Clothes & Fashion, Feminism & Other -isms

by Tara* Kaushal

The clothes, models and visual imagery standards set by the fashion industry leave women across the world to balance complex dynamics in their personal style choices. Conceptual image by Sahil Mane Photography.

Feminist-Fashion-Sahil-Mane-PhotographyThat clothes and, by extension, fashion, are a feminist, gender, class, financial, social, political, psychological, cultural, historical, ageist, religious, lookist, etc. issue is a given. Our ability and reasons to wear, or not, the clothes we do is charged with individual choice rooted in environmental dynamics, and is remarkably telling of our who, what, where, when and why. Though Abraham Maslow does refer to “differences in style of hair-dress, clothes” in his important hierarchy of needs theory as “superficial differences in specific desires from one culture to another”, clothes themselves would probably rate from basic needs all the way up the pyramid to self-actualization.

So I start with a few caveats: I'm not talking about the sartorial ‘choices' of women living in places of the world where religion and/or laws determine what to wear—the burka is beyond the scope of this column. I talk of socio-cultural environments where people can wear what they choose for the most part, despite traditionalists expressing varying degrees of disapproval, though even here I leave out those who, in Maslow's words, “live by bread alone”.

My premise is that this demographic of people the world over taps in to and is influenced by global fashion culture rooted in Western styles in various ways and degrees, consciously or sub—either directly on the internet or through more traditional media feeding off the internet, either fresh off the international runways or through its influence on their country's own fashion convention. And these Western styles continue to incorporate global influences, making for a hotbed dynamic with exponential possibilities.

Clothes, models & visual imagery

In the very fact it presumes that women have the choice to wear everything—and nothing—they want to, the fashion industry owes a huge debt to feminism and other equal rights movements. In turn, the clothes, models and visual imagery put out by the Western fashion industry combine to have a series of repercussions and change the norms of what is acceptable.

Pretty much all the haute couture clothes on the international runway are over-sexualised to a fault. Of course, one can choose to see this as a celebration of a woman's body, empowerment to show skin and be lauded and paid millions, let alone stoned to death, for it on a mainstream platform, etc.… Or, dig past the dermis, in to the discourse on pornification, new enslaving expectations and the male gaze. This inherent contradiction, that also conditions the feminist arguments for and against the mainstreamisation of pornography and the issue of the participants' choices, runs through my piece.

Haute couture is made for a one-size-fits-all, and that size is a homogenous, inhumanly skinny and impossibly tall woman with a beautiful face. It's made for the aesthetically perfect—or at least what the fashion industry believes is ‘perfect'—and fabulously wealthy, and remain in the realm of the highly aspirational for most of us mere mortals. The inspiration trickles down to ready-to-wear ranges, from the high-end designers to the humble departmental store, from boutiques to flea markets. Take here, for instance, how couture and prêt, high-street and low, traditional, modern/Western and fusion fashion in India has embraced the fluorescent-neon trend wholeheartedly. And the interesting story of Ikat, a handcrafted textile technique seen in many native cultures, that galloped across runways and reentered our fabric and fashion markets digitised and refreshed, passing through the likes of Gucci and Tommy Hilfiger.

Us multisized women and our wobbly, scarred, well-lived bodies are left with pedestrian concerns of adapting these often flimsy, impractical, unflattering runway trends to our own personal style in a meaningful way. We must negotiate the context, what looks good on our bodies and skins, what works within our cultures, what image we'd like to project about ourselves. We must commit to consuming our time, effort, money, space and mindspace—I mean, if one of us was to wear a straight-from-runway look without these thoughts, we'd end up on People of Walmart. One can choose to make a statement through fashion; choosing not to is a statement in itself, though fashion seeps in to the clothes chosen even by the most uninterested. Love it, hate it, you can't ignore it.

Not as a woman, at least. A while ago, I was helping my mother organise her wardrobe. We both use a space- and time-optimising system I learnt from her, and were segregating her clothes in to ‘party', ‘office', ‘daytime out', ‘home casual' in to ‘tops', ‘bottoms', ‘dresses', plus ‘gymwear' and ‘sleepwear'. (Lurking somewhere in this system is a colour parameter.) Accessories: belts, hats, stoles, bags, other knickknacks were being rearranged; jewellery was being checked and sorted; shoes were being put away in boxes. The bras (regular, sexy, cross-back, strapless, nude, black, white, coloured) and panties (dailies, frillies, tummy control, seamless), garters, pantyhose, etc. were finding their homes in a few large drawers. The sarees, which she rarely wears as an Indian in Australia, and their associated paraphernalia, were being tucked away. There was also winterwear and swimwear, resortwear and Derbywear (and I'm sure I'm missing more). My mother caught my eye over the bed piled high with this jumble of clothes. “I wish I was a man,” she said, “this is so exhausting.” It's no surprise that the scenario of a man waiting as a woman gets ready is a joke across cultures. For men, it seems, groomed and ‘decent' is all anyone asks for, though sharp dressers with individual style are always welcome.

Because the standards women look to, and are held to, in the fashion and beauty departments are the genetic anomalies on the runway, and the absolute flawlessness of made up and Photoshopped models and actors in the media, with a little plastic surgery thrown in to the mix. Photoshop has also allowed celebrities, those famous for things other than their looks, to grace magazine covers, as they can be youthened and beautified. It appears that, whatever else they may have achieved, they are also gorgeous.

Jean Killbourne's 'Killing Us Softly' series, Naomi Wolf's iconic ‘The Beauty Myth', etc. focus on the impact such media imagery has on the way women view ourselves and the way men view us. It is almost as though the ‘norm'—women who don't look ‘perfect'—is no longer the ‘normal'.

If fashion is the most glamorous of all creative pursuits, the visual imagery of the fashion industry is also cutting edge, and leads the way in pushing creative and cultural boundaries. Be it the runway stage, adverting or editorial, creators of fashion imagery work at cutting through the clutter with newer ideas, influencing and being influenced by media and culture. Nestled in the pages of a high-end glossy, already full of beautiful women, made up and Photoshopped to perfection, in the best and skimpiest clothing, what could Tom Ford do but nestle his perfume in a vagina to draw attention to his ad, right? And ‘Vogue' has stirred other -isms with fashion shoots inspired by oil spills and dressing up Indian poor in high fashion.

In this clamour to stand out, imagery is getting more sexual and ads are getting more outrageous. Today, our eyebrows rarely rise over increasingly pornified images that sexualise and objectify women. Killbourne notes that since women's body language in ads is usually passive and vulnerable, it propagates an unhealthy idea of 'normal', and the objectification and dismemberment of women's bodies, like in photographer Bela Bordosi's work, and passive body language creates an increasingly “toxic cultural environment” that propagates violence.

Of course, there are those standing out by creating inclusive imagery, against the grain, like Gap's new campaign with a Sikh model, Benetton historically and little voices like the plus-size lingerie store Curvy Girl, whose ‘Regular Women' campaign has been well-received. Every day, I see one photo/art/ advocacy project or another addressing the Photoshop-body image issue, like the recent one with mannequins of disabled people in Zurich. Campaigns for media literacy, pictorial comparisons before-and-after makeup and Photoshop, uncensored celebrities' candids (wrinkles, panty lines, et al), all work towards correcting this balance—which is great, although this mindfulness is slow to enter the mainstream. Though calls for realistic portrayals of women are getting louder, few magazines are willing to institute a no-Photoshop policy the way ‘Verily' has done.

(I've written more extensively about photography and the media in my piece for ‘The Sunday Guardian'.)

Where do you draw the hemline?

Apart from having to evaluate whether fashion does or doesn't imprison us in a sparkly new golden cage by the same ol' masters, there is another essential dichotomy that colours feminists' relationships with our personal fashion choices. On the one hand, feminism encourages us to escape the dictates of our bodies and gender, and explore our talents, minds and careers beyond being ‘pretty' and consumed with female frivolities, the stereotype of the bra burner. On the other, it urges one to be the best one can be, enjoy everything one wants, irrespective of whether they were ascribed to your gender or not, more in line with Alice Walker's ‘womanism' and newer age feminist theory that prioritises choice. This is the same ‘different but equal' tightrope I see in many women authors struggle with: at once wanting to be celebrated as women but troubled with the pigeonholing. Ask 10 feminists what they thought of Miley Cyrus's twerking (I did) and same thing: let her do what she wants to do, it's empowering that she can vs. she's pandering to patriarchy and male sexuality, pressurised in to over-sexualising to stand out.

The answer to personal style lies in a balance, and that is for each woman to strike for herself. My own journey has been complex, starting with an Indian military upbringing that could be described as ‘genteel poor'. Unlike my peers in my cultural environment, I had strong Western influences from my mother and family abroad, and female modesty wasn't part of the gender discourse at home, so, in shorts, tees, tights and skirts, I stood out for my sartorial choices. Taller and bustier than most girls my age, and pretty and unabashed, in retrospect I realise I was over-sexualised by my environment before I was even 13. Negotiating the attention was complicated: I enjoyed it and let it define me and my relationships, but felt trapped by the constant judgement by the kids, their parents and our teachers.

In a serious fall from grace, I grappled with weight and acne through my teenage years, and our family moved from liberal Mumbai to conservative, patriarchal North India. It took my mother and me a while to internalise that the clothes I was used to wearing were not flattering on my new (but not improved) body. Where once my clothes, and the ability to choose them, were liberating, in Delhi they only meant being molested all the time. Cringe-worthy photographs evidence that I worked the large tent look as well as an unguided teenager could! For their social acceptability and cover, Indian clothes made an appearance in my wardrobe. Looking unmemorable if not actively unattractive, I missed the attention I had grown accustomed to.

I lost weight and started developing a personal style from pickings at roadside stalls and departmental stores in college and through my early 20s, a dumpy-Indian-fusion-meets-culture-defying-sexy look I have completely evolved away from. But there were more serious issues, like square meals and a career, a dying father and complicated romances, to prioritise. It was at 25, a big year in my journey on all fronts, editing a magazine, making more money than I had ever seen and in a empowering relationship, that I had the luxury and confidence to become an active participant in fashion culture, and not just a passive receptacle.

Today, I have a better-rounded equation with my clothes and body. Whatever my weight (I yo-yo), I will always be a big girl. It is hard, even for the most aware of us, not to be influenced by the fashion and media imaging of women, but I try not to let it affect the way I see myself. Beyond the skin-deep, my reasons for wanting to get in shape are health-related.

Perhaps it is the aftertaste of sour grapes, but I carry a disdain for exorbitant fashion brands. I've had a friend regale me with stories of battling limits on her three credit cards at the LV store on a foreign trip; I refuse to pander to blinding consumerism or have it determine my aspirations. I still shop cheap for the most part, though I can afford a lot more. It takes me 30 minutes from bed to ready-to-go, from bathing to wardrobe and makeup, on a normal morning; dressing for a party takes a full hour. I am willing to spend time and money on this, the monthly beauty salon ritual and occasional shopping. Beyond a point, fashion and looking good is not a priority.

At 30, I have learnt to adopt fashion trends in to my wardrobe in a way that flatters me, brings out my legs and hides the bulges and cellulite. Looking my best, often on the more daring side of sexy on a night out, makes me feel confident. As a personality type, I like being heard, popular and famous, and I found these are harder to achieve as a wallflower in work, social and media milieus. As an intelligent woman writer who is also fashionable and unconventionally beautiful, I enjoy challenging the pretty-or-smart stereotype. Though I realise I will need to address the aging issue in the future, I hope it is not all downhill from this fashion and beauty peak, as suggested by a survey in ‘Allure' magazine.

There's this bumper sticker I once read: ‘Everyone driving slower than you is an idiot, everyone driving faster than you is a maniac'. While I do wonder at women who spend more time, money and effort than I do on the way they look, I also find myself cringing at those that don't. Everyone's equation with fashion and individual style is different, intensely personal and evolving—I have read accounts of some women finding the burka liberating. Do you find fashion fun, freeing or fatiguing? Are your body and beauty expectations realistic, or deeply coloured by the media? Do you look good for yourself, for the way dressing up makes you feel and what you project, or do you feel subjugated by stilettoes and Spanx? Till what point is it worth it? Where do YOU draw the hemline?