A rocky edge: just what the doctor ordered
You know those medics in American hospital dramas who are far too good-looking to be real? Meet Chandrima Biswas, the world’s most glamorous doctor apart, possibly, from Doug Ross MD – although rumour has it he was a fictional character played by George Clooney.
Dr Biswas wears McQueen to work. And Jonathan Saunders, Saint Laurent, Stella McCartney and the odd bit of Zara – anything to cheer herself and the patients up. “And it does. You’d be surprised. It breaks the ice,” she says.
You can see how her floral dresses, stripy blazers and pearl necklaces (that’s a work concession: she keeps the emeralds and chandelier earrings for when she’s off duty) must brighten up a drab NHS ward. You can even take her word when she says that if she has to talk to patients about obesity, they listen to her – and increasingly often, she does have to talk about it. Obesity is a topic close to her heart.
“Women with a BMI of 30 double their chances of miscarrying. Over 35, and the statistics are even worse. Over 40, it’s horrifying”. She thinks that as a working mother of two who takes care of herself, she’s more likely to be listened to than a doctor who’s clearly put their appearance at the bottom of their priorities. I can buy that, although I can see it could also cut the other way. But what really strikes me is that she doesn’t ever seem to have worried that not suppressing such an unabashed enjoyment of clothes would make it harder to be taken seriously.
Even as a medical student at St Thomas’ Hospital she was rummaging around the bargain bins at Bruce Oldfield, scoring gold Jimmy Choos and getting her jeans hand-painted in Thailand. “The view that you can’t have style and substance is so outdated,” she says. “I know some women still feel that if they draw attention to themselves by dressing well they’ll be seen as frivolous, but if what comes out of your mouth is serious then in the end, people take you seriously.”
Since Dr Biswas was recently appointed lead obstetrician of five NHS hospitals in north London I think we must accept that she’s something of an expert at being taken seriously.
Then again, you can’t question her commitment. Two days before she took me on a tour of her wardrobe(s) she worked a 15-hour shift on the ward. And any minute now she’s heading off to Kenya to school midwives and doctors in new ways of recognising and dealing with natal haemorrhages, a major cause of maternal mortality in childbirth.
This comes 15 months after she completed a successful course of chemo and radiotherapy. In September 2011, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Two years earlier she split up from her husband. Her father, who recently died and to whom she was so close that he and her mother live in a flat in her house, also had cancer. It wasn’t the happiest of periods.
The plus points, she says – and I don’t think she’s deploying gallows humour – was that she lost 5kg in the fortnight after her husband left, “and thanks to the chemo my skin was amazing – translucent”. Her hair fell out, but she bought herself a topquality wig and some tattooed eyebrows, wore thick eyeliner to compensate for losing her lashes and on days when she felt too tired and sick even to read, went shopping on Net-a-porter.com. On good days she was working out with Matt Roberts.
I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone so unencumbered by Anglo-Saxon puritanism as Dr Biswas. She’s not saying that clothes are a replacement for friendship or love. In fact, she knows that she’s happier now than she has been for years because she’s put on weight and cut back on her shopping. But she has no qualms about resorting to retail therapy.
Perhaps her confidence to wear Stella under her scrubs (no white coats, however; they’ve been banned as they were thought to contribute to the spread of MRSA) stems from always knowing she was clever. She denies this, but she went to Cheltenham Ladies College: “Horrible uniform, with a cloak”. Her daughter Lola now boards there: uniform, according to her mother, “like Versace compared with the hideous baggy skirts we had to wear”. For sixth form, Biswas attended Westminster where famously, the boys award the new intake of females marks out of 10 for “hotness” within everyone’s earshot.
Are we starting to build a profile here? Then, there was her mother, who taught her to sew all her own clothes and even make patterns out of old newspapers.
By her early thirties, home sewing was a thing of the past. By then, her first husband, a banker, had, as she somewhat understates, “begun to do quite well at work”. They would both go to Matches, the designer boutique in Notting Hill and spend thousands on clothes.
“The funny thing is, I think it actually stifled my style. You end up buying just for the sake of it. I acquired lots of things that weren’t quite right. Then I started to dress really corporately in black trouser suits.” McQueen black trouser suits, mind.
She’s much more thoughtful in the way she buys now, she says. “I have to be. I’m back to living on a doctor’s salary.” She also knows exactly what suits her shape – and since her marriage ended she’s also discovered her own interests again – art, indie music and going to watch Arsenal, a passion she shares with her new partner, a music PR whose clients have included David Bowie and Led Zeppelin.
This new life shapes the way she dresses now. “Conservative but with a rocky, ethnic edge,” she decides, before showing me a cape with a collar made from zips that she stumbled across in New York (tell me that’s not a revisitation of her school uniform) and her (many) colourful dresses.
She’s moving soon, from her large Hampstead house to one in Belsize Park. If she ever has a yard sale, it should be a goodie.
My uniform At weekends, it’s jeans, leather jackets and (not too) short skirts. During the week at hospital I ramp it up. It’s either that or scrubs.
Most prized clothing An embroidered ethniclooking McQueen jacket from 2002. I paid £5,000 – a ridiculous amount. But I’m still wearing it.
Heels or flats? Myfeet are a weird shape. I can’t go higher than 9cm (3in) heels. I like Acne ankle boots for comfort and Rupert Sanderson shoes because they’re high but not too narrow.
Hot date? Blue leopard-print play suit or something by McQueen. I like to showmylegs – or at least from the knee down.
Inspirations? I’m still a sucker for a rock star. Inmytwenties, I’d wait outside stage doors for them. The most horrible was Lou Reed who told us to get lost, but in more forthright language. I still love
his music and style.
Best fashion advice Dress to suit your shape. I’m short-waisted. I now get everything altered to fit meat Designer Alterations (designeraterations.co.uk). It doesn’t matter how much you spend. If it doesn’t fit, it doesn’t look good.
Diamonds or pearls? Both. Myhusband gaveme lots of really good jewellery, but I don’t often wear it. I like ethnic stones that I buy in Jaipur. The emeralds and diamonds aren’t necessarily top grade but they look cooler and you get a lot of stone for your money.
Hide and seek: Chandrima Biswas, right, on a Mies van der Rohe chair, in a Jonathan Saunders dress. Above: Lou Reed rocking the Androgynous Pierrot look in 1973. Below: Nada pumps, £375, from Rupert Sanderson; rupertsanderson. com