The Mumbai leg of the annual India Kids Fashion Week (IKFW) concluded last week. About 800 children of the 1,000 who registered had cleared the auditions. This weekend, a similar number, aged 4-14, will take part in the Delhi version of the same event, at the Ambience Mall in Gurgaon, near Delhi. Extravagantly styled toddlers, eight-year-olds waving like wannabe stars, little boys sporting rehearsed bravado with funny pants and overdressed adolescents preening like divas will walk the ramp. Their goal: to become part of a glamour world that should ideally have no place in childhood.
Fashion can be for children too. But fashion weeks are not.
Spending huge amounts of money on clothes and accessories for children may fall into the realm of fond, if debatable, indulgence, but ramp events are a completely different story. They are adult affairs that rest on long-held stereotypes of the body and body language peculiar to the catwalk—most of it too complex for little children. There is a stark difference between encouraging children to role-play a doctor, sprinter, mountaineer, artiste, soldier, teacher or leader and asking them to role-play a fashion model. The difference doesn’t stem from the nobility of one profession versus the other, but from the fact that the fashion catwalk is primarily about showcasing the body.
Introduced prematurely, before other realizations of growing up, fashion shows can cultivate a tendency to contribute to one’s own objectification. Much like the special beauty salons now coming up in cities, where children can get spa, nail and hair treatments that their naturally glowing and adorable personalities don’t need.
The registration fee at the IKFW events is Rs.2,000 per child. It includes gifts, training certificates and two passes for the main show. More than 20 designers and children’s brands showcased their wares at the Mumbai event. But the increasing number of brands in the apparel and fashion market for children, clearly riding on a boom, cannot justify children’s fashion weeks. Nor can the fact that similar showcases take place in other parts of the world—most notably London and New York—with participation from top luxury brands.
Comparisons to TV talent shows are dubious too. According to the organizers of the IKFW, auditions don’t pose the kind of stiff competition reality TV programmes such as Junior MasterChef do. The idea is just to suss out the comfort level of children with clothes and their overall confidence. Which means that the display of talent expected from children is vague enough for them to borrow and improvise on the mannerisms of adult models or to think of clothes as more important than themselves.
For while choreographers may teach participating children to have fun, dozens of conscious and subconscious influences fire up on the catwalk. What children see on TV, what they notice in films or film posters, what kind of ambitions their parents have seeded in them, the various definitions of what’s sexy, hot or cool in different households (that get transferred to the little ones by cultural osmosis) are only some of the factors that determine how a child walks the ramp. It also depends on what he or she makes of “special” clothes, heaps of unnecessary—and often uncomfortable—accessories, the time-consuming, playtime-robbing rituals of matching shoes with bags, hairpins and hats, brooches and sashes, gloves, socks and jewellery.
It is hard to miss the signs of coquettishness and swagger in the photographs that are beamed from such events. Hands on hips, index finger on the chin—not in childish innocence but with heads tilted sideways, pirouetting and preening to show off a gown or a lehnga, waving or blowing kisses to the audience as parents look on with pride.
This is exactly the point from where fashion victimhood starts. Children could also carry back illusions—and misconceptions—about their worth, all based on what they wore and how they looked.
The flamboyance and poor functionality of what’s called “fashion for kids” is another downer. Gowns with gold edges, anarkali sets with dupattas, floral or diamanté tiaras, dhoti pants, necklaces, over-embellished kurta pyjamas, polka-dotted bow ties, lace tops with cut-outs, embroidered ghaghras, brocade frocks, feather headdresses, opulent sherwanis, briefcases and guns given to boys to wear with cargo pants and dark glasses. Laughably, these clothes are direct derivations from what’s most critiqued in Indian fashion for adults—outlandish garments that defy modern needs and lifestyles, making people look like characters straight out of TV serials.
Last Saturday, I saw a Li’l Biba Diva ritual at a mall in Delhi. A toddler, barely firm on her feet, was being coaxed by her parents to hold a Li’l Biba Diva placard and pose for a professional photographer. People gathered around curiously. The child would drop the placard again and again, smile self-consciously, then try and slink away. But the irrepressible parents kept pulling her back into the frame, straightening her skirt, brushing her hair, pleading with her to start dialling her 15 minutes of fame. She managed to pose, even held the placard in her little hands. But she didn’t smile.
The Body is a monthly column on the body’s language in fashion.