The Cambridge dictionary defines a vest as ‘a type of underwear, often with no sleeves, that covers the upper part of the body, worn for extra warmth.’ In India, in the hot tropics, the baniyan is worn for various reasons, but we deleted the bodywarming function from its definition.
We wear the vest come summer or winter. One can see its contours outlined under translucent shirts and kurtas, or a single white strap peeking out from under a round neck t-shirt. Most Indians wear the vest to protect their shirt from their own perspiration. The downside is that they sweat even more.
My father wore vests on long train journeys. He used it to carry money. Those were the days when there were no ATMs, and if you travelled to a different city, you carried your cash with you. He bought these special vests from Khadi Bhandar; they came with an inbuilt chor pocket, a pocket cleverly stitched into the vest. Your cash was safest when it was second skin.
SRK in Lux Cozy
For the working class, the vest is functional work wear. The first thing a plumber, a carpenter, the butcher or a labourer does before getting his hands dirty is to take off his shirt. You toil in your vest — it’s our blue denim. This unglamorous demographic has always been left out of television commercials.
In recent times, Indian manufacturers have tried to make baniyans glamourous, like sports cars or Jaquar plumbing, by getting them to be endorsed by top Bollywood stars. In these advertisements, they have tried to elevate this humble undergarment, always white in colour, to the status of an Indian version of the American macho wife-beater, the kind worn by Stallone in Rocky and by Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire.
Akshay Kumar has probably acted in as many vest commercials as films. In the Dollar Club commercial from 2011, the vest-wearing Kumar beats up the baddies in a fight laden with food metaphors. When the damsel in distress gushes “Aap kitna acha khana banate ho”, Kumar slides a muscular thumb under the vest-strap and says, with a grim face, “Home delivery bhi karta hoon.” Total YouTube views: 9000. Vest ads, often shot on expensive budgets, get so many views (a 2013 commercial for Rupa Xing has nearly three lakh) that you wonder why people are still making movies. Vests serve a sartorial function. They are also mass entertainment.
Akshay Kumar in Dollar
Young India sold its brand of undergarments to the citizens of an emergent nation-state: Bachhe boodhe aur jawan/ Pahne Young India chaddi aur baniyan. That was the socialist 1980s. In 2016, the vest is a marker of capitalist individuality. Dixcy Scott’s tagline is Apni alag pehchaan. Dixcy has a series of ads (36,000 views) which hammers home this point. The Dixcy man lives in a swanky, well-stocked bachelor pad but, as the final scene reveals, the pad is actually a tree house. The Dixcy man also pours milk for his pet tiger, bungee jumps from his balcony and rides out of his garage on a horse — not a clichéd motorbike — all the time wearing a pristine white vest.
Despite efforts by advertisers to glamourise the vest, Indians are still sceptical of the baniyan’s sartorial prowess, of wearing it as a stand-alone outer garment. James Dean and Brando turned the American white vest, which till then was always viewed as an undershirt, into a fashion statement in the 1950s, by wearing it as an outer garment (the denim and T-shirt combo in some of their iconic films), and which eventually evolved into the worldwide T-shirt trend.
By that logic, and considering our weather, the Indian sleeveless vest should have been transformed into a trendy outer garment. But despite crores being spent on advertising, using the most famous of Indian stars, Indians still relegate the baniyan to the status of an undershirt, never to be revealed in public.
The writer’s new book House Spirit: Drinking in India was published recently