A test for fashion?

The ongoing conversion of the fashion ramp into a platform for humanitarian causes suggests a debatable divergence


Acid attack survivor Reshma Qureshi (left) with designer Vaishali Shadangule at New York Fashion Week.
Acid attack survivor Reshma Qureshi (left) with designer Vaishali Shadangule at New York Fashion Week.

Acid attack survivors busting stereotypes around beauty is an idea easy to applaud, but not as simple to argue.

In the last week, a bunch of news reports around two acid attack survivors came up. Laxmi, who is also the most familiar name in the embattled narrative of acid attacks in India, was in London for a catwalk event organised by the British Asian Trust and women’s rights charity GMSP. The show also featured Adele Bellis from England who had been attacked with acid by her ex partner two years back.

Also, Reshma Qureshi, a 19-year-old who had survived a lethal acid attack walked the ramp at New York Fashion Week for two Indian designers—Archana Kochhar and Vaishali Shadangule. Qureshi was invited by FTL Moda, a New York based fashion production company.

Qureshi walking for designer Archana Kochhar ​at New York Fashion Week last week.
Qureshi walking for designer Archana Kochhar ​at New York Fashion Week last week.

This story was picked up by news agencies, mainstream papers and fashion blogs across the world—seen as a bold, almost rebellious and disruptive event on the catwalk, the playground of fame and glamour, perfect figures, taut bodies and flawless skins. Stories about Qureshi and Laxmi were good, they brought to light facts and figures of acid attacks in India, spoke about the work done by Stop Acid Attacks, Laxmi’s organisation; policy changes underway and the internal and external fight of these girls and dozens of others to defeat shame, disfigurement, trauma and pain.

What went missing in almost each story was the fashion. The details of clothes, silhouettes, fashion show spectacle, the fit, tailoring, colours, quality and overall impact on trends got glossed over. The showstoppers in these shows were women fighting for a cause so the showstopper garment became the peripheral detail. It is too strong an idea to shrug off outright and perhaps for many it justifies putting fashion in the backseat.

Or does it? It is hard to agree. There are platforms for human rights issues to be aired, shared, debated and resolved. Likewise fashion is a different kind of event—here clothes, hair and makeup lead the commentary. It is a massive industry, a creative vortex, collections are the culmination of months and weeks of hard work by an army of people behind the brand or a designer. Must the two necessarily be merged?

Laxmi and Qureshi’s beauty is without doubt. Beauty has classically had varying definitions and interpretations over the centuries, it is culturally interpretative and symbolic of the times we live in. But at this moment, it is important to ask whether Qureshi and Laxmi aspired to be fashion models or beauty queens before the acid attack changed their lives? If not, why is the ramp seen as a right platform to bring their voice to the world? An acid attack survivor conquering the fashion ramp hardly busts the beauty myth—it further complicates it.

Qureshi (right) with actor Sunny Leone
Qureshi (right) with actor Sunny Leone

The last few years have witnessed a conversion of the fashion ramp into a space to voice feminist issues, bust body and beauty stereotypes, racist attitudes and gender discrimination. The most talked about model stories of the last few years and more have been about plus sized models (Ashley Graham is a case in point), those who have fought against race and colour prejudice (Maria Borges walked for Victoria’s Secret last year in Afro hair, called the first such black model to wear her “natural hair”) even alternative sexuality like the transgender model Andreja Pejić. Fashion now “consciously” celebrates and includes the rebel, the misfit and even the violated against. Without a cause, fashion seems an insufficient argument. The “fashion-fashion” model, the tall, lissome, sexy, gazelle like figure with an enviable BMR has become a standby stereotype, necessary to keep the business going but no longer the hero. After the wonder girls of the Nineties—Christy Turlington, Linda Evangelista, Cindy Crawford, Naomi Campbell, the only models who have made news and formed views are Kate Moss, and the stunning Brazilian Gisele Bundchen and perhaps Lily Donaldson, the face of Gucci and Burberry.

After them, the fashion model globally has been reduced to a non-entity, a tortured type to be fought for. Someone seen as suffering from body issues, whose health and weight (and depressive tendencies if any) must become the concerns of fashion week organisations. That’s good news. But why must model be a survivor of some injustice (instead of her looks) to become news worthy?

Also, it is one thing to give equal work and opportunity to a transgender or plus size model as gender and size are relevant to fashion as an industry. So acceptance of diverse body types is crucial and commercially viable. But it is quite another to bring an acid attack survivor or a person with Down’s syndrome to bust beauty notions. The purpose of an acid attack survivor is to press for policy changes, laws to punish violence against women, weed out gender prejudice, and lobby for equal rights. It is not to be a beauty queen or clothes horse. Will Nobel Prize winner Malala Yousafzai, also a survivor of violence, walk the ramp to argue for her work? And why should she? These are separate battlefields. Turning fashion into a war zone for human rights may not be a great fit.

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