Essay | The protest dress

MINT

Essay | The protest dress

Mass protests against the gang rape in Delhi last year nudged the politics of the “dented-painted” in a particular direction. They pinned up what SlutWalk had set out to do: “Ask not what she was wearing.” Yet the backlash to the sordid episodes around recent sexual harassment cases have rekindled many a prejudice—once again on the morality of dress and the role it plays in the lives of women who “ask for it”.

“It is because of people like you who propagate fashion that girls everywhere dress up as sluts,” a well-known women’s rights activist said to me some months back. In the well-argued “The Misogyny of India’s Cultural Elite” by Kavita Bhanot on Kafila.org, on how male capitalism had swallowed women’s freedom, the writer complicated the debate by adding: “Instead, they write articles in support of banned adverts that feature women as sexual objects of fantasy, they write for magazines such as India Vogue, Elle and Cosmopolitan, they pose for these magazines, perhaps do a spot of modelling. All the while describing themselves as feminists.”

For all the censure against “Western culture” damaging the cultural values of conservative societies across the world, it was through the Afro hairstyle, Cuban heels and black leather flaunted in the late 1960s in the US that members of the Black Panther Party, a revolutionary socialist organization, made their mark, launching serious activism through fashion. In 2007, protesters from the group Peta (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) stripped naked at the Paris Fashion Week carrying banners that read—“I’d rather go naked than wear fur.”

This year, when shoe guru Christian Louboutin introduced his signature red-soled high heels in a spectrum of nude shades from deep chestnut to fleshy pink, he consciously argued against the racist, Western interpretation of the colour nude as “white-pink flesh” in fashion history. In the hands of the world’s top footwear designers and stylists, stilettos, originally associated with pornography, walked into boardrooms as accessories for power dressing.

Western fashion is not the only voice of dissent. In 2006, designer Narendra Kumar Ahmed titled one of his shows In Protest, sending out models with gags across their mouths, without any background music, to protest against the censorship of shows owing to industry politics. For another show called The Rise of Fascism, male models wearing Ahmed’s menswear walked in bloodied, bruised and bandaged while a few lay down “dead” as the designer made a point about India’s growing religious strife. It was an impressively stylish and wearable collection.

The incorrigible Rohit Bal may dress Sonam Kapoor in the tiniest of cholis for his bridal couture but he is the same designer who sent out male models in skirts and sindoor on the ramp, his way of arguing for same-sex freedom. Designer Nandita Basu created a T-shirts line after the communal riots in Gujarat, a decade ago. One T-shirt showed Narendra Modi as Hitler. Indian designer Rajesh Pratap Singh covered his models’ faces with masks for his Spring/Summer 2012 show, suggesting a shield from the horrors of a terrorist-darkened world.

There are many other instances of fashion’s non-conformism. Younger designers like Kallol Datta and Aneeth Arora have consistently created anti-fit fashion for women, challenging the objectified idea of sexy and slim.

For his Autumn/Winter 2013 collection called Abandon, Datta mounted an Art-Fashion exhibition in Mumbai, abandoning star-struck fashion events. “The premise of the line was of a person waking up, opening her or his wardrobe doors and picking out anything to wear, without pausing for thought of whether the garment is menswear or womenswear. Of the same person entering a clothing store and not having to go into demarcated zones for menswear or womenswear,” said Datta’s collection note. It added that “size 40 had been used to create template-like clothing”. In October, designer Sanchita Ajjampur showed a line called Alice Meets Aladdin for Spring/Summer 2014, interpreting oversized grandpa and boyfriend shirts and men’s shirting materials in a dozen ways.

If there is effect, there is also cause. Earlier this year, designer duo Shivan & Narresh designed the Mastectomy Blouse for All supported by Sahachari Foundation, a charitable trust that works for the underprivileged, and Women’s Cancer Initiative-Tata Memorial Hospital, Mumbai. With a prosthetic breast built in especially to suit Indian women’s bodies, this blouse is available free of cost for survivors of breast cancer in rural and urban India through collaborations with companies and non-governmental organizations.

We could argue that wearing a man’s shirt does not protect a woman from rape, nor does it make her a stronger champion of women’s rights. Or one mastectomy blouse doesn’t redeem fashion’s slavish sins. But just as a rock-punk leather jacket, a boyfriend blazer, a baseball cap, a buzz cut or a unisex gunji (vest) can’t be our bodyguards in unsafe zones, objectification too has never been contained solely in off-shoulder garments, false eyelashes, silicone bra pads, short dresses or in writing and modelling for fashion magazines.

It’s an old argument that sexy women in stilettos and short dresses too can be soldiers in the feminist movement but what’s new is how so many independent thinking women situate fashion smartly in their lives and on their bodies without ever becoming objectified. Think of crafts activist Laila Tyabji. She is fabulously good-looking, intelligent and always beautifully dressed. Try objectifying her! Or legal expert Vrinda Grover, for that matter. Or actors Sharmila Tagore, Swara Bhaskar and Nandita Das, tennis player Sania Mirza, TV anchors Nidhi Razdan and Barkha Dutt, banker Chanda Kochhar and entrepreneur Roshni Nadar, to name some.

Fashion has always been accompanied by controversies about modesty, morality and sexuality. What it actually does is explore various limits that make creative and progressive ideas visible through style. Some are short, others six metres long.

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