In my 20’s, as a young teacher in the subject of Fashion Illustration, I was always struck by how alien the western concept of fashion was vis-à-vis the lives, experiences and identity of Indian students. The beautiful illustrations they made were far-fetched from their own day-to-day lives. Extra tall figures of sinuous female croquis with broad shoulders and cinched in waists, long necks and bold, form-fitted styles that drew copiously from the images in western fashion mags. They didn’t see it as a problem…rather, they saw it as something ‘outside of the conventional’ and therefore exciting. And going by what the fashion magazines conveyed, fashion was nothing if not exciting! Still others saw it as being anything that was ‘non-traditional’. In other words, they saw tradition as being fixed and fashion as being fluid, and therefore perfectly suited as an alibi in their search for an ‘original’, ‘independent’ voice. Fashion, in the minds of many an Indian student, has been a way to break free from their cultural moorings and explore new ways of ‘being’. However, while they seek escape from suffocating and outdated social mores, they often unwittingly trap themselves in terribly limited notions of fashion.
Fashion, in western society, has been both- the machinery and the product of capitalism. In that context, it has been the means by which needs are artificially manufactured, and then in ever-increasing circles of artifice- apparently catered to. In other words, demand was artificially created for the things that industry could supply. Creating demand was a way of sustaining industry, charting growth, generating profits and apparently progressing. The change from a feudal society to an industrial one, created new social strata and fashion catered to the need of non-verbally communicating one’s social status. Thus, fashion came to be so deeply imbued with signs. After all, I know by looking at a garment in a fashion glossy or in a high-end store whether it is apt for me, or whether it is ‘out of my league’. Yet, these are depraving divisions in a society that suffers from poverty and a shameful disparity in wealth distribution. The upper classes in Indian society which show a similarity and kinship in taste and lifestyle to other economically powerful western societies, feel no connection with the vast multitude of economically lower and economically backward sections of society. Fashion, in such a scenario, is a power that caters to only the well-to-do, because it is this segment that can perhaps be seduced to create a demand for the western template of fashion, that our young fashion designers are so eager to supply.
India’s history and evolution have been different. Colonized under British rule for about two hundred years, India not only suffered a loss of material wealth, but also a loss of her cultural wealth. Post-independence, India found herself in the middle of a whole new world order, facing new prospects, but with low confidence, given her memories of a battered past. Building an independent sovereign nation required looking at impressive modern societies that had grown in power and influence due to industrialization. With this new exposure, our passive Indian-ness felt like a blemish (one that we must hurriedly conceal). We felt challenged to meet the standards and templates created by western society. Our aspirations, by default, got framed by the western models of achievement and a new work ethic that was directed towards productivity and the generation of profits. While that is a pragmatic way to attract wealth, create wealth and have it up the standards of living for society as a whole, the single-minded focus on wealth alienates us from our own hearts. Simplicity, is seen as a lack of both, imagination and richness, and artifice- as a sign of culture and evolved thought. The condition we find ourselves in therefore, is one in which we are fearful of ‘that which we have distanced ourselves from’. We find it a strain to be open to hearing, seeing and feeling. The result is that empathy- which is our capacity to be receptive and responsive to another- and is a natural human quality, lies undeveloped in us. We are living mechanically, robotically, choosing to deaden our sense of empathy, because what it demands out of us, is unsettling.
Fashion is the design of identity. It’s the crafting of an image or persona through clothes; and what a tragedy it is when that identity is masked or ‘costumed’ as a cover-up for a sense of low self-esteem, rather than being an expression and celebration of who one is. Fashion, with its elitist moorings, tends to exclude a lot of people who do not resonate with western cultural ideals. Like a student of mine, Riya Ranka, once asked: ‘Why must fashion only be a vehicle for masquerading a false sense of richness? Why must it only be a means by which we can pretend to be who we are not?’
Saloni Parasrampuria, a third-year Fashion Design student in my program, chose to redirect the gaze of fashion. For her children’s wear project, she didn’t look at those who were already part of the emerging market as existing consumers, she looked at those who always remain excluded. Where designers typically frame their concepts in terms of lifestyle and the psychological needs/ wants of their target consumer, she chose to design for street children, with no homes, marginal incomes and no ‘lifestyle’. Her ethnographic research made clear their needs and ‘life conditions’ (as opposed to lifestyles) and she designed a ‘multipurpose dress’ for five-year old Khushi, a child living on the streets of Mumbai. The dress was reversible, could double up as a sleeping mat and when folded up, as a container for small things. The project was significant on many levels: One, she consciously chose to disregard all questions and concerns about the commercial feasibility of her project. Second, she deliberately broke away from a commonly perceived notion of fashion, and found an unlikely muse, outside of its charmed inner circle. Third, the design process itself led her to arrive at a critical understanding that clothing is not just an expression of style, it’s also, in the context of a yet-developing economy, a mark of basic dignity, self-sufficiency and self-esteem. Fourth, it’s not the thing in itself that produces a sense of well-being in the owner (people can be happy with or without fashioned things), rather, it’s the awareness that someone cares enough to cater to their needs. The video below beautifully captures little Khushi’s joy on receiving ‘the gift’ that Saloni made for her.
While fashion undeniably has power, it does so only when it has in its system- a beating heart. The heart must do what the heart does best- it must actively search for that which makes it beat, makes it race a little, makes it smile and makes it cry. After all, it’s in resonance that the heart throbs. We must come to know what matters to us and who matters. For that we must look at our immediate surroundings with a little more love and concern, and deepen our engagement. We must seek purpose. We must ask uncomfortable personal questions of ourselves; recognizing that blind imitation can never be deeply fulfilling. In and through this questioning, we must come to understand our strengths. It’s then that the work we do, becomes meaningful. For now, it’s best not to treat fashion as a fixed defined concept, but as an abstraction that is open to new interpretations. Who knows, in the search for authentic interpretations, we may be freed from our need for borrowed ideas and can confidently reclaim our mortgaged identity.
Image source: Saloni Parasrampuria
Video: Saloni Parasrapuria
Music: T Series