Fashion has always been a marker of self-expression, and jeans represent “the democracy of fashion” in the words of global fashion legend Giorgio Armani. Unsurprisingly, this piece of clothing has yet again ruffled the feathers of Indian patriarchs, the most recent being the newly-appointed Uttarakhand chief minister Tirath Singh Rawat.
While speaking at a workshop organised by the State Commission for Protection of Child Rights, Rawat felt it was right to broach the subject of “ripped jeans,” blaming it for all the moral degradation that exists in our sanskari society.
Spewing venom and vitriol at the gathering, he criticised a woman co-passenger on a flight, who was wearing “boots, jeans ripped on the knees, and had several bracelets on her arms.”
“You run an NGO, wear jeans ripped at the knees, move about in society, children are with you, what values will you teach?,” he questioned.
Furthermore, Rawat slammed Indians for “running towards nudity” and claimed that “while people in India were wearing ripped jeans, those abroad were covering their bodies properly and doing yoga.”
And if that wasn’t enough to boil your blood, Kamal Patel, Farmers’ Welfare and Agriculture Department Minister in the Madhya Pradesh government backed Rawat’s scathing criticism of ripped jeans. He went ahead to say “it was the duty of Indian women to save our culture”, and they should “maintain dignity.”
He added, “Women and girls are our pride, and parents should stop their daughters from wearing ripped jeans for their safety. With the adoption of western clothes, crimes against women have also been increased. Ripped jeans should be banned in India.”
Drawing widespread condemnation
Rawat’s statement sparked furore among politicians, celebrities and other public figures. The Congress party asked him to “apologise” to all Indian women or resign, while the party’s senior leader Priyanka Gandhi went ahead and shared photographs of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his colleagues “baring their knees.”
Celebrities like Jaya Bachchan and her granddaughter Navya Naveli Nanda, Gul Panag, and Tahira Kashyap Khurrana either posted pictures of themselves in tattered jeans, or criticised the appalling statement made by the minister.
With widespread uproar across the country, Rawat had no choice but to bend over backwards. He made a public apology, saying he was sorry if his comments had “hurt anyone”. Rawat said that his intention was not to be disrespectful to anyone, and people were free to wear whatever they wanted.
Jeans: A bone of contention
This is not the first time women have been shamed for their choice to wear jeans in public. Several universities and institutions of repute have in the past banned all kinds of jeans — low waist, tight or even flared jeans, because of being “symptomatic of moral turpitude.”
It’s not just universities that have raised a hue and cry, but also government offices in Bihar and Madhya Pradesh. In 2013, an MP politician Babulal Gaur had made a distasteful remark, saying, “Women in foreign countries wear jeans and T-shirts, dance with other men and even drink liquor, but that is their culture. It's good for them, but not for India, where only our traditions and culture are important.”
And if you thought police, who are regarded as custodians of law and order are any better, then you are mistaken. Former Mumbai Police commissioner-turned-politician Satyapal Singh had earlier sparked a debate when he questioned if men would want to marry a girl who wears jeans to her wedding. This is after a video with a bride wearing jeans had gone viral on social media.
These are only a handful of examples, because there’s a long list of politicians who have blamed women for “inciting rape” through their sense of clothing. The problem is clearly not in the jeans, but in their ‘mentality’.
In a society steeped in patriarchy, no opportunity is left to gain control over women. Whether it is their personal or professional choices, public figures like Rawat send out a message that women are incapable of “making their own decisions”. Of course, the issue runs deeper, because this is an attempt to use women’s clothing as a veil to conceal several issues of national and regional importance.
A symbol of rebellion
History documents ‘jeans’ as a piece of clothing that screams rebellion. According to a media report, “Jeans, of course, in whatever shape or form, have always been symbolically charged. They became a form of soft power that the United States exerted over the Soviet Bloc during the Cold War, when love for denim became an ammunition in the culture wars of the time.”
Until the 1950s, jeans were mostly considered “work pants” designed for men who wanted to wear clothes made of sturdy fabric. Soon after, denim made a splash in Hollywood as a symbol of rebellion against the status quo. Even then, the piece of clothing was always under the scanner, being banned at several public institutions and spaces, but it is its controversial history that strengthened its power in youth culture.
In the 1960s and 70s, jeans were almost always a regular at protests, spelling out the message of gender equity. By the next decade, they became an integral part of high fashion, and gained acceptance among the masses. Jeans, whether it was then or now, has always played an important role in shattering gender boundaries. It is also their utility, and their role as a unifying force that led many women to embrace it.
“But jeans weren't only a symbol of democratisation, they put different classes on a level playing field. They were affordable and hard-wearing, looked good worn as well as new, and didn't have to be washed often or ironed at all. They conformed to the body in a way that matched even the most finely tailored clothes. This became especially important for women because then, as now, they paid more attention to fit,” says a media report.
Whether it is ripped jeans or another variety, slip into one of those pairs today and assert your individuality, just like you want to! And if someone has a problem, well it’s time to “rip apart their mentality”.
(Edited by Amrita Ghosh)