The problem for Indian fashion, is that our notions of fashion are confined within our sense of the western world and that it is from the western world that we derive our images of modernity. Indeed, fashion as a concept, is European in origins, but as a phenomenon, fashion is global. It’s tantamount to saying that the law of gravity is English, because it was formulated by Sir Isaac Newton! Fashion is dictated by the impulse for stylistic expression and this impulse is human; it exists in all societies. High sensitivity to the zeitgeist, the keenness to anticipate change and the distinctive craftsmanship to then code it into dress- are all the definitive traits of a fashion designer.
To perceive fashion as a mere symbol of taste, social class, globalization or modernity, is to reduce it to a mere ornament, a motif and to be impervious to its presence and power in our daily lives. It is in dress that we enact our roles every day. It’s through dress we identify people, and assess and tailor our responses to them. It’s our dress that reveals the many aspects of our social identities- our gender, our age, our profession, our social class, our way of life. Our dress is also our cultural document. It tells us about the constraints, values, tolerances, forbearance and fantasies of a people.
A good fashion design education must engage the students with these concepts. It must have them study the structures on which all modern societies stand and have them examine the way in which fashion fosters a non-verbal communication between members of a society.
We must acknowledge that we think of fashion only in a loose sense and believe that its only function is to make us ‘fashionable’. It is this muddy mix of fashion with fashionable-ness, that has made the world of fashion so slimy- thick in substance, but completely insubstantial! We see nothing new in fashion because we think nothing new of fashion. That’s the problem with symbols; they become the tokens that allow us to get by and simulate movement and progression. This works just fine in Indian society that loves to pretend that it’s changing, but deep down, would rather not!
Fashion is a power and will exist as such, regardless of how or when we decide to define it. Fashion assigns meanings to clothes, it crafts appearances and gives a people ‘looks’ that are in sync with the times they are living in. Drawing from the writings of Roland Barthes, fashion is understood as both- ‘dress’ (the prevalent look in a society) and ‘dressing up’ (the individual act/ style), but dressing up has weaker meaning than dress. The codes by which a people signify values about themselves vis-à-vis the times they’re living in becomes apparent in ‘dress’. ‘Dressing up’ on the other hand, is of significance only to the individual and is a weak form of fashion.
When the discourse on fashion doesn’t evolve beyond ‘newness’ for the sake of newness, or for creating ‘different-looking’ garments, what we get is hideous, irrelevant and wasteful fashion that is tone deaf to today! The fashion designers of tomorrow need a better education today. They need the skills to watch, absorb, listen and understand the subtext underpinning our every day. They need to understand material and its cultural and sentimental allusions. They need an understanding of ‘style’, not ‘styling’. They need to be socially astute and have savoir faire. They need imagination, creativity and the brevity of poets. Their work must be the outcome of sincere exploration and engagement and not the vain creation of what they think ‘looks like fashion’.
Fashion has no one face. It has no one nationality. It has no one gender. It has no one shape, form or texture. It’s a language- rich and diverse. It lies in the perception that our clothes speak. It lies in the realization that even as our clothes conceal our bodies, they reveal our selves. Fashion’s function is to afford a people the ‘voice’, the ‘language’ and the ‘idiom’ to express their values as they ascend the value ladder in the course of their lives.