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After many years of research, writing and re-writing (which also included a break to welcome our new baby Liam) Indian Fashion: Tradition, Innovation, Style is finally out in print!

Cover Image: Rahul Mishra, S/S 2011

This journey began with some early papers I wrote on fashion and the Indian middle class and Indian fashion magazines – presented at conferences while I was teaching design at Massey University in New Zealand. Back then (I’m talking of 2005) I would find little in terms of academic research on Indian fashion. Emma Tarlo’s Clothing Matters: Dress and Identity in India (an invaluable text) along with a few journal articles and chapters here and there were all that I could access that directly related to “fashion” and India. To find these one had to wade through masses of writings on the sari that also referred to it and all other forms of Indian traditional dress as “costume”.

My decision to turn my research into a full-fledged book proposal came about in response to this lack of academic discussion (then) on Indian fashion, as well as my awareness of the vibrant fashion scene I had witnessed (and once been a part of) in India, contrasted with the general unawareness of this fact outside of India. Now of course things are different—thanks to Berg/Bloomsbury and other such publishers’ support for authors and texts on non-Western fashion as well as much more academic interest in these areas (evident at the recent Contemporary South Asian Youth Cultures and Fashion Symposium held at LCF, London in Sept 2014—where for once I felt like my paper on Indian Streetstyle fitted the conference agenda!).

As highlighted in the book’s preface, Indian Fashion attempts to offer a broad overview on fashion in India and in doing so (as I’m sure many will agree) it leaves out a lot of detail. While I acknowledge this fact, as well as my lack of prior academic training (I have two fairly traditional design degrees that have brought me to this point in my career) my hope is that this text will compliment others that do indeed provide more in-depth discussions on various topics that I introduce and touch upon in the book. While not everyone will agree with certain aspects of my discussion in the book or in some cases my overall approach, I am certain that the key ideas and concepts it builds upon—such as the the impact of globalization on Indian dress, the co-existence of tradition and modernity, various strategies of design innovation and self-fashioning, and the resurgence of nationalist ideals and revival of Indian crafts and textiles in fashion design, to name but a few—should undoubtedly remain valuable points of reference. Also, through my own design training and years of teaching fashion design studio, I am confident that the images that support the book’s discussion accurately represent the dynamism evident in various the design innovations currently underway within the arena of Indian fashion—on the catwalk, in print, in the media, in film, on television and on multiple style blogs.

I am grateful to many people for their input and support as I worked on this book and I include here an excerpt from the book’s acknowledgements: “Many invaluable discussions on fashion with Asha Baxi were central to the inception of this book’s research. I am indebted to Shefalee Vasudev for sharing her deep insight on fashion in India as well as assisting me in approaching various members within the fashion industry. Several people generously gave their time and thoughts across numerous interviews and informal chats through the course of my research that have helped enrich the content in this book. I am deeply grateful to these wonderful and dynamic fashion professionals: Yatan Ahluwalia, Aneeth Arora (Péro), Sonu Bohra and Jasleen Kaur Gupta (FashionBombay.com), Meher Castelino, Neeraj Chauhan and Alpana Mittal, Anjali Chawla, Kallol Datta, RK Deora, Anita Dongre, Swarup Dutta, Rohit Gandhi and Rahul Khanna, Sanjay Garg (Raw Mango), Gaurav Gupta, Amit Hansraj, Hemani Kashikar, Sangita Kathiwada, Vinod Kaul, Azeem Khan, Tarun Khiwal, Heena Kochhar, Narendra Kumar, Ritu Kumar, Ritu Kumar (O’Layla), Neeta Lulla, Gaurav Mahajan, Nida Mahmood, Manou (wearabout), Rahul Mishra, Anju Modi, Pavitra Mohan (Masala Chai), Puja Nayyar, Nazarul, Ekta Rajani, Nihal Rajan, Rajdeep Ranawat, Wendell Rodricks, Harilein Sabarwal, Priya Sachdev, Nitin Saxena, Mehul and Kaushik Shrimanker, Mandira Shukla, Sujata Assomull Sippy, Geetika Srivastava, Manasi Scott, Rajiv Takru and JJ Valaya. Additional thanks to Vineeta Nair, Savitri Ramaiah, Vinayak Razdan and Shalini Singh, and all those who generously contributed towards the book’s images – as outlined in the image credits. My field research in Mumbai would not have been possible without my sister Tarana Singh’s determination, endless enthusiasm and driving skills. I would also like to thank the Fashion Design Council of India (FDCI) for allowing me access to attend Pearls Infrastructure Delhi Couture Week (in 2010) and Wills Lifestyle India Fashion Week (WLIFW, 2013). 

The thoughtful and thorough review notes provided by the anonymous reviewer on the initial manuscript as well as those from earlier anonymous reviews at the proposal stage helped strengthen the premise of the book. In addition, the texts edits and feedback provided by Lilian Mutsaers, Maren Nelson, Debra Parr, Shefalee Vasudev, Simon Holland and Param Sandhu – who were subject to various stages of the book’s rough drafts – were an invaluable and important part of its evolution. Furthermore, this project could not have been completed without Columbia College Chicago’s faculty development grants that funded various segments of field research and the supportive environment within the Fashion Studies department, chaired by Debra Parr, that allowed me the time and resources required for the preparation of the final manuscript.”

Being solely responsible for almost all the image acquisitions and permissions for this book was also no easy task. Numerous people helped me secure valuable images from designers, magazines, TV shows and movies for this book. While some are mentioned in the list above as well as in the list of illustrations (in the book) I would like to extend a big “thank you” to various PR representatives of the designers and brands featured, the designers themselves, individual photographers, film and TV channel reps, as well as the editors of Vogue India, Elle India, Marie Claire India and Harper’s Bazaar India. In many cases hunting for images (such as the one from Bombay Dyeing or one from a old issue of Femina magazine that did not get published) was akin to being a detective – and I will write about some of these experiences in another blog post.

And finally on a more personal note: “This book is dedicated to my husband, Simon Holland, whose patient and selfless support over the years made it possible to complete. Also included in this dedication are my parents, Amrita Sandhu and Deshvir Sandhu, who never questioned my decision to study fashion design at a time when it was a relatively new field in India. Together they have served as devoted research assistants throughout my field research in Delhi. In addition to diligently mailing me Indian fashion magazines across the world over many years, Amrita Sandhu has also provided majority of the images in Chapter 2.”

Cover Image: Rahul Mishra, S/S 2011

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Up until a few years ago Mehar Chand market was not only known for its tailors but also for the creative names some of the tailoring establishments had and their quirky slogans. It is estimated that there were once at least 75 tailors in this area, and some, as the sign indicates, could create wonders – whether it be in the making of new clothes, or mending old well-loved threads.

This year I only noticed one such tailor – OM Tailors. Though I only walked halfway up the market… perhaps there are a few more left – nestled amongst the newer upmarket fashion boutiques and quirky interiors stores.

AAP's Gandhi topi - printed text reads 'I Am The Common Man' followed by the election symbol of the broom

As Delhi gears up for its legislative assembly elections tomorrow (Dec 4), a small group of political campaigners for the AAP caught my interest as they were handing out Gandhi topis at Janpath the other day.

The AAP or the Aam Admi Party (Common Man’s Party), for those who may not know, is led by Arwind Kejriwal and is an off-shoot of the India Against Corruption movement initiated by Anna Hazare in 2011 (from whom Kejriwal parted ways in pursuit of a political direction for the movement’s ideals). AAP’s party symbol is the broom (jadhu) and its key goal is, for lack of better words, to ‘clean up’ the corruption currently present at almost every rung of Indian politics and within a plethora of government bodies. As the party’s title suggests its aim is also to serve the common man – who in a country like India suffers tremendously due to rampant corruption as well as the extreme polarity between the rich and the poor.

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In my albeit politically inexperienced opinion, at times it is unclear as to who this ideal common man is for the AAP – as on one hand they hope to uplift those belonging to the lower and laboring classes but in doing so rely on the support of the middle-class to succeed (who in turn are also in desperate need of less corrupt system of governance and a less onerous system of bureaucracy). While the common factor is corruption, both these segments of society have different needs, and in the current context the party has come under criticism for being out of sync of the hopes and expectations of a growing middle-class charged with India’s economic progress within a globalized digital age.

Coming back to the purpose of this post, what caught my eye is the way in which the AAP has once again employed an iconic piece of clothing – the Gandhi topi  – as a political symbol and visual medium for connecting with these two mismatched segments of Indian society during this election.

The topi, named after Mahatma Gandhi – who is said to have first worn such a piece of headgear in 1919 at the Amritsar Congress (Bean 1989) – has a long-standing relationship with politics and political movements in India. Even though Gandhi himself wore it only briefly, he actively promoted it as a symbol of rebellion and swadeshi ideals. Though its exact sartorial roots are unclear, it is thought to have been inspired by caps worn in South Africa and/or similar to a Persian style as well as various styles of caps worn across India at the time. The topi was an effective symbol not only because of the importance given to the practice of head covering by various religious groups in India (Cohn 1989), but also because it acted as a powerful visual tool that could communicate beyond language, regional and societal barriers to help unify otherwise distinct groups of people towards a common cause. The wearing of the topi became popularized around the time of the freedom struggle and greatly irked the British when worn by Indian officials and subordinates (ibid). It became associated with political leadership subsequent to India’s independence and a number of politcial leaders continue to wear it to this day. It is also worn widely across India by farmers, rural officials and the RSS, for example, and is even a part of the uniform of Mumbai’s infamous dabbawallahs.

While the Gandhi topi was originally made and constructed from khadi, which was in keeping with with swadeshi movment, the topis AAP’s representatives were handing out were mostly made from a recyclable non-woven polypropylene material. Here it is interesting to note that despite the evolution in the materiality of the topi (from woven to non-woven, natural fibers to manmade) its political symbolism and intent has remained intact.

My conversations with many rickshaw drivers while navigating through Delhi this past week highlighted a growing support for the party. Whether this will be a new chapter for Indian politics only time will tell, but it most certainly is a new addition in story of symbolism of cloth and clothing in India.

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The line between buildings (commercial and residential) and advertising often gets blurred in India – as the latter acts as an outer skin in the form of painted hoardings on shops, houses and abandoned buildings on main roads and highways. There are times when these hoardings take over long stretches of national road networks and in some cases entire villages. Some find this visual encroachment extremely ugly while others (like myself) are able find a sense of beauty in the way they add to the built environment as well as the overall landscape.

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Majority of these signs and hoardings continue to be hand-painted as opposed to digital printouts. I’m not sure how long this practice of painting walls will continue, but while it does these advertising strategies ensure buildings get a fresh coat of paint every few years. As there are also subtle variations within each iteration, which include [creative] spelling mistakes and other slight anomalies – these serve as reminders of obvious traces and imperfections of the human hand – that ultimately have their own charm.

I also find it interesting to observe how over the years as certain brands gain prominence and amp up their advertising strategies while others fade from view, these buildings also shift and change their colors and patterns to mimic the trends. In 2010 most of the buildings around the area from where this set of images were taken were red (Vodafone, ACC and Coca-Cola), as well as blue (Reliance) and yellow (Ambuja Cement), but now there are other brands that appear to be more prominent. When viewed collectively this also means that a significant change in the landscape of a town or village even though the overall constructions remain the same.

Pictured in this post are some images of Josh (which literally means spirit, vigor) baniyan (sleeveless undershirt) and underwear (by Dixcy) ads from the main highway near Solan Brewery in Himachal Pradesh.

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Additionally, the image below in particular is one instance when it is possible to read the placement of images and text on houses and buildings in ways that go beyond their intended message. In this case lace trimmed underwear painted on a locked but slightly ajar door makes for an interesting read in the context of dress and morality in India.

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I’m reblogging a post from my tumblr site – as this crossed into both domains. The images below are a wonderful example of how old and new – in this case methods of carrying things – can co-exist. It was not easy to catch up to this lady as she was walking very fast through Solan’s chaotic pedestrian and vehicular traffic. I was not able to stop her, which is sad, as seeing her with a nice flower print bag, dotted and striped salwar kameez, shiny punjabi juttis and a bag of cement on her head made me wonder what events had led to the combination of these items of dress.

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Small photo break from the whirlwind experience that was India Fashion Week:

Seeing the beautiful garments and designs up close at WLIFW also made me think about the importance of dry cleaners in the appreciation of fashion in India. Here’s the beginning of a photoset on dry cleaner displays…

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Finding ways of minimizing fashion’s waste is a growing concern for some within the fashion fraternity. Solutions range from reducing waste at the design and production stage (see Zero Waste patternmaking by Holly McQuillan and Timo Rissanen), through developing simpler and smarter packaging, promotion and retail strategies, and finally dealing with post-consumer waste – i.e. the clothes we no longer need or want as a result of fashion’s never ending cycle and mechanisms of planned obsolesence.

Aneeth Arora’s designs for her label Péro (which I will highlight in a forthcoming post on her S/S 2014 line) already have the hallmarks of “sustainable design” – her garments transcend short term fashion fads thus remaining classics in one’s wardrobe, the “love” that goes into each piece means that its possible to become emotionally attached to them, and the fabrics and crafts are ethically sourced and used. In addition, she has also come up with a simple and cute way of dealing with day-to-day fabric waste from her collections. Each doll pictured here (from her stall at this October’s Wills Lifestyle India Fashion Week, WLIFW), represents one of her past collections – the leftover scraps of which make up their tiny garments. Aneeth initially used them for an installation alongside her chota (small) Péro line for kids. The dolls are labelled with the season and year that the fabrics relate to – thus making them desirable collectors items for any avid Péro follower.

 

Before heading off to the big smoke – to attend WLIFW (Wills Lifestyle India Fashion Week, SS 2014), in New Delhi – I got a taste of some of the fashions favored in a town named Solan in Himachal Pradesh.

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Solan has always been abuzz with suit (salwar kameez) sellers and tailors as salwar kameez is the preferred garment worn by most women here. Alongside this, there is a thriving market for woolen garments and tailored suits. More recently, due to the 5:30pm shut down of the main town center to all motorized traffic that allows for pedestrians to enjoy the evening hours shopping and walking freely without the hassle of cars and buses, the display of street style has intensified – especially amongst young college going men and women (of which there are many, as there are so many colleges in the area). I will post more from that later. Here are some snapshots before I get to Delhi…

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Jeans and pants await their alteration at a street side tailoring stall in South Delhi. (Summer 2010)