What if Fashion Became, What Fashion is Not?

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 However, while they seek escape from suffocating and outdated social mores, they often unwittingly trap themselves in terribly limited notions of fashion.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

Design is Wisdom

In an interview, sometime near the end of his career, YSL had famously confessed that his one regret was that he had not invented blue jeans. His reason: “They have expression, modesty, sex appeal and simplicity. All that I hope for in my clothes.” His regret contains an important lesson for designers: that the true power of design- its reach, impact and appeal lies beyond the individual intelligence and capacity of the designer. It can only belong to the collective wisdom of a people, living in and through a particular point in time and in accordance with shared values. It’s important that designers come to critically understand that they can only propose ideas, but it’s the social, cultural, historical and economic forces that will eventually mold the idea in order to own it. It’s when an idea is owned by the people, that it becomes fashion.

Fashion is not what fashion designers create, fashion is what the people make. Intrinsic to the design process of fashion therefore, are movements (political, social and cultural), the ideas that they generate, their creative interpretation by fashion designers, the myths around them that are popularized by the media and the marketing strategies that package them as an ‘essential, must-have luxury’. Design is not easy. To add to its complicated make-up, is our own misconception of what design is.

Most of us think that design is restricted to the generation of ‘new’ ideas. What we must come to see, is that design is not just the process by which ideas are ‘made’, but it’s the process by which ideas are ‘made instrumental’. In other words, ideas by themselves are not enough. Ideas are hypothetical. They are assumptions, imaginations and speculations that need to be seen in the light of ‘knowledge’ or ‘what we already know’. And yet, that in itself is not a sufficient curation of an idea. Knowledge must be challenged by experience. The young must be challenged by the old, the eclectic by the common place and the conceptual by the pragmatic.

Design is not a process by which things are made extraordinary, it is on the contrary, the ways in which things are made ordinary and everyday. The design of fashion therefore, must look beyond the pretensions of artistic expression. It must, ever so often, let go of the desire for the ‘spectacular’ and the ‘original’ and instead look at ‘the made’ and ‘the worn’. In them, lies a treasure trove of attributes that have stood the test of time. Coming to see these attributes is the first step in making them ‘instrumental ideas’ and furthering them. These ideas can be effectively re-interpreted to remind people of a time gone by, or to challenge the state of the art or to prompt an attitude of bravado in uncertain times.

Fashion, after all is a language. And like any other language, it is enriched by use and the wealth of meanings that a people bring to it. The design process of fashion must factor in this understanding. As designers, we are interpreters of feeling and expression. And although the glamour of new forms is enticing, if there exists a chasm between the prevailing feeling and the proposed form- the outcome is a failed design. Design is so much more than a search for differentiators, it is- on close scrutiny- a search for wisdom.

 

Image Source: mydailynews; the outsiders.

 

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Designers: The Mad Knights

Design, as a creative discipline is like no other. It has a history, but no rules. Its concept is amorphous and ever-changing. It stands on the shifting sands of time. In the past, design meant and was generally understood to be the appearance of a thing and how it looked. Then, it became about how a thing works and now, it’s about how it engages with, and impacts society. Also, design may no longer be discerned only in the expression of an idea in terms of its formal qualities, but also in the intelligence and sub-conscious process that manifests such expression. Design therefore, is in ‘how something is done’, in ‘what is done’, in ‘how it works’ and in ‘how it impacts our lives’. It is the method, the medium and the message.

Design education cannot be cast in the same mold as other disciplines. Its objectives are different. Learning through imagination and play, making conscious the sub-conscious and making purposeful and directional, the intelligence- constitute the aims of its pedagogy. Investigating concepts as opposed to learning about them, experimenting with ideas and making productive, the failures, iterating and improving, reflecting upon the successes and failures of all attempts- are essential aspects of design education.

Creative work is unique. It does not respond to like with like. On the contrary, it begins to think of other possibilities. It works within constraints and yet transcends them. This ability is unique to humans- the ability to speculate, imagine and create beyond what is. In the process, the inert is made dynamic and responsive to the intelligence of the human mind. Creative production, unlike the set and established routines of non-creative production, requires imagination to propel knowledge and the ability to navigate through the dark unknown.

So, how does one learn in the face of the unknown? Design education pitches its mission on this question. Since designers are required to not only be aware of how things ‘are’, but also how they can employ their minds to imagine how things ‘can be’, design education has an epistemological dimension and an ontological one. In other words, in addition to ‘learning by knowing’, student designers must ‘learn by being.’ The ability to function in a climate of ambiguity, to imagine possibilities, to experiment and learn from failures and to have the tenacity to stay the course till the realization of an idea- are the attributes of a designer. These attributes can be cultivated only through the process of doing, encountering, reflecting and circumventing the obstacles. Learning here, is therefore by doing and being. It is by making the leap of imagination that designers come to know what they must know. Much like the mad, self-appointed knight, Don Quixote, who with a head full of romantic ideals, set out to make good the world and rid it of its evil; and who in the end found his reason (but lost his reason to live); designers too, begin with idealistic fervor and learn along the way, about the limitations of imagination intersecting with reality. Their ideas are cut down to size. They gain first-hand insights, which is so much more valuable than receiving second-hand information. They meet much failure, before they meet success. Design, it must be remembered, is an evolutionary process- one that goes from the known to the unknown. Aware that we occupy a space of potentiality, designers through their work navigate uncharted territory and set precedents.

Design education is about culture, not rules. There are no rights, there are no wrongs. There’s no assurance. Nothing is guaranteed. You may not get to the star in the sky, you wanted to arrive it, but by God, you’ll enjoy the journey. And who knows, discover a whole new galaxy along the way.

 

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.