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US First Lady Michelle Obama's nude gown has started a huge racial debate all over the world. What do fashionistas in India think about this colour that women love to wear?

STERLING silver sequin, abstract floral, nude strapless gown -- that's how designer Naeem Khan described this dress worn by US First Lady Michelle Obama at a state dinner. Nothing wrong, it seemed.

According to the dictionary, the colour nude can extend to cover tan, tawny, sandy, yellow brown and light yellow. The Associated Press news agency, reporting on the event, described the colour as ' flesh'. And what followed opened the door to a racial debate that's becoming increasingly relevant in the multi- ethnic world we live in today. The report was lambasted by another AP editor who asked: " Who's flesh? Certainly not hers ( Michelle Obama's)." The offensive word was subsequently changed to ' champagne' and the matter resolved. But the incident does give rise to a debate of racial bias in the fashion world.

We have all heard stories from various models who complained of the lack of colours in apparel and cosmetic brands that would enhance brown, dark- brown or Asian skin tones. Fashion magazines in the West took a very long time to feature multiracial skin on its pages and cover. International models Naomi Campbell, Iman and Tyra Banks have spoken about colour bias in the fashion industry as much as Indian actresses Bipasha Basu and Mugdha Godse have fought off biased mindsets to make a mark in mainstream Bollywood.

" If you're talking about fashion, nude is considered to be the shade of a skin tone, but that skin tone ranges from peachy white to the Asian yellow or mid colour.

Dark skin shades are not called nude or flesh," says fashion designer Rina Dhaka.

Going by that terminology strictly speaking, flesh only involves a certain tone of skin colour and that doesn't cover even half of the world. But Dhaka defends it: " It's just become an accepted description in fashion terminology to mean a big range, but yes it leaves out certain flesh colours if you're speaking practically." There are some who feel the issue has been blown out of proportion.

Fashion designer Mandira Wirk says, " What's the big deal? It's just what we visualise as a colour. Nude denotes a few shades that would range from light peach, champagne, pale yellow to ivory. We often call nude the colour of foundation. I think people are unnecessarily brewing a controversy."

BUT in a global world where the domination of one race in one geographical area is diminishing on a daily basis, the argument may not seem that pointless.

Sociologist Shiv Vishwanathan says, " Anthropologically speaking the colour ' flesh' definitely has very different connotations depending on which part of the world you are talking about. But if you're talking fashion terminology, nude does have an extremely Caucasian identity to it. It's the same as the West describing most things brown as ' exotic' or ' erotic'," he says. Vishwanathan says the comment of the editor of Associated Press does throw up a very interesting debate.

Colour is never really just about colour, is it? When Basu entered the glamour industry, she faced uphill hurdles to get acceptance.

She has spoken about times when her make- up and her dresses would be chosen to ' cover- up' her tanned skin tone.

In fact, there were rumours of another fair- skinned actress calling Basu ' kaali billi ' ( black cat) during the shooting of one of her earliest films. Flesh obviously wasn't just a politically incorrect term ever.

Model Nayonika Chatterjee, known for her dark skin tone, says, " It's funny the First Lady of the US should face the same biases that we faced as models and still do." Chatterjee explains how in her initial modeling years it would be a mammoth task for her and others who had darker skin to get an innerwear in the colour nude. " For models, flesh coloured inners is a very practical demand. For any sheer garments that we were supposed to wear on the ramp or for a shoot, we'd have to run from pillar to post for ' nude' lingerie. I remember so many times we would fail to get one, buy a nude bra as per industry's ' fair' standards, soak it in tea for a day, dry it and then wear it." Things have changed since then, she explains. " These days the market is a lot better because bigger brands like Victoria's Secret or M& S have started storing it," says Chatterjee.

It takes a long time for deeprooted perceptions to change, especially if very few people see anything wrong in that set perception.

To be fair, no colour is just that: colour. It comes with its various hues. As do flesh and human beings.

To apply the term ' nude' to denote skin tones only belonging to a certain kind would be unfair.

Says fashion designer Ritu Kumar, " Nude denotes northern Europe's understanding of the skin colour. We all have a very Caucasian understanding of quite a few fashion terminologies because fashion for a long time belonged to them. It's about time to change things around," she says. Sounds fair to me.


Controversial or not, nude is the colour of the season. From Cannes to Bollywood, everyone is sporting various shades of this sandy hue. In the recently- concluded festival in southern France actresses Kate Beckinsale, Naomi Watts, Jennifer Lopez, Kristin- Scott Thomas, Cate Blanchett, Salma Hayek were all sporting nude to create the maximum impact. Whether Caucasian or Spanish, the colour did suit everyone in this international event.

Back home Katrina Kaif wore the colour to its full potential recently. Fashion designer Mandira Wirk says, " It's a perfect summer colour and suits all skin tones. It's a misconception that it suits only fair- skinned people," she says. True. Michelle Obama, who's known as one of the best dressed First Ladies to have occupied the White House, wouldn't have shone in it if it hadn't suited her dark skin tones. " You can even team nude with nice bright accessories." So if you want to stand out in a crowd, pick up something in nude, when everyone around you wants to look cool in white.

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Publication:Mail Today (New Delhi, India)
Date:May 26, 2010

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