Pop Culture / Speaking Out

Dressing to impress vs. dressing to express: Pick your side like these bosses did!

. 8 min read . Written by Vanshika Goenka
Dressing to impress vs. dressing to express: Pick your side like these bosses did!

Remember the era where we didn’t know what Netflix was and ‘chill’ was just something we called our ice creams? And remember when you couldn’t wait to grab your hands on that silk chiffon dress that Madhuri wore in Hum Aapke Hain Kaun? No, no, don’t scroll away I’m talking to you! Yeah, what were we thinking?

Bollywood has been the institution where most of our fashion goals have hailed from for the longest time. But as millennials who have grown up on a healthy appetite of Bollywood films and fashion, we know that both of those things haven’t particularly aged well.

So here’s a ride back into the past with the memory of the present! A throwback to all those times when Bollywood got work fashion so twisted with the times that it almost redeemed itself.

Sridevi in Laadla vs. Preity Zinta in Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna

A classic in its own right, Laadla operated at a time when female characters were still shaped into the moulds of either the wife, the mother or the sister who’s honour had to be safeguarded. So making Sridevi the CEO of an organisation was undoubtedly a bold step – so were her fashion choices.

The character in itself was a hotheaded fierce career-oriented woman who did not believe in marriage. And what better way to express this formidability than with her dressing?

Since the concept of a strong independent woman was a little obscure for creators back then, the most obvious way to make her presence feel as out there as possible was with strong colours, bold makeup and statement jewellery.

Her fashion statement can almost be looked at as a way for her to gain her agency and make her presence felt in a world that seemingly belonged to men. The power pantsuits, the bold colours, the audacious makeup and her daunting expressions, all as impressive and stylish as ever. However, these were also only tools to further the power of her womanhood.

This was also the time when being rude was equated with being powerful. And in an attempt to allow a female character to strut around in not just her stilettos but also her power, being inconsiderate and spiteful was what licensed this audacity.

So talking about the spectrum of badass boss women, if there’s Sridevi’s Sheetal Jetley with her boisterous colours on the one hand then, on the other hand, is Preity Zinta’s Rhea Saran in Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna.

The beauty editor of Diva, a high fashion magazine, a loving wife and a devoted mother to her five-year-old son, Rhea, is strong, confident, and knows how to look it.

With her power blazers, coveted leather jackets, preppy colours, comfortable knee-boots and minimal makeup, she is a brilliant example of striking the perfect balance between comfort, fashion and confidence.

But more than her clothes, it is the ability to not take herself so seriously while still having an intrinsic attractive confidence that puts her on the ‘do’ end of this spectrum.

Priyanka Chopra Jonas in Aitraaz vs. Deepika Padukone in Piku

Right there on the spectrum with Sheetal Jetley is Sonia Roy – an ambitious, unapologetic model who doesn’t mind bending the rules a little. Played by the brilliant Priyanka Chopra Jonas, Sonia is yet another testament to taking that journey to success, which is paved with statement clothes and loud colours even in the dim office setting.

While bold coloured pantsuits, skimpy bodycon dresses and dark sequined outfits may be a desirable option for a night out (maybe), carrying the same into office wear might be a tad uncomfortable.

The thought is perhaps very similar to what went into dressing Sridevi in Laadla as well – the innate need to establish feminine dominance in a man’s world through her clothing.

Every outfit has been carefully constructed in a manner that is designed to elicit the oomph and the sizzle that a woman in power should conventionally posses.

In an attempt to make the character acceptable enough as a woman in a position of power, the work and ambition aspect of her persona has been stripped down to an object of affection that appeals to the male gaze.

What furthers this idea and makes it a lot more problematic is the manner in which the ‘good wife’ played by Kareena Kapoor Khan in the film has been dressed. She can mostly be seen dressed in monotones, traditional sarees and kurtis, minimal makeup and anything that can add to her subdued, demure appeal.

This sharp distinction in the way the ‘good wife’ and the ‘bad vamp’ have been dressed only makes these associations in their personality traits a lot stronger. And therefore, fostering a lot more stereotypes.

To counter this gross miscalculation in the relationship between independence and dressing, Deepika Padukone’s Piku is perhaps the perfect example. Piku is strong, independent, doesn’t need a man by her side, runs her own design firm and does not require any external clothes or makeup to accentuate her confidence.

Unlike her 90’s and early 2000’s counterparts on this list, she does not believe in carefully creating structured looks, and her style is something that screams “I have a lot on my plate to match outfits with accessories.

Her clothes rely dominantly on comfort and the lack of time and patience to create carefully structured looks. The loose kurtas, cropped trousers, Indian fabric prints, sweatshirts and wavy locks of undone hair in messy buns is a look that we can all relate with.

In moments when she is battling sexism, arguing with her difficult father or evading the need to answer unsolicited questions, her go-to signature is the wrapping up of her hair into a bun. And honestly, who can’t relate to that?

Rekha in Khoon Bhari Maang vs. Bipasha in Corporate

Trust Rekha to dress camp even before Met Gala made it cool. Khoon Bhari Maang was undoubtedly a fashion milestone for its time – not to mention an epic tale of female revenge that crossed camp dressing with crocodiles without making it weird.

Khoon Bhari Maang stands at the epitome of 80’s Bollywood – a time of gigantic hair and big pearls, shoulder-pads on garish outfits and blinding blues and reds. But I wonder how Rekha’s post-plastic surgery iconic dresses would transpire if we tried to pass them off as work fashion today? Which they were, back then.

Yet another instance in this list where the blinding colours and dark makeup, not to mention the heavy hair-dos, were all used as tools for the female character to ascertain her agency.

The contradiction that built the characters of Sonia and Priya in Aitraaz has its essence enveloped in Rekha’s transformation from a grieving widow and a devoted mother to a vengeful woman. The metamorphosis that is symbolic of a journey of gaining power is largely done through a severe transformation in fashion choices.

In the world of Bollywood, playing a submissive homemaker calls to be dressed in monotone sarees while a woman out seeking revenge needs more character-defining clothes.

On the other end of these gaudy tones, we have savvy corporate shirts, solids and pastel colours, monotone pantsuits, comfortable hair-dos and Bipasha Basu in Corporate.

Nishigandha Dasgupta is a high-positioned executive in an MNC and the only woman in power throughout the film. She is both symbolically and literally trying to establish her presence and be taken seriously in a male-dominated corporate world.

Nishi is operating on the same level of the need to validate herself as a powerful woman as Sheetal in Laadla – they’re both trying to overcome the sexism that is so inherent in the corporate world. But while Sheetal establishes this dominance through her literal power dresses, Nishi gives power dressing a whole new meaning.

Dressed in classic corporate-chic through the film, Bipasha is seen sporting some rather stunning looks while making it look as effortless and as comfortable as ever.

At a time when a lot of the portrayals of women in positions of power meant dressing them in black form-fitting bodycon dresses, uncomfortable stilettos, or sharp figure-highlighting pencil skirts, the designers of Corporate took a conscious choice of dressing Nishi mainly in trousers and pants. Everything from her white pantsuits, colour-coordinated blazers and shirts to the high-pony business-like hair tightly pulled back, every extension of the look works to pass her off as just another employee rather than an objectified woman.

By refusing skirts altogether, the question of gender is done away with, and Nishi is not a woman meant to be the subject of casual sexism in the office – but just another employee.

Shraddha Kapoor in Saaho vs. Rani Mukerji in Mardaani

They’re both cops, they’re both women, and they’re both out there kicking some ass. The difference? The latter is dressed like she’s out for some serious work while the former is debating whether to be a cop or walk the runway – so she dresses up for both.

In a movie that ensconces gender stereotypes and is the poster-child for “Hello, it’s 2019, why is sexism still funny?” Shraddha’s portrayal of Amritha Nair as a cop is not even given the space to be established as one. Rather she’s a cop with her own personalised Snapchat filter of damsel-in-distress, her billowing hair and pink-tainted lips are the focus in every frame she is in.

Her skimpy jeans, leather jackets in Mumbai (it’s like 35 degrees here on a daily average) and boots that are only meant to be walked on the ramp barely qualify for work fashion – given that she is barely shown working.

On the other end of this spectrum of being comfortable while working there’s yet another cop who is the definition of dressing to kick ass –Rani’s Shivani Shivaji Roy in Mardaani.

A cop on the hunt to uncover a sex-trafficking racket, Shivani dresses in what we can only hope to pull off.

In an Instagram-driven world where we’re all so concerned with our appearances and cannot seem to let go of our obsession with making ourselves look perfect, Shivani is a testament to dressing sans the impress.

Her tucked in flannel shirts, sporty loose-fitting pants, sensible shoes and hair pulled so far back is the perfect coalescence of her no-nonsense I-mean-business attitude.

While dressing glam and fabulous is always a great way to make yourself feel good and fashion will forever be the way we can empower and express ourselves, the problem arises when fashion gets caught up in the inescapable rut of defining gender and sexuality.

So let’s go out there and create our wardrobe the way we like, choose our outfits the way we feel and forget about the gaze that determines our decision of choosing a safe sleeved shirt over a cute strappy summer dress.