Should Indian Fashion Take a Political Stand?

Should Indian Fashion Take a Political Stand?

As fashion becomes increasingly political, designers must choose which side they are on. Then stay there and not mix up messages.  

Should Anita Dongre have dressed Ivanka Trump for her recent India visit? If so, should she have promoted Ivanka’s “sherwani” on her Instagram? Should Rohit Bal have dressed Ivanka also for an appearance in New Delhi on the same day and then posted a video clip on his social media channels?

Were these designers only selling their designs on the rich and famous, as designers across the world are wont to do? Or, were there other messages that were not intended but the wires got crossed? Perhaps both. It is time to underline that fashion can no longer be separated from politics.

Even if the designers are not political themselves.

These were not pertinent questions until even a couple of years back. Certainly not in India when fashion assumed an aloofness and lite-ness and got away with it. When it was not seen as singularly determinant of our identity politics. When it was understood as significant to the economy but did not get people killed, attacked or judged. When it was primarily about the business of pretty, stunning but voiceless celebrities and bridal shindigs.

No longer.

From political statements on international red carpets to fiery statements at award shows to designers arguing for causes through show spectacles (this is where you bring up Dior’s Maria Grazia Chiuri Consent Feminism and Other Stories), the fashion world now shows its scars. It also admits that it can scar—both people and the environment. It becomes anxious and poorly fitted to the contemporary social order unless it is “inclusive”. The haute barricades have collapsed to usher in Size All, fluid and genderless sexuality, race and social rifts. It sounds hoarse and irritatingly hungover without a pronounced commitment to environmental and ethical issues.


Photo: Anne-Christine Poujoulat / AFP

Models present creations by Dior during the Women’s Fall-Winter 2020-2021 show in Paris, France on February 25, 2020.

In India too, more than a dozen designers now argue for worker welfare, women’s empowerment, fashion ethics, material sustainability, circular fashion solutions and saving the ecology. Anita Dongre does. Rohit Bal does not.

Yet both dressed Ivanka Trump who evokes a sense of disenchantment among a section of people given her role in the Washington White House. After all, a number of designers have refused to dress the Trumps in the US.

Though when you assess responses to Dongre and Bal’s social media—some from habitual trolls, others from those genuinely engage with fashion–it is Dongre who has been called out for dressing and promoting Ivanka. Not Bal.

On a diversionary note, fashion is first and foremost about aesthetic and design. It must be said that both garments, Dongre’s and Bal’s looked excellent on the svelte Ivanka (and I am no fan of her work allegiances). One a beautifully tailored sherwani set made from handwoven fabric. The other a lovely long gown-dress with signature Rohit Bal embroidery.

But let us return to the cross-stitch of our story.

Dongre has been clear and vocal about her commitment to the cause of women karigars and their welfare and she advocates a certain kind of fashion: vegan, fair principled, environmentally responsible. Bal may well be a believer in all these values too but we don’t know for he has never shown his scars, weapons or wands about them.

Which means a certain definition does get associated with designers through their speak, campaigns, messaging, the images they put out, who they endorse, who endorses them, where they are seen, where they are absent. Even when their religious, spiritual, personal and political beliefs are unknown to the world as it should be. Even then, their customers, followers, fans have a certain image of them.


Since Dongre was unavailable for comment, I will risk my presumption that she may not have gauged the strong critical sentiment her Ivanka post would evoke. Especially among Indians. Would she have posted it knowing that it will cause disappointment? There is no way of knowing for sure but I am guessing not. That doesn’t absolve her of letting the wires be crossed.

My other presumption is that Rohit Bal, who may have jolly well anticipated some reaction went ahead anyway—that appears to be his way of handling barbs and bricks. Surprisingly none came his way.

What’s our takeaway? That fashion must choose its politics and be consistent in the messaging. So far, Indian designers have mostly been like the proverbial shaturmurg (ostrich), which buries its head in the sand upon seeing a storm, thinking it will blow over if it hides down. Those days are over. The world now bristles with opinion and nations burn with divisive ideas.

On that note, it is timely to add that celebratory fashion events planned in Delhi this week may need rethinking. Delhi is burning, as it hasn’t in the last 30 years. It is communally ripped open and hurting. People are dying defending or losing to a certain ideology and political machinations. This is no time to celebrate and cheer.

Let it all stand for now.


Banner: Ivanka Trump in Rohit Bal and Anita Dongre creations during her recent visit to India. 

Courtesy: Instagram/ivankatrump–3595