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Journalist, Author, Columnist. My Twitter handle: @seemagoswami

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Urban tribes

They are quite easy to spot; and each one has its own distinctive look

Having lunch with my girlfriends is always an excuse to indulge in our favourite group activity: people watching. Which is, of course, followed by a little gentle bitching about the people being watched. (Now, don’t get all judgemental on me; you know you do that too.)

Last Saturday, as we fetched up to eat at our favourite restaurant, we were particularly intrigued by a group of young women – all in their early to late 30s – who had taken over the private dining room to celebrate some sort of special occasion, judging by the champagne resting nicely on ice. As they trooped past our table and into their glass-encased bubble – decorated with balloons and streamers; and an oversized cake occupying pride of place – we couldn’t help but notice just how similar they all looked.

They all had suspiciously smooth skin, with bright, shiny foreheads, with nary a wrinkle in sight. They all had blonde highlights in their hair, which they all wore down below their shoulders. They all had their slim, exfoliated legs on display, wearing either short dresses or short skirts. All of them sported skinny belts around their impossibly-tiny waists, which were nicely set off by their oversized (and overpriced) designer handbags. Hell, they even had the exact same pout (or, as one of my friends sniggered, the exact same plastic surgeon).

It was almost as if they had come straight out of Central Casting: ladies who lunched a lot; and then threw up promptly afterwards so that they could fit into their size zero wardrobes (which were so alike as to be virtually interchangeable).

I would have liked to scoff at them, if it hadn’t been for the fact that the ladies on my table were also dressed in a manner that was strikingly similar to one another. We were all in the regulation journo-wear of blue jeans paired with Anokhi or Fabindia style kurtas. We all had on chunky platform heels to give us height with minimum discomfort and were carrying totes large enough to lug our laptops/Ipads around in. Okay, we didn’t have identikit hair, with lengths varying from crop-top to below the waist, but nonetheless there was a strong common aesthetic binding our look together.

All of which got me thinking: so, which comes first? As in, do women who have the same aesthetic tend to bind together? Or do women who stick together tend to develop the same aesthetic sense?

Or, to put it more simply: do the blue-jean ladies come together because of their love of denim? Or do they infect one another with their love of casual chic as time goes on? Ditto, the short-dress brigade.

I haven’t quite figured that one out as yet, but there is no denying that no matter where we go, we are surrounded by urban tribes, who stand out because of their shared tastes. And that these tribes come in all ages, shapes, sizes and genders.

There are the stroppy teenagers who skulk about in oversized jeans that reveal their knickers (and sometimes, a generous dose of bum-cleavage as well). There are the gym rats (both male and female) who squeeze themselves into body-con clothes to show off the pectoral muscles honed over months of diligently working weights. There are the young professionals who wear their tailored suits like a badge of pride. There are the middle-aged ladies who personify the phrase ‘mutton dressed as lamb’. And then, there are the men who cope with their mid-life crises by dressing like their teenage sons (think lots of denim, leather and sneakers).

In offices, everyone seems to follow the non-verbal cues sent out by the bosses. So, if the man or woman in charge has a relaxed, casual vibe, then everyone else down the food chain tends to adopt that as well in their style of dressing. And if the boss lady or man is a stickler for formality, then even without being explicitly asked to do so, everyone else dresses very ‘proper’ too. When it comes to the professional world, discretion is the better part of valour. And what could be more discreet than following in the footsteps of the boss (you know what they say about imitation being the sincerest form of flattery).

But then, almost every profession itself has its own default look. The NGO sector can be recognised by the profusion of khadi kurtas, handloom saris, large maroon bindis and the oversized jholas that have spawned the phrase ‘jholawallah types’. The banking sector has made the boring grey suit its own. And media people have become known for a certain innate scruffiness, turning up defiantly in jeans and T-shirts even when attending formal functions.  

That said, quite the best place to observe the phenomenon of urban tribes is a university campus, where every clique and gang has its own uniform, so to speak. There are the ‘artistic’ lot, who tend to wear a lot of block-print and vegetable dye, teamed with cloth bags and scuffed kohlapuris. There is the ‘nerd’ corner, where everyone wears loose, faded jeans and T-shirts and the accessory of choice is a pair of black-rimmed spectacles. There are the ‘cool’ kids, who flaunt all the latest designer labels, right from their trendy sunglasses to their leather loafers. And so on.

Actually if you think about it, the university campus is like a metaphor for the world itself, with its collection of urban tribes who band together on the strength of both shared interests and a shared aesthetic – no matter which one comes first.

1 comment:

sona seth said...

<'urban tribes'indeed! Even the non-conformist conforms to the image of the nonconformist.It is yet another proof of the human need to belong to a group or'tribe' as you put it.>