Through the looking glass

Through the looking glass

Is our obsession with looking great getting the better of us? Can our collective sanity survive the avalanche of photoshopped beauties throwing themselves in our faces from the airwaves, hoardings, and even time-pass kadle kai wrappings? In the scramble to reach impossible standards set by these digitally enhanced paragons, is the world-view of people like us narrowing down to the tips of our surgically remodelled noses?

Reams of reporting on the recent Miss Universe beauty pageant is merely a sign of the times. Issues such as environmental pollution, corruption in public life, economic crises or nuclear energy blip in and out of the public eye. But, every week is somebody-or-the-other’s fashion week, and the ceaseless hoopla won’t let anyone forget it. The need of the hour for many of us is to make that vital style statement. Hapless souls caught in fashions so five-minutes ago, are considered worse than dead.

It’s a fact. We live in an unjust world where those who successfully present a certain image are given more prominence and respect. In an age of tapering attention spans, snap judgements are made and individuals labelled and slotted depending upon the brands they sport. Some of us may like to believe that we are valued for our inner qualities. But, clothing as a means of self-expression is very much here to stay.

The way we dress helps others form an instant image of who we are, offering insights into our lifestyle and attitudes. Which brings up that age-old question; do clothes make the man or woman? Of course, they don’t! Looks can lie and superficial clothing cannot change the essential character of a person. Why then does up-to-the-nanosecond fashion dominate our time, thought, newsprint and airwaves?

Is women’s clothing given so much importance by society partly because garments, and the excess or lack of them, can be used to subjugate them? Clothes can be designed to make women bare-daring candy for leering eyes or strait-jacket them to smother their femininity and freedom. Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Hina Khar Rabbani, during her recent visit, had our media bowled over by her youth, beauty and style quotient.

While many columns were filled with commentaries on her impeccable fashion sense, why was far less weightage given to her mission and professional capabilities? Isn’t this yet another example of how women are not given due credit even when they rise to positions of power and responsibility?

Men too are increasingly marching to the diktats of fashion. The rich spend fortunes on designer clothes and state of the art cosmetic treatments. Those with slimmer wallets make a beeline for friendly neighbourhood garment shops and unisex salons and spas. Clothes matter, anywhere and everywhere. How many prospective employers forgive a man for not dressing up right for a job interview? Which bride will joyfully garland a groom whose clothes proclaim a slipshod attitude? Liposuction, weight loss clinics, nose jobs and jewellery stores; men are vying with women to queue up for miraculous transformations on sale.

Are we putting weightier concerns on the backburner to chase the mirage of killer looks? Are more serious issues being trivialised into sporting badges, ribbons and headbands espousing the cause of the moment? Even the anti-corruption movement has spawned the trend of wearing a Gandhi topi and raving about the ‘Anna Hazare look’. So, does the fashion obsession dilute our understanding of deeper issues? Certainly not! It would be unfair to dismiss fashion as mere frivolous fluff. 

Fashionistas are thoughtful folks who support momentous causes by the dozen. Shedding clothes in support of motley issues is a growing trend, drawing public attention, if not to the cause, then at least to the person who strips for them. When DJ Jenny comes across injustice, she doesn’t consider detractors. “Doing something drastic is the best way to get people to notice the issue and do something about it,” she says. She has posed for photo-shoots in various stages of undress in protest against the casting couch in the music industry, and the lack of education and employment opportunities for women. This method of protest has proved to be so successful that she is now planning a similar undressing session in support of the Indian hockey team.

Paraguayan model Larissa Riquelme is credited to be the first celebrity to strip for a cause. She nobly kept her promise to remove her clothes even though her country didn’t make it to the 2010 FIFA World Cup. What a gift her gesture must have been to the players and all of Paraguay. Closer home, Poonam Pandey became better known as the model who didn’t strip after all, even though the Indian team won over Sri Lanka in the 2011 Cricket World Cup. As Anna Hazare’s long fast for the Lokpal Bill gained countrywide support, model Salina Wali Khan proclaimed herself to be another victim of corruption, and promised to undress in support of the bill.

Meanwhile, actress Kavita Radheshyam has decided to strip off her clothes to draw attention to our dwindling tiger population.

Kudos to these celebrities who shed or promise to shed their clothes for worthy causes. Like them, we too hope that problems will be solved, or simply vanish, just like their clothes. Never heard of them before their stripping offers were publicised? That goes to show how effective this fashionable form of protest truly is.

Fashion is a vital driver of economic activity worldwide. By fuelling new trends by the minute, the fashion industry facilitates equitable distribution of wealth, offering endless options to the well-heeled to spend their money. Designers, style gurus, fitness trainers, cosmetic surgeons and dentists, and self-styled experts who promise to transform uncouth Neanderthals into tasteful sophisticates for the right price, all pin their fortunes on the fashion industry. Fitness clinics, spas, boutiques, malls and other commercial ventures thrive on propagating the latest fashion trends. Sporting bizarre outfits with suitably exclusive labels allow folks to buy their way into taste and class and feel one up on everyone else.

Money circulates, from rich wannabes to anyone who can glibly sell them a dream. The
economic benefits trickle down to those with less money to burn. Even Kenchappa, the footpath tailor, can make his living stitching rip-offs of Bollywood styles.  

Clothes and the way they are worn can tilt the scales of power politics. Many Muslim women are protesting the recent French ban on wearing the burqa. They are refusing to remove their veils and inviting penalties. While other European countries are considering similar unveiling bans, we can only expect more veiled protests. In our own land, the spinning and wearing of khadi was an integral part of our peaceful struggle for independence. Today, donning the Gandhi topi and hand spun dhoti-kurta has become another example of power dressing.

We obsess over clothes because they are our chosen statement of who we are and who we aspire to be. They mirror the way we wish to project ourselves to others. Identification of people by their clothing isn’t a new phenomenon. Even in ancient times, royals and wealthy nobles wore rich garments and jewels as status symbols, marking them out as a class apart. Today, uniforms set apart persons employed in the armed forces as well as nurses, fire-fighters, police and other professions.

Uniforms serve as a symbol of equality and discipline for school children who emerge from their chrysalis on leaving school, and revel in dressing up for college. Expensive clothes can’t miraculously transform us into something that we truly aren’t. But fashion has mass appeal because simply dressing and pretending to be somebody great is easier than struggling to live up to ideals. So what if it’s challenging to better ourselves? We can dispense with the struggle and revamp our wardrobes for a pleasing illusion of progress.

Discussing styles and trends can be good, clean fun, keeping wishy-washy people engaged and out of major mischief. After all, an idle mind is a devil’s workshop. Discussing and experimenting with clothes and styles isn’t rocket science. Anyone can join the bandwagon, effectively killing idle time and filling vacant areas between the ears.

Fashion is a boon for the mass media. With deadlines expiring yesterday, incessant copy must be churned out and air time fed programmes 24x7. Glamour and fashion related stories and non-stories can fill in the blanks and save the day. Reporters, photographers, producers and editors expend immense energy and earn an honest livelihood analysing and predicting the latest fashion trends. Let’s face it. Don’t we love to admire toned bodies and chiselled faces sporting outfits we would dare not wear in public? Paris Hilton’s sarees for her India tour and Lady Gaga’s meat dress are more entertaining than the shenanigans of netas or reports of disasters and mayhem.

Today’s practical fashion need not be restricted to opulent designer wear. After all, how relevant are fancy frills to the enormous number of our fellow citizens without easy access to good food, shelter, clean water and modern healthcare? Fashion isn’t only about aping the latest trends at any cost. It’s also about dressing appropriately for various occasions and budgets, and for the task at hand. With so many available options, one has no excuse to appear in public looking like a chimpanzee. Only a little time and attention is needed to maintain ourselves. Beyond that, it is up to us to order our priorities. It is for us to choose to channelise fashion as an expression of pragmatic aesthetics, or allow it to reflect unbridled consumerism.

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