IF EVER an invasion was destined to fail, it is Pierre Cardin's assault on the Indian woman's beloved sari.
For the opening of new boutiques in Calcutta, Bombay and Delhi recently, the 72-year-old French cardinal of brand-name consumerism unveiled his latest creations before a gathering of India's rich and trendy. Dazzling in their flowing silk saris, the Indian women gasped at the sheer discomfort of Cardin's fashions: an awkward geometry of jutting shoulderblades and dresses shaped like saucers.
'When I'm walking in a sari, I flow,' said Jasleen Dhamija, a writer and textile historian. 'Western clothes make you stick out your butt and breasts so that you end up strutting like a pea-hen.'
The sari, with only a few alterations, a tuck here and there, has been the preferred garment of the Indian woman for several millennia. In the Ajanta caves, 2,000-year-old frescoes depict palace beauties cavorting in pellucid saris.
It is unlikely that Cardin, Benetton, Lacoste and other purveyors of Western fashion now entering India will succeed in tumbling the Indian woman out of her six-yard sari - at least for the next few centuries.
It is true that in Bombay's fast-crowd discos, women wear mini-skirts as snug and short as anywhere in Soho.
But as Vrinda Gopinath, a fashion writer for a daily paper, the Pioneer, explained: 'It's fine for a girl to wear Western clothes when she is at university. But once she gets married, her parents and husband will tell her, 'You've had your fun. Now get back into a sari.' And she usually does.'
Some companies and government offices frown on women wearing anything but saris. In Calcutta last winter, students at a girls' school went on strike when a teacher was sent away for wearing not a sari but a salwar kameez, a loose-fitting tunic and trousers outfit common throughout northern India and Pakistan.
Cardin, whose own designer glasses give him a hawklike squint, has his eye on India's vast middle class of 200 million people. An average middle-class income for a salaried Indian worker is only about pounds 1,500 a year, but because food, transportation and clothing are so cheap, and because many Indians dodge paying taxes, he probably has a higher proportion of spending money left over than his heavily mortgaged British counterpart.
Cardin's prices on everything from ties to polo shirts, all made in India, are slashed to half what they cost in London or Paris.
His Delhi shop in the solidly middle-class neighbourhood of Lajpat Nagar lures about 120 customers a day, with the cheapest item, a keychain, selling for 350 rupees (pounds 7).
Cardin wants to open 50 stores here by next year, but he overlooks the fact that the Indian middle class is deeply conservative. Indian women will not easily be persuaded to hop into an outfit smuggled off the film set of Alien3 .
The sari has prevailed for so long because it fits into the cyclic rhythms of an Indian woman's life. As soon as a girl is born, her parents begin to buy saris for her wedding trousseau. At puberty, she is gven her first sari. When she is seven months' pregnant, the expectant mother is given a black sari bordered with gold to ward off the evil eye. As a widow, she must wear a sari of a colour described as 'dead white' but which really has no colour at all.
Some saris are embroidered with picture stories, others with mantras or birds. There are monsoon saris of sage green and pink, winter saris of turquoise. In the hot, sticky climate of Bengal, saris are draped to cool the air coming in contact with the body.
In the folds of a sari, a woman can hide her house keys, lipstick, love notes . . . It is not unusual for a reasonably well-off woman to collect a thousand saris of silk, cotton and chiffon.
Most Western women, incidentally, look terrible in saris; they do not glide as they should, but move like double-jointed camels. Mother Teresa and the late Rajiv Gandhi's Italian-born widow, Sonia, are recognised by Indians as among the few foreigners who can carry it off.
Feminists and Hindu traditionalists alike favour the sari. Some temples in southern India will refuse entrance to women in Western dress. 'The idea is that a sari is made of whole cloth - it is complete - so that when you go to temple you are whole yourself,' said Kusum Ansal, a poet.
Many feminists, after an initial rebellion of wearing jeans and T-shirts, are returning to the sari. 'Western clothes emphasise a woman's erogenous zones, but the sari is more sculptured. It drapes the woman's body,' said Ms Dhamija. 'You can be eight months pregnant or put on a stone, and nobody will know. A sari's folds can hide a multitide of sins.'
India still has a residue of suspicion towards the West. Many view with alarm the arrival of Coca-Cola, multinationals, and privateers of Cardin's stripe, eyeing India as a massive new trade and investment opportunity second only to China.
The intellectuals say that the new Moghuls, or British conquerors, are coming; that India's ancient civilisation will be swamped in a wave of insipid Western consumerism. But they overlook India's resilience and capacity to absorb practically everything and remain unaltered beneath the surface.
Cardin's advertising campaign has a distinctly neo-colonialist flavour: in Bombay, hoardings urge Indians to 'Join the Cardin Empire'. But unless he starts putting his ubiquitous signature to saris, it is an invitation that many Indian women will (politely) refuse.
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