I’d learn to just say it I might have got some Japanese, or Scandinavian funding. But I’d rather do it when it’s for free. My work is my dress. My dress is my work. And it doesn’t really matter what the world’s memos say, I work and dress to feel what the bar dancer Ranu says in Shyamal Karmakar’s film: I Am The Very Beautiful.

I know, I know. Why do I blame my grandmother you are asking, coz you think I got sidetracked. But just because I get sidetracked by saris and dupattas does not mean I do not remember my goal, baby-doll.

By now The Ladies Finger people are like, oh god yaar, Paromita has written such a long thing for a short column how should we tell her, we will have to carry it or she will feel bad, but kya karein. But I am not one of those people who does not keep promises so I am continuing.

So anyway.

Paromita Vohra. Photo courtesy Paromita Vohra

My grandmother had this cupboard. It was an unexceptional one with sun mica on it, I think. Until you opened it. It had a shelf at face level but not that railing on which we put hangers. On the shelf were old biscuit tins with beautiful patterns. They were full of handkerchiefs of every kind from all over the world. A big silver tray was full of change. Odds and ends, each colourful and pretty sat in the corners. Above were two shelves of special things which I could not reach as a kid. They had crystal bottles of perfume, tinsel coloured dabbas with dry fruit and garam masalas. That cupboard smelt heavenly.

There were two drawers at chest level. When you opened them, voila and toinggg! They weren’t drawers but a row of rods to hang saris from! My nani had a lot of saris. She rarely wore them – I mostly saw her in ijaars or petticoats and kurtas, drinking whisky and ordering large meals to be made. But there were chiffons and chanderis, organzas and organdies, silks and mulmuls, georgettes and jamdanis, as also one silvery, satiny white tanchhoi.

As a child I loved to burrow into that row of saris — it was like that waterfall in Phantom comics, inside which was a whole world. I remember the pokiness of the mokaish on an organdie the colour of clotted cream, with a self-check and lace edging. And the confusing sensual roughness of a white Chantilly lace, and the glint of a row of silver sequins on a black chiffon sending flying kisses to me in that exciting dark secret cave I’d made.

Sometimes I’d happen upon secret treasure buried inside the saris. A huge porcelain rice dish from China with lacquer coloured edgings. A painted tin tray. A cut-glass dish. All brought out for special occasions.

That cupboard ruined me and made me, I see now. It made me think that every kind of beauty was beautiful. It made me love that sensory excess, the liberation of it, the travelling adventures of the exploding senses.

Hey kid, it said, you can be many kinds of woman, many kinds of artist, many kinds of anything. Mono ya na mono, it should make your senses alive, no high, no low, no right ya wrong. You can play dress up as long as you live and that’s how you should work too.

Also, for my nephew Imran who asked me this at 3 and my 7 year-old niece Raayah-only-my-maasi-calls-me-Kishmish (and sorry Kish, all my Facebook friends too) who asked me this last weekend: Meethima/Maasi, why do you wear red lipstick?

Kya bataaoon beta, ab sab kuch keh diya.

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