Going through some of the weekly supplements of popular Indian dailies and periodicals, you suddenly realize how a (largely white) minority in the world may have successfully conned the rest of the world’s women into thinking that white skin, light eyes and tall, size zero bodies make women superior, when all it does is to make them more prone to skin cancer and anorexia nervosa. It is also becoming quite common now to have some glamorous botoxed style icon waxing eloquent over women from India’s fabled middle classes who, we are told, have at long last discovered feminism, good living and high fashion, in that order. As proof they cite the fact that there is now a growing class in India which can be seen using high-end luxury goods such as shoes by Louis Vuitton with 17cm heels, or a black pony skin “footwear statement” from Christian Louboutin (with 16cm heels). Of course, the markets are full of cheap imitations as well, but the discerning eye can always tell the real thing.
Two decades ago, 10 days after the US stock market crash of 1987, designer Christian Lacroix had launched his Luxe collection and the venue was the ground floor of the World Financial Centre in New York. The reason for this outrageous act at a time of acute distress on the Wall Street was that the fashion world was increasingly feeling the pressure of feminist attacks on fashion that “infantilized" women. This had resulted in the sales of fashion garments and accessories going downhill. The mission of designers like Lacroix was now to woo these newly self-assertive women back to the world of high fashion and high expense accounts, and once again make pretty dolls and playthings out of them. So, while the stocks fell, models on the ramp displayed flouncy gowns with cinched waists, extreme add-ons and fashion accessories that cost a bomb. (The show, however, was a flop and a year later a retail analyst of Goldman Sachs called it a “marketing blunder”). But in India today, we see a repeat of the same phenomenon in our fashion shows.
“Feast your eyes on these shoes,” screams the headline of an article about fashion footwear in a popular weekly. “These are the shape of things to come.” The article is, of course, reproduced from the style section of a British daily. This in a year when the world is facing the worst ever food crisis and millions are threatened with starvation and droughts and eviction from their natural habitat. No wonder designers from the West are coming to India in droves.
It is a well-known fact that like Indian matrimonials, the androgynous world of high fashion and fashion designers traditionally holds women in low esteem and delights in selling them punitively restrictive and outrageously priced articles. The ideal the average Indian women is being urged to imitate, and that our fashion shows and mainstream media ads promote so liberally, is almost impossible for the average Indian woman to achieve. But our (mostly self-anointed and highly imitative) priests and priestesses of fashion do not seem to care how this may be alienating Indian women from their bodies in the most fundamental and tragic sense and putting their health and well-being at risk. Do they realize that there is not much more self-confidence in young women who scrape past college education and get married soon thereafter than there is in those who are seen sashaying past judges in beauty contests? We have also not quite absorbed such facts as the high rate of unemployment among models past a certain age, the lower average salaries among women employees and the growing incidence of teenage suicides and nervous disorders among young women from rich and middle-class families.
Of course, it is a very human desire to want to look good. But when the desire comes to be controlled and defined by an industry out to con women into subservience by feeding them ridiculous notions about what actually constitutes beauty and charging them an arm and a leg for it, it must be resisted. In many ways, Indian women who do not have to work for simple survival but who choose to work nevertheless are best suited to challenge this whole silly business and expose the heartless nonsense that our fashion magazines support. For starters, here is a gem from the editorial of a well-known fashion supplement from a popular weekly:
“...Louis Vuitton’s footwear statement for autumn is a clodhopping court, teetering on a 17cm heel. As towering wedges lead the way for the extreme footwear boom, sensible heels are downgraded to 20th century fashion mementos... With the famous Carla Bruni nude up for grabs at a Christie’s auction, the French must-haves rejoice in a delightful additive. It’s classic...arresting, addictive yet accessible...”
Since less than 5% of Indian women read English, it is obvious that the above lines are not addressed to women but mostly a bunch of libidinous (mostly ageing) Indian male readers, many of whom may be looking for gifts for a cheated wife or a nubile mistress.
At this point, one is reminded of a lovely one about Judy Holliday. It seems when she went for a movie interview and suddenly found herself (very predictably and like thousands before her) being chased around the desk by the head of the studio, she stopped, reached into her dress and pulled out her falsies and thrust them in the hands of the panting Lothario. “Here,” she said to him, “I think this is what you wanted.”
Mrinal Pande likes to take readers behind the reported news in her fortnightly column. She is chief editor of Hindustan. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org