How Do You Spell ‘fashion’?

When people, at a given place in a given time, show more or less similar trends in the way they think, act and behave, we explain it as being the ‘fashion’ of the time.

When someone dresses to be purposely noticeable in a sea of people, adopting styles that may be a divergence from mainstream culture, we describe him or her as being ‘stylish’ or ‘fashionable’. Fashion for such people is a device for differentiation.

When people of a particular age group, gender, sexual orientation, nationality or ideological affiliations dress alike to reinforce their own stereotype, they create an identity or subculture by means of fashion. Fashion here, becomes a signifier of meaning.

Consumers who rely upon big brands to faultlessly and regularly offer them ‘fashionable choices’ supported by fashion design expertise, manufacturing expertise and a wide distribution network, feel secure in the knowledge that they are ‘on trend’. Fashion for a consumer is about being ‘trendy’.

These examples show that people construct the meanings of fashion differently. They attach different values to dress.  Yet, the predominant impression of fashion is that it is essentially the ‘business of looking good’. Despite its ambiguity, this notion has cemented itself as an idea and then for those who have come to passionately believe in this idea, it has become an ideology. When something becomes an ideology, it includes and speaks to only those who support the ideology, and excludes those who don’t. It makes ‘experts’ out of people- those people who mysteriously seem to know more about what it means to ‘look good’ than any one of us lesser mortals do. This tends to put off a lot of people. Fashion, for as much as it is loved and followed, has an equal number of people who despise it, or are simply disinterested. They see it as vain, wasteful and not worthy of the time and resources one is expected to expend on it, just to fit in. Fashion, for many, lacks substance. It seems elusive; nothing more than the fanciful notions of those who are divorced from the simple sentiments and ground realities of common folk.

They are not entirely wrong.

Fashion for too long, has suffered from a paucity of discourse. For something that is so intrinsic to modern life, it’s surprising that it has been positioned as something extrinsic, spectacular, cryptic and out-of-reach, without a strong, assertive counterpoint. Who in particular, can claim to be the originator of the language of fashion? Who decides what’s in and what’s out and why should anyone care for what they think? The love for fashion is certainly not of one type only. People love their clothes for a variety of reasons ranging from associations of it with memory, or for sentimental reasons; for how it envelops their form or sculpts their silhouette, or for how they rely on a particular style of dress to entrench their persona. There are other ‘very human’ reasons: for the love of wearing ‘borrowed’ clothes, for the fact that a piece is cherished because it was ‘lovingly stolen’ from a sibling, for the reason that it’s easy to care for, or because it was inherited, or because it’s versatile and ‘friendly’ with all the other pieces in your wardrobe, or because it’s been part of your journey from one milestone to the next and survived…with you. Dress can also be political. Think of Gandhi and you know that dress can effectively register protest…democratically.

There are a number of ways people relate with clothes and demonstrate care for their appearance, or empower themselves through the language of fashion; and all of these are valid forms of fashion expression. Fashion need not always be spelt in the uppercase, with only one order of actions that define its meaning. Fashion can also be written and spelt in the lower case, drawing an order or sequence from a wide range of experiences relating to clothes. Disrupting this power of uppercase fashion should be at the core of fashion education. The act of disrupting allows for a more critical understanding of fashion and by extension, a more creative, authentic interpretation of it. Students should be nurtured, equipped and encouraged to question popular notions of fashion and redefine it. Inclusiveness of any sort- social, economic or cultural is merely superficial, if it does not begin by respelling that which has marked itself as the final word.



Image Source: Azzuro Due/ The City That Never Stops by Bill Cunningham

Ideas – Ideals = Bad Taste

Culture, metaphorically speaking, is the air we breathe. It determines my ‘state of mind’ and by extension the activities that issue forth from such a mind-state. It suggests the workings of a ‘total mind’ over and above the individual mind. Nicholas A Christakis, a researcher, sociologist and Professor of Social and Natural Sciences at Yale University, goes to the extent of calling it the first form of artificial intelligence. It indicates the ways in which we are programmed to behave by virtue of the values and ideals of the social networks within which we are embedded. Not only do we influence the behaviors of others, we are also influenced by them.

Yet, as the world we inhabit today is growing increasingly complex, causing us to grow our networks rapidly and exponentially, the strength of the networks is actually weakening. The wider our social network seems to grow, the weaker becomes the adhesive power of cultural ideals, which often get diluted by the infusion of new ideas. A strong common cultural ground is lost and we find ourselves floating perpetually in an endless space of ambiguity. We find ourselves drifting between diverse cultural groups. The culture of our families is different from the culture of the organizations we work for, whose culture may be different from the culture of the spiritual institutions we may be a part of, whose culture may be at complete variance from the culture of the ‘school group’, ‘the beer-lovers group’ or the ‘marathoners group’ I may have on my Whatsapp chats. Increased connectivity has led to a decreased sense of identity- a case of belonging everywhere and by virtue of that, belonging nowhere in particular. We’re becoming increasingly okay with difference, consuming freely of what we may have earlier denied ourselves and in the bargain, becoming more and more susceptible to unchecked influence. Standards of behavior have not only fallen, but also any mention of them, has come to be seen as being prudish and too ‘tradition-oriented’. We suspect that any reckoning of the standards of beauty and good taste will stand in the way of true and fearless experimentation and therefore our progress towards new ideas. Ideas have come to replace ideals. The (artificial) ideal-based intelligence of culture has been disrupted and taken over by the artificial, idea-based intelligence of big data and algorithm-based design. The unprecedented exposure that a rapidly growing media and highly addictive technology-driven social platforms have given us, have undeniably corrupted our minds, our senses and our tastes.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the world of art and in the sensitive mind of the artist. The first amongst us to feel, see and sense, the artist cannot help but make visible all that lies hidden deep within our disturbed psyches. Scatological art, brutalized body images, the objectification of women, the unaesthetic and intentionally disturbing political statements, the heady mix of violence and glamour-today we’ve seen all there is to see and even more. This increasing abstraction of art, its disinterest in the cultivation of tastes and the resultant lack of a connection it has with the people at large- is evidence of the growing chasm between the heart and the mind. We’re increasingly feeling we have no one to talk to, no one interested in listening to us and no one to offer us a beautiful response to the confusions we feel. We are inundated with images, objects and stories but clueless about how we should make sense of it all. We’re consuming indiscriminately and it’s no secret, that whatever we consume, in turn consumes us. Normalized attitudes towards sexual violence and abuse, anxiety about the body, the absence of a clear sense of direction, a weak conscience and the absence of a moral compass- all of these are sicknesses of the postmodern human mind. The lack of organization in the total mind, is also the lack of an organizing principle in the individual mind.

Where art has resigned itself to simply being the expresser of angst, design has stepped in to address the needs of the public. Design is filling in a vacuum left behind by the disinterested and disengaged artist. However, with the world of art shrugging off its ‘privilege’ of creating and arbitrating taste- we have to that extent been deprived of good sense and good taste in design. Also, in a free democratic world, good taste and what constitutes it, is often decided by the lowest common denominator. It’s in response to this reality, that I feel fashion design students who see themselves as primarily ‘artists’- can either be a problem or contrastingly, be a valuable asset. Fashion designers who feel that they are artists, invariably imitate and effect the behavioral traits of the stereotypical artist- being disconnected and disinterested with the world, being very interested in highly conceptual ideas and considering it ‘prudish’ and ‘irrelevant’ to be concerned about good taste. What they often miss, is that fashion by definition, is the adoption of a clothing style by a group of people. Fashion is fashion only when there is a consensus about its ‘good taste’ or about its appropriateness.  It’s not just the ‘statement piece’ worn by one model on the runway or in a photo-shoot. However, as an ‘artistic fashion designer’, with a fundamental interest in the aesthetic presentation of the self, she can contribute meaningfully to any of the ‘fields’ or ‘social networks’ she finds herself in. She can understand herself to be a creator and curator of taste. Fashion has the power to be the cultural adhesive that can bind us together and make us reclaim our identity. It can make us connect, it can speak of common values and it can be a great arbitrator of taste. Through clothing we may communicate and share what we consider to be good, appropriate, ethical, meaningful, beautiful and true.

The need for aesthetic resolution is essential to human creative life. Without aesthetics, we are somehow not complete, not whole and not true. While a fashion design student in her search for authenticity, may begin with a love affair with art and its conceptual power, she must gradually move on and transition into the world where things are found, felt, needed and made. A real and lasting relationship with materials, processes, people, their hopes and dreams- is what will give her direction and purpose in a constantly shifting world. Not only must the designer express herself as an artist, she must also take on the mantle of augmenting the life around her with richer meaning.



Image source: Vetements, Fall 2016 collection

Fashion- The Hippie-turned-Hooker

Fashion is a perennially changing hypothesis. What is it? What does it do? How does it work? Why does it matter? What is good? Ethical? Aesthetic? Many answers have been given and we’ve come to see that fashion isn’t easy to define. It encompasses the physical, existential and moral dimensions of our being. Yet, fashion is regarded as a vain trifle; somehow less important or even insignificant in the larger scheme of things. A bricolage of many things, fashion is neither purely art, nor purely craft. In the context of mainstream, tradition-bound culture, it’s a hippie- purposely atypical, unconventional and subversive! But its romanticism becomes the stuff of youthful aspirations. It becomes the collective memory of a middle-aged generation that describes its nostalgia in terms of the clothes they wore, the attitudes that defined their existence and the bitter-sweet experiences they lived through in the costumes of their youth. If fashion is the aptness- the perfect point at which Time, Space, Feeling and Response collide- then why is it regarded as whimsical, purposeless and vain?

Let’s attempt to understand this incongruity between what fashion is and how it is viewed, discussed and treated in society. Fashion, over the years, has come to wear a glamorous face (perhaps because of its earliest patrons being the upper classes on the one hand and the artists, the poets, the dreamers, the musicians and even the charlatans, on the other). We won’t recognize it, or even acknowledge it, if it doesn’t emerge before us looking glossy and all glammed up. If it does so, it will have to have another name! Glamour over time, has been demystified. It’s lost some of its sheen; come to be seen as shallow, superficial and not a worthy pursuit for a happy, meaningful life. So, while all other aspects of culture chose to evolve by diverging from glamour, fashion continued this unholy alliance. The way fashion was presented, communicated, marketed and sold- remained unchanged; fashion was- and to a large extent still is- packaged and presented in literal and metaphorical glitz and glimmer. Once a power-packed phenomenon rooted in social and cultural experimentation, it soon became the myth, marketing professionals alluded to- to capture new markets. Fashion, so that it be pursued by the now distanced and disinterested mainstream, had to be seen as being seductive, glamorous, somehow out of reach, somehow forbidden… in some sense equivalent to the lure of the mistress, when you’ve ‘chosen’ to be in a committed relationship with your wife. The status of fashion pretty much got equated with this typically patriarchal view of women. And if I may dare to say so, met with no different a fate- it was made spectacular, desirable, seductive, presented at first, to the most high-end customers and then emulated across all tiers of ‘lifestyle’ products. Fashion was no longer an intelligent expression of who we were in the time and place we were at, but became one amongst many attributes of ‘what we wore’. And what we wore, was changeable, replaceable and as such unworthy of all the time and attention we expended on it. And so, fashion while being an industry that constitutes some of the most artistic, intelligent, intuitive and meticulous craftspeople, never gets its due from a society that sees fashion as nothing more than the varnish that coats purpose, function, utility and performance.


Image source: awareness



Fashion is Maya.

The Truth alone existed before the names, forms and qualities of the world came into existence. Therefore, the Truth must be the cause of the world. But the Truth is changeless. It cannot become anything other than itself…But we see that the world exists, yet it is ever-changing, inert and sorrow-ridden. Then from such a changeless cause, how can this changing world emerge? 

To explain this, Vedanta postulates the concept of maya…- that which is not, yet appears to be is called maya. …A snake is seen on a rope. The rope cannot create the snake, yet we experience the snake.

Maya has two powers:

  1. The veiling power (avarna shakti): This is the nature of ignorance that veils the Truth. This by itself cannot create the world.
  2. The projecting power (vikshepa shakti): This is the creative power that projects the entire world of names and forms. It manifests inherent impressions. It cannot do so without the veiling power. As in the example, the ignorance of the rope should precede the snake vision.

-Tattvabodha, Sri Adi Shankaracharya (commentary by Swami Tejomayananda).

Is Fashion the dress we wear? Is it the material? Or the colours? Or is it in our combination of clothes? The answer to these questions will only add to your confusion- fashion may be discerned in all of these, but is none of these.

The raw material of fashion- apart from fabrics, trimmings, notions and the available resource of clothing and accessories we wear everyday- is also our social life and the interactions that constitute it. The intelligence that is brought to fashioning the raw material is the sourcing, treatment, forming and styling of it to tell a distinctive ‘fashion story.’ The thematic arrangement of colours, fabrics and styles is a ‘fashion story.’

The inspiration that underpins this thematic story is called a ‘mood’. The mood is a sketchy impression of the ‘images’ it must evoke and/or the attitudes it must inspire. This sense of images and attitudes in turn, is an abstraction drawn from everyday human interactions plus the aspirations and desires that breed through the flux of life. Fashion, in essence, is an attempt to make perceptible that which is only ‘felt’ or ‘desired’. The inspirations are what breathe life into the ‘new forms’ or ‘new looks’ the fashion designer draws out.

The ‘bodies’ (in the sense that these are the outermost layers that we don) that the fashion designer brings to life are short-lived; they have only apparent reality. They appear to exist, have meaning, communicate and exude power- that is till our experience of the world remains unchanged. The moment we have moved past an experience and it has become memory, we begin to seek ‘new body images’ for ourselves. We seek persistence of our being. It’s important for us not only to be seen, but also to be remembered. The fear of invisibility, or for that matter, being forgotten, is closely allied to a very primal fear- the fear of being denied existence.

On a deeper level, we are always trying to ‘survive’, to ‘persist’ and to ‘cheat’ or ‘escape’ those situations that threaten to end our existence. Our love for fashion, and our willingness to be tormented by it, is a reflection of this need ‘to continue to be’.

Not knowing who we truly are, we live our lives speculating who we may be and day-in and day-out- wittingly or unwittingly- we chisel out a form for ourselves. This dilemma of knowing that we exist, but of not knowing who we are- gives rise to our world of relationships and self-created experiences. In such a world, fashion becomes a ‘phenomenal power’. It creates, sustains and when the time has come- it destroys the images we have come to inhabit. Fashion persists because it denies itself a permanent, unchanging existence. It doesn’t allow itself to die; it only reinvents itself. Fashion is a reflection of the world; the world is maya- a mere projection!

Fashion is Maya.


Image Source: Getty Images/ Nelson Barnard. Prabal Gurung. NYFW Feb 2017.