In the Vanities
No one wears panities
—- Ogden Nash, Theatrical Reflection
In the early 1990s, when the Indian economy was opening up to the world, foreign consumer brands, in the first flush of excitement, came tripping over themselves to sell to “one billion” Indian customers. But after all the low hanging fruit had been plucked, they had to work hard to ferret out ‘niche’ markets that they could sell to: and one of those hitherto-unexplored markets in India, which had remained outside their reach, was the market for intimate women’s apparel.
At that time, a market research agency came out with a well-padded (and, perhaps, underwired) report that claimed – presumably after surveying women in the most remote tribal belts – that nearly 98 per cent of women in India did not wear any kind of undergarments. It then claimed, on the basis of this titillating bit of statistic, that there was clearly a vast and unfulfilled demand for women’s innerwear. Predictably, it had well-established international lingerie brands all out of
breast breath and pant(y)ing with excitement at the big market that lay tucked away – out of sight of prurient eyes – beneath the demure vestments that Indian women wore.
Curiosity about what lay beneath the outer layers of women’s clothing had by then become something of a national obsession. In 1993 was released the film Khalyanak, with its suggestive signature hit-song Choli ke peeche kya hai (fair warning: nothing explicit, but probably Not Safe for Workplace). Young men burning with the desire for illumination on this fundamental question queued up to see the movie over and over again – in some cases, up to 30-40 times – but, sadly, obtained no satisfactory answer.
The fact that many Indian women, particularly in rural areas, have a callous disdain for innerwear would, of course, have been stunningly obvious to a generation that grew up watching Zeenat Aman (again, probably NSFW) in Satyam Shivam Sundaram.
But it appears, from evidence that was made
pubic public recently, that the trend of women unwilling to be confined in anything so constricting as underwear has reached epidemic proportions in India.
The model Yana Gupta recently had male hormones gushing when she uncrossed her shapely legs at a charity event in Mumbai and flashed the message – as in this Calvin Klein commercial from 1981 starring Brooke Shields – that between her and her micro-mini dress, there’s absolutely nothing.
The sight that the ‘No Panty Girl’ Yana revealed has predictably acquired nearly as much jabber value as this other famous uncrossing of legs, by Sharon Stone in the 1992 film Basic Instinct did. But it has also drawn the unkind attention of self-appointed moral policemen with a keen eye out for exposed female genitalia: Rizwan Ahmed, who claims to be a social activist in Lucknow (but from all accounts is only a publicity hound), has filed a case against Yana and the eager-beaver photographer on grounds of obscenity.
But it appears that in his eagerness to enforce an imagined moral order, Ahmed has misinterpreted the message inherent in Yana’s sneak peek of her no-panty state. To understand Yana’s message, one has to be familiar with the Hemline Index, a whimsical economic theory propounded in 1926 that, from all accounts, is still valid. It holds that the hemlines on women’s dresses rise when an economy is doing well; and, inversely, when economic times are grim, the skirts get longer. (More on this enthralling subject here.)
In other words, the message that Yana wished to flash to the world – through the shortness of her dress and her disregard for innerwear – is only that the Indian economy is well and truly booming.
Now, picture this: to profit from that booming economy, somewhere deep in a remote corner of India, a lingerie salesman looking to tap into a “vast and unfulfilled demand” for lacy innerwear is probably at this moment trying to hard-sell the joys of the Wonderbra to a puzzled tribal woman…