As a compelling influencer and a symbol of feminism, the erstwhile Chief Minister’s wardrobe sense has always kept pace with her iconic status.
When thousands gathered at the Marina Beach this Tuesday to bid adieu to one of the state’s most loved chief ministers, we lost more than just a political leader. A powerful style icon, be it in politics or films, the charismatic J Jayalalithaa has been a trailblazer for feminism. From her contemporary fashion sense in her Tamil debut film, Vennira Aadai (1965) to becoming the Iron Lady of Tamil Nadu who made the simple sari a symbol of power today — she firmly stood her ground in the patriarchal environment. We pay tribute to her sense of style that represents more than mere fashion as we trace the five-time Chief Minister Jayalalithaa’s iconic looks over the years.
The high-collared cape era of 1993 offers a combination of style and functionality. Rumoured to have concealed a bullet-proof vest, Amma’s reason for her latest wardrobe addition was a simple, “I like it.” Colour coordinated with her saris, her first stint as CM saw a profusion of heavy brocades and vibrant colours. “I believe she carried forward style into her political life as well. I remember, during her stint as Chief Minister, her signature style was a high-collared cape that you never saw any other politician wearing.”
—Chaitanya Rao, fashion designer
The trend of snazzy plaid has marked a return over the last couple of years. Fashion forward in the mid-1960s, this chequered capri in shades of red and black, was a style statement for young Jayalalithaa. Teamed with a cream tank top and chunky jewellery, the outfit makes for a picture-perfect photo shoot with the young starlet. “For me the most iconic look would be her in those capris. It was a bold fashion choice for a young actress to try in that day and age.”
—Sidney Sladen, fashion designer
Keeping up with the glamour of being a child actor and the star power expected of her, Jayalalithaa’s choice to stick to single, deep-toned saris with delicate borders personified the confidence she exuded. Her solid-colour saris, which were always perfectly draped and never creased, in addition to her clear skin and perfect eyebrows, characterised the person she was — enigmatic and classy. “Jayalalithaa’s fashion, once she entered politics, was an extension of herself. Her choice of solid colours radiated the tenacity and poise she carried herself with through her career.”
—Vivek Karunakaran, fashion designer
Known for breaking fashion stereotypes in the movies, it was Jayalalithaa’s look in Kaavalkaaran that was a conversation starter. Donned in an embellished crop top, the actress went all glam in 1967, in which she carried a Cleopatra-like resemblance. With the right amount of Egyptian regality and urban heroine charm, she displayed a formidable onscreen persona. “Ninaithen vandhai was too cool for 1967. In the song, she’s wearing a long skirt and totally rocked the look. The style and charm that she emulated is unparalleled.”
— Karun Raman, fashion, choreographer and stylist
While her fashion sensibilities never strayed from the traditional six yards, Jayalalithaa’s foray into politics was a subtle take on the star that she was. A half-and-half printed sari made of large handblock prints, detailed with smaller flowers, accentuated that affluent and grand quality about her.
“Jayalalithaa’s love for saris isn’t unknown. She went from the pretty printed silks to the heavier crepes as time went by and as her public image transformed. The printed sari phase with those floral prints and bright colours, teamed with her long braids was a very pretty look and it showed a sense of innocence and vulnerability that we rarely got to see later. She had a pretty and youthful face and naturally she pulled that look off really well. As time went by, we saw the florals change to solid colours and change in fabric as well. Her sense of style in some sense mirrored her transformation as a person as well.”
—Rehane, fashion designer