When I first saw CAS junior Niha Chandrasekar on Zoom, the first thing that caught my eye was her makeup: an ombre rainbow that spanned across her eyelids. But what was most striking was the nonchalance with which she wore it. I had gotten used to seeing my friends and classmates donning bare faces and sweatpants during quarantine, so her colorful makeup was a breath of fresh air, though I sensed that this was as much her natural state as loungewear was for my peers. A visit to her Instagram is proof that even in quarantine, whimsical makeup and outfits have remained part of her daily repertoire.
“The boredom really has kicked in, so what I do is, everyday I’ll try to do something creative, like a makeup or fashion look, and I’ll post it to my Instagram,” Chandrasekar said. “It’s just been keeping me busy, because without that I’d go a little crazy.”
It’s no surprise that the move back home has been a dramatic change of scenery. Usually in her apartment in Brooklyn or on campus in Manhattan, Chandrasekar has now transplanted to her hometown of Princeton, New Jersey.
“I live somewhere very isolated, it’s not even in a neighborhood,” she said as she flipped her camera around to show me the view outside her bedroom window. “It’s just me and my family. But you learn to become your own best friend.”
With the additional time on her hands, Chandrasekar has dived headfirst into fashion and beauty as an outlet, expanding her platform to new forms of social media.
“I’ve been making a lot of TikToks, so that’s new,” she laughed. “The nice thing is that they take a lot of time, so I can spend an hour working on one and the time passes quickly. I do a lot of ‘Get-ready-with-me’ videos or outfit videos, and I’ve done a couple about my relationship.”
Despite not having the city at her fingertips, Chandrasekar has continued to find ways to connect with her friends to get creative about how she produces collaborative content.
“Now I do FaceTime dates with my friends on the weekends, which have been fun,” she said. “I’ve even done FaceTime photoshoots with friends. Did you see the Bella Hadid one? Insane! I think it’s pretty crazy, not just because they’re taking pictures over FaceTime, but the way she models and gets all the angles, it’s so cool.”
For Chandrasekar, quarantine has been an opportunity to work on personal projects that she never had the time to fully execute. One of those has been putting up a blog to share more of her personal life.
“It’s great because I don’t think I show my personality or things that have happened to me as much on social media,” Chandrasekar said. “I know people do that more on their [Instagram] stories, but for me it has always been just fashion and beauty.”
In her first post, Chandrasekar wrote about the backlash she faced from her Indian relatives after posting photos from a photoshoot where she modeled in underwear to feature the underwear company, Parade.
“It was really empowering, my post ‘Your Ass is More Powerful than You Think,’ she said. “It was really cool to share and see people relate to it, especially people who understand Indian culture.”
Her family was a significant reason she started an Instagram that was solely dedicated to her fashion. After convincing her parents to let her create an Instagram to post outfit photos in her sophomore year of high school, it was the first social media app she was allowed to have.
“In high school I posted the outfit that I wore to school daily, or something I changed into after I got home if the outfit I planned was too ‘out there’ to go to school in,” Chandrasekar said. “I did it for fun, and then I noticed it started to get traction. I got to do some guest blogs and brand deals, and it eventually evolved into this huge thing.”
Princeton was not always the most accepting environment to explore unconventional fashions, which is why her Instagram became such an important part of her fashion journey. Having a virtual space for her fashion when the people in her community were not always appreciative of her sense of style was one of the primary reasons she remained actively engaged in social media.
Immigrating from India to San Francisco when she was one, and then moving to Georgia, Michigan and Pennsylvania before settling down in New Jersey, the one constant throughout Chandrasekar’s life has been her eccentric fashions. She spent her years in high school experimenting with different patterns and styles, but it wasn’t until she started college that she really honed in on her personal style, which she describes as super colorful and monochromatic, vintage-y and 70s and 80s inspired.
“Since coming to New York, I think my fashion has become more refined; I’ve archived a lot of my old posts from high school,” Chandrasekar said. “It took New York, and even Paris when I went to study abroad, to really evolve my style.”
During her time away from the city, Chandrasekar has grown to appreciate New York for welcoming diverse styles.
“That’s also something that I took for granted in New York; over these past three years I’ve noticed that my style is more accepted, and it’s more normal to wear whatever you want in New York,” Chandrasekar said. “But when I come home, I’ll wear something that I would wear in New York, and I stick out like a sore thumb.”
The constant flow of people in New York City as sources for fashion inspiration is something that Niha struggles to recreate back home.
“I normally have a commute of about 30 to 35 minutes on the subway,” Chandrasekar said. “So what I love about New York is that, even if all I did that day was going on the subway, I could pull inspiration from people that I see on the subway car, on the streets or even on campus. I just hate that I have to draw all my inspiration from my phone now.”
In a similar vein, Chandrasekar misses the captive audience for her outfits while stuck at home. She has always been committed to carving out her distinctive niche in fashion, and ultimately she dresses for herself. But she also recognizes that there is always an audience for her outfits, and her looks do turn heads.
“When I’m home, the only audience I have is through social media, which I don’t like as much,” she said. “I really like going out and seeing how people react to a crazy piece of clothing I’m wearing or some new style I’m trying out, because I think getting that real reaction instead of just online is more impactful. It’s more impactful than me getting 500 likes on a post or something.”
I wasn’t mistaken when I guessed that she prefers to be in her curated outfits, regardless of whether she’s quarantined at home.
“When I was in New York, even when I got home, I would lounge in the outfit I was in for a bit,” she said. “When I do decide to wear sweats all day, I do feel a difference. I feel a lot more lazy and down. And when I change into something a lot more colorful and well-fitted, and I feel so much better about myself. And I think the tricky thing is that when you’re in quarantine you aren’t actively keeping up your style or your best self, so my mood has very much varied.”
Chandrasekar takes pleasure in posting her outfits on her Instagram and the opportunities that have since come along the way, and she aims to not let quarantine interfere with her love for sharing and creating fashion content.
“I find that in quarantine, I force myself to post more often, but it becomes this love-hate relationship,” she said. “I think having it be a side hobby has alway made it better. If you force yourself to do it, you grow to love it less.”
Email Divya Nelakonda at [email protected] Read more from Washington Square News’ Spring 2020 Fringe Issue.