There’s this little tailor shop in Adyar I pass on my way home from work everyday. It’s very poshly named Executive Men’s Tailor, and the tagline under it reads ‘Specialist in Safari and Suits’.
Now, it’s true that enterprising entrepreneurs in the the city often provide more than one service from little more than a potti kadai. Your neighbourhood Veena Medicals might both sell Cool Drinks from dusty old glass bottles with the requisite brightly coloured straws (you don’t see those venerable bottles as often any more. I miss them. Stupid new-fangled cans and plastic disposables) and be able to procure for you any medication you need, prescriptions be damned (‘I’ll have one packet Gems and one strip of Erithromycin, please’). Even so, a little theyil kadai claiming to be an expert in both organising safaris and stitching suits is something quite out of the ordinary, you’d agree (‘I’ll book you and your family on a Kenyan safari and throw in three lion-watching suits as part of the package’). Impressive.
Of course, it’s a tad more likely that the man is actually claiming to be a specialist in safari suits as well as other, lesser suits. Disappointing, yes, but that got me thinking about that slowly vanishing sartorial staple of the 70s and 80s in India — the safari suit. There was a time when the safari suit was an absolute must-have for the middle-class man of substance — the government official, the businessman, the school principal. Certainly they were a staple of our movie wardrobes. Every man-about-town owned one — I’m certain there’s a yellowing picture of my dad as a dapper 20-something MBA grad wearing one somewhere in the Family Chest of Bad Fashion Decisions (alongside the one of the tiger-print shirts). Every up-and-comer aspired to one.
Usually all in grey (various shades thereof) or in that awful shade of dark brown that was so popular for bell-bottoms, it was the all-body precursor of the cargo shorts (and you kids thought you were the first to come up with the idea that having a gazillion meaningless pockets was somehow cool). It also always had to be worn a couple of sizes too small — if your paunch wasn’t pressing comfortably against the middle button pre-lunch and actively struggling to break free post-lunch, you weren’t wearing it right (in fact, it is said that many a slim and willowy gentleman felt unworthy of the safari suit given his woefully inadequate mid-section. That resulted in the first and only instance in recorded history of the production of faux-paunches by a company in Bombay. They shut down following a lengthy legal battle with Bappi da who claimed the paunches were modeled on his). And finally, the safari suit was meant for longevity — the older and, of course, tighter your safari suit was, the greater its street cred in the halls of the government office you worked in.
Over the years, however, the star of the safari suit has waned. It’s become something of a joke amongst the chic set — it’s uncool, it’s only for the hopelessly fashion-challenged, they cry. But still the safari suit lingers, and not only in photo albums (right beside the bouffants and the long sideburns). In true old-school Indian style (where you never give up on anything, however patently it’s past its sell-by date, e.g. Lata Mangeshkar), a stubborn set of stuck-in-the-70s gentlemen hold on to their safari suits, whipping it out of the mothballs for that fancy family do or that important meeting. And presumably, if and when these valiant suits do give way, the gentlemen drop by to see Executive Men’s Tailor, Specialist in Safari and Suits. Because in other parts of the world, the safari suit may have become an almost-forgotten fad to be fondly remembered and even celebrated; in India, where the past and the present co-exist in (fairly) peaceful togetherness, it lives on proudly, as do the theyil kadais that specialise in them.
(PS: Would love to know the origins of the safari suit — any ideas? Does it have anything whatsoever to do with actual safaris? Did it evolve from the Shikari Shambu suits colonial-types wore while hunting in barbarian lands?)