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The Diversions of Denim in Bollywood Film

Clare M. Wilkinson-Weber

Assistant Professor, Anthropology, WSU Vancouver

Clothing in India has been an interest of mine since the late 1980s, when I did my PhD research on the chikan embroidery industry in Lucknow, India. My concern then and now was to delineate the complex “art worlds” of production and consumption, finding the ways in which the two processes are interwoven and permeated with consonant meanings. My focus shifted to film over the next ten years, and today my research is based in Mumbai (Bombay) where I have been doing ethnography on the designers, makers and maintainers of film costume since 2002.

Street scene

As we’d expect from any institution that has always been considered “fashion-forward,” Bollywood stars wore denim on screen well in advance of when jeans and jackets began to be widely available on Indian streets (thus ready to be “shopped” by costume designers). Male Hindi movie actors – “heroes” or stars, and some supporting or character actors – began wearing denim jeans and jackets in their films in the early to mid-1970s. By the later 1970s female film stars - “heroines” – were doing so as well, albeit in lesser numbers. Still, it was entirely possible to watch films from this period, even ones that were overtly fashionable and style-conscious, and not see one pair of jeans from start to finish. Indian brand jeans existed, but foreign brands demanded foreign travel to get them. What’s more, it was hard to fit jeans into prevailing cultural and moral sartorial conventions. For men, it was a little easier since jeans were not so unlike other kinds of Western-style trousers. But for women, jeans, particularly worn so the shape of the leg and torso all the way to the waist was visible, were unprecedented.

Now, as one costume assistant told me in Mumbai, “Denim is big in films. Our actors are wearing denim throughout the film. They have to have jeans, unless they are wearing a suit. I cannot think of a film where we haven’t used jeans, even actresses.” This transformation can be attributed in large part to the changes in Indian economic policy of the early 1990s which forever changed the face of commodity culture in the sub-continent. Denim clothes and jeans in particular now make much more frequent and prominent appearances in Indian films, television, electronic and print media. At the same time, denim has never been easier to buy for affluent shoppers. The explosion of denim on screen and in advertising mirrors the growth of both denim imports and an indigenous jeans manufacturing industry, as well as a relaxation of dress codes that now permit the wearing of “western” clothing in tandem with components of Indian dress, particularly in urban areas. In the midst of Bollywood’s undimmed enthusiasm for spectacular costume, jeans have made a remarkable and somewhat quieter shift towards costume normativity.

SRK on a printer

Film costume is an unusual form of dress. As worn, it is intended to illuminate and reinforce a character, not the person who plays that character. In this sense, film costume is not simply an element of film situations – it helps construct and define them. More critically for my purposes, the pattern of film costume acquisition, use, storage and final disposal differs markedly from the “career” of most other kinds of clothing. It is bought not by the people who will wear it, but by other members of the production team. As both a factor of production and a piece of clothing worn by an actor, it is subject to strict, practical considerations – is it obtainable, does it fit, does it look good? (In other words, while costume is always said to be associated with the character, in practice it can’t help but express and extend stardom and celebrity too). Finally, in a commercial environment, how closely film costume sustains and verifies a “reality” that audiences both understand and personally participate in is critical when apparel based on film costume can be marketed to film viewers as ready-made items.

The unmistakable increase in denim-wearing in film over the past fifteen years is part of a wider shift in rules governing the association of costume with character. Connotations of a dangerous foreignness or transgressive morality that may have attached themselves to jeans have diminished considerably. A heroine wearing jeans may not even be seen as particularly “daring” anymore (at least, not by most urban audiences). In life also, jeans are increasingly popular, particularly among young people. The sheer increase in jeans-wearing among the middle classes in metropoles in the last five years alone show that denim clothes are simply not on the same level as attractive but “unwearable” costumes like the revealing outfits typically worn in song and dance “item numbers.” That doesn’t mean, though, that the sexiness of jeans can’t be an important element in their marketing, especially when Bollywood stars are involved. Recent ad campaigns for Wrangler and Levi’s by John Abraham and Akshay Kumar make the association of jeans, sexuality and personal autonomy abundantly clear. Jeans in film, and in life, tack a dynamic path between the mundane and the erotic.

Akshay with vendor

Regarding the routes by which denim clothes reach the screen, my research shows that designers and stylists are constantly challenged to mesh their aesthetic vision concerning characters with star desires for brand labels that boost their own sense of exclusivity. Stars have long been accustomed to the personal attention of the designer, or the personal service of tailors, but now they can enjoy associations with brand labels. Many leading actors are anxious to enjoy the rewards (in both monetary and cultural capital) that openly wearing labels ensure, and several have amassed significant apparel endorsement contracts. In North America, it is customary for actors to bring to a production a list of the labels they prefer to wear. Star preferences for brands are becoming equally strong in India, where the actor or actress’s choices are funneled through their own personal costume (dress) designer. A taste in jeans brands is, I think, especially important for a film star to insist upon, given the fact that jeans, to “work” as fashion items, must conform fairly narrowly to what we’ve come to expect of them as clothing forms (blue cloth, rivets, double-stitching etc. etc.). Brand exclusivity imposes a way of making qualitative distinctions amidst this sea of uniformity.

The top stars prefer the priciest labels, ones that are often either hard or flat impossible to get in India. Designers and stylists typically go “shopping for films” abroad, at least for the big budget films. For lesser films, the choices in Mumbai range from department stores to shopping malls to well-known suburban shopping districts like Lokhandwala and Bandra (nearer to where stars live and to the studios where films are shot). Outlet stores for major brands like Levi’s, Wranglers and Pepe Jeans are now part of the Mumbai’s retail environment. When they go to buy jeans for films, stylists go where film audiences themselves go later to buy the clothes that film stars “model” for them. The difference is that they buy multiples, and they are not buying for personal use, but for an actor’s, and specifically for them to portray a film character. The “biography” of a piece of denim subjected to this kind of “diversion” from customary purchase and wear is quite distinct. From store it goes to the set, to be stored in a trunk with other clothes for the duration of the shoot. It is possible it may be altered to fit, or adapted in some way, although substantial modification is not acceptable for brand items whose ties to either the star or the production are acknowledged. Filming can be hard on costumes, and many emerge after production is over unfit for further use. Jeans are relatively resilient however, and in both American and Indian industries I’m told that jeans are more than likely to be simply assimilated into the star wardrobe either during, or after filming.

Pepe jeans

Finally, it is impossible to discount the importance of the use of fakes in film costuming. For one thing, the star’s use of a brand label jean may contradict the social status of the character they portray – a kind of fakery in itself. The more common use of fakes is using cheap, fake brands to play the part of more expensive ones. Fakes of course abound in the Indian marketplace, whether stitched domestically or imported from overseas. These are the kinds of clothes that may end up on a stunt double, or even – if the costume department is sly – on the star him or herself. (It is not unknown to stitch in the label from a genuine garment to carry off the subterfuge). What doesn’t seem to happen – at least from the information I’ve collected – is for tailors who work on “filmi” clothes to make copies of jeans. Indeed, buying ready-mades is much preferred, in part, I think, because the acts of consumerism that bring costumes to the screen in this case are felt to be more “authentic” in producing the kinds of fashionable, “modern” looks that contemporary films demand. In this sense, the “realism” the film seeks to convey spills out into the practices that make that realism possible.

I have so far published five articles on the film research, and plan to return to India in the near future to do more research on the transformation of costuming practice and personnel affected by the new economy. How denim is used and acquired is of course an important component of this research. I hope ultimately to produce a book on the subject of Hindi film costume that not only describes how costumes “work” in terms of the film’s narrative, but ties what we see on screen to the larger social world from which costumes come, and to which they speak.

Top left and bottom right photos: Phyllida Jay

Forthcoming October 2010:

Wilkinson-Weber, Clare M. "Diverting Denim: Screening Jeans in Bollywood" in D Miller and S Woodward (eds) Global Denim, Oxford: Berg