Sartorial Armour And New Rites Of Power Dressing With Polite Society
We are living through the age of casual dating. From multiple failed ‘talking stages’ to unofficial couples and friends with benefits, modern relationships encompass it all. Our callous, no-nonsense approach to relationships feels odd. We did grow up watching romantic films from the 90s and 2000s, the films with picture-perfect characters that would melt even the coldest hearts.
If our film education was right we should be making big, romantic gestures and embracing every spectrum of our emotions but instead, with online dating and the promise of a soulmate or a new casual fling just a swipe away, romance is an antiquated notion. We now have a world full of options in our pockets, no grand serenade necessary.
This complicated web of emotion associated with modern-day relationships and how we are wholly obsessed with love, is the basis of Polite Society's second collection: Love & Other Lies.
Surmai Jain, founder and creative director of Polite Society, went through a long and winding academic and professional journey before she launched her own label. She speaks candidly about her past experiences, “I wanted to have a brand since I was in school. But a lot of things happened on the way. I ended up doing architecture for a year. I studied fashion communication for four years and I worked as a graphic designer for a year. Somehow, I just kept making these plan B decisions, instead of being straight with myself."
Surmai’s brand story and communication is rooted in sharing knowledge and subverting what is appropriate. Her fresh take and understanding of what constitutes a luxury brand, makes her stand out in the Indian market which is still inundated with old school modes of couture and bridalwear.
Surmai Jain, Founder and Creative Director of Polite Society
Everything about the brand is meticulously planned out and thought through, Surmai’s fashion communication background enables her to see the brand beyond the garments. She utilises visual language and understands the importance of a strong brand narrative from both a design and communication point of view.
The brand name for instance is an ironic spin on the literal definition of a Polite Society- a group of wealthy, well-mannered people. Surmai was intrigued by this idea of subverting what it means to be wealthy, she explains “We can still be wealthy, not in terms of money or etiquette, but in terms of knowledge and what we choose to talk about."
Coming of age
Love & Other Lies is an ode to modern relationships and online dating, referencing how people find it hard, to be honest, and vulnerable with each other. The collection breathes fresh air into the Indian fashion industry while still pushing the bounds of power-dressing through sharp tailoring and simple detailing.
Surmai built the collection of a single sweatshirt from the drop that says 'Tell me erotic lies" on the back with a small paragraph under it that explains how a modern-day scenario of a relationship works. “We are all looking for something or someone, but half of us are scared to... just be honest. And we say a bunch of shit to get laid, this is how it is with online dating. I just felt like that it could be something I could represent through a couple of pieces. I wanted to talk about this subtle kind of love in a positive way. The love that we experience at this age.”
Love & Other Lies is also Polite Society’s first foray into menswear, when asked why she decided to include menswear in the drop she stated matter o factly, “Guys were showing a lot of interest and we would get DMS every now and then asking when we would be dropping menswear and are you dropping any more like unisex pieces. So I took a hint from there."
Surmai still remains trepidatious about foraying into the uncharted territory of menswear. “I did a way smaller menswear collection compared to womenswear. If there are 15 outfits in menswear there are 25 outfits in womenswear. So definitely a smaller trial sort of thing. I felt like let's try and do it in a different way and not make it so overtly manly or in your face.”
Throughout the lookbook, the male model is always shot and styled to appear a bit softer. Surmai wanted to go against the grain of what conventional power dressing looked like. “It's a trial and error thing for me as well. I don't know how it's going to be received. I can't forsee if this is how men want to be seen. Is this something they would be interested in or are they still looking for graphic tees and stuff? It's something I wanted to experiment with for sure and what this collection is about."
What does it mean to be powerful?
Power is often tied to being masculine and designers often fall into this trap. Dressing women in shirts and pants, big shoulders and pantsuits, in an attempt to make them appear more powerful.
Surmai refutes that notion, her approach to power dressing is tied to confidence. “The whole point of power dressing is to feel like you're in charge and to feel powerful. Who decided that a shirt and a pantsuit will make me feel that way. It could also be a corset for instance, which back in the day was considered anti-feminist. But a lot of women do feel confident wearing it, so we have taken what was patriarchal and reclaimed it, deciding which parts we want to keep and which we don't."
She further adds “People still tell me it’s anti-feminist to include corsets. But I’ve realized that people will always find a way to tell you that what you're doing is wrong. But at the end of the day, the corsets we make aren't uncomfortable."
Going beyond shirts and skirts, Surmai embraces femininity in all its forms to project power, but doesn’t restrict herself to a gender binary within her design process. “I feel like there's still femininity in a lot of our pieces be it through lacing or thin strands or like the curves that enhance a woman's body.”
The clothes that Polite Society end up creating have a combination of stereotypically masculine and feminine components; emulating a new version of power dressing.
Surmai identifies with the people who wear her clothes, especially the women, expressing that “I want the people who wear Polite Society to feel comfortable in their skin, in their body and also be able to show it off at the same time. I wanted my brand to have clothes that are structured and that highlight the parts of the body that people don't want to be highlighted. So it wasn't very obvious in all the pieces. But even just some simple embroideries like in the boobies shirt or a ring on the front or slit pants, a lot of these skin peaks and sharp silhouettes that focus on the underbust area. This feels empowering to me. And hopefully, other women will find it empowering too. That's how I got into power dressing in a way that's not just suits, but a little bit different.”