to robe or not

Long before the era of Instagram, inspiration came in the form of a 14th-century bard — William Shakespeare.

Words by:

Aarushi Agrawal

Photos by:

Shashank R Yadav

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IT WON’T TAKE long for a sartorial trend to take off after one among the Kardashian-Jenner clan starts it.

A Kar-Jenner will wear a style, cut, colour or shape that’ll capture public imagination and soon become the norm. This is not a new phenomenon. Such influencers have always existed. 

In Elizabethan England, more popularly known as ‘Shakespeare’s time,’ the royalty and courtiers were, naturally, the fashion leaders. Lines and divides in society were sharp and stark, and clothes played a big role in situating a person, socially and financially. 

Being a writer in this society, there’s much that Shakespeare observed and understood about clothes. To the shrewd reader, besides his words and stage directions, Shakespeare is also communicating information about his characters through the clothes he’s putting them in. While an analysis of every type of garment is beyond the scope of this article, it will discuss the place of the robe in Shakespeare’s world. 

THE ROBE IS normally a sign that the wearer is powerful and influential, often noble or royal. The Queen is often understood to be in a sumptuous, grand gown. On any character, the robe is a symbol of their elevated status and reminds viewers of the authority they have over their subjects. Among the characters wearing robes are Cleopatra and King Lear, exemplifying the close bond shared between a robe and the throne. Shakespeare didn’t, however, shy away from ruminating on the cracks of society, often using his characters to make powerful statements. King Lear, for instance, says in the eponymous play:

“Through tattered clothes great vices do appear; Robes and furred gowns hide all. Plate sin with gold, And the strong lance of justice hurtless breaks.”

The robe can also be symbolic instead of being literal, and can act as a metaphor for a character’s changing identity and transformation. Putting on or discarding a robe can be a rise or fall in status, depicting their inner lives, like Macbeth wearing the moral-less, bloody robe of kingship after committing regicide. 

In a different colour and setting, a robe can also be used as a disguise and signal its accompanying deception. The robe allows the character to don another personality, and either in jest or villainy, convince those around them that they’re a different person. In Shakespeare’s comedies, there’s women like Twelfth Night’s Viola and The Merchant of Venice’s Portia dressing up as men, taking on more power and using the newfound voice that patriarchy allows all men.

However it’s used, the robe is stitched solidly into the emotional and social fabric of the playwright’s works. It is not just a mere  fashion choice, but a statement about the character and their circumstances, and adds another layer of expression and exploration to an already richly weaved narrative.

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Shakespeare has been extensively adapted in various formats in India. They have either been adapted by the book or we see glimpses of the plot in themes and structure. Gayle wears an Ophelia Dress from Eka.
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The bard has been spoken in various regional languages, but the Parsi theatre company popularised it in the 19th century by travelling and performing in Urdu and Gujarati, around the subcontinent. The model is wearing Aseem Kapoor (left) and Khanijo (right).
While India got colonised, Shakespeare got decolonised, and the bard finally made its breakthrough in Bollywood. Gayle wears Ka-Sha.
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India has produced some Shakespeare-inspired movies, largely projected via the lens of the social and political issues facing the country. Director Vishal Bharadwaj’s Shakespearen trilogy, for instance, sheds light on various accounts of cultural injustice. Model wears Ka-Sha.
On the 400th death anniversary of the Bard, the British Council ran a poll which concluded that he is better known and comprehended in India than the U.K. The Models wear Eka (left) and Saphed (right).
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Prisoners in India have been offered lead roles, to help rehabilitate the offenders. Models wear Eka (left) and Yavi (right).
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With each adaptation, Shakespeare becomes more and more entrenched in Indian culture. Gayle is wearing Khanijo.

Model: Gayle Dweltz; Photographer: Shashank R Yadav; Stylist: Alia Allana

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