Arti Sandhu is the author of Indian Fashion: Tradition, Innovation, Style (Bloomsbury, 2015) and an associate professor of design at Columbia College in Chicago. A trained designer, she brings an insider’s perspective to the changes happening on the Indian fashion scene.
You argue that India has always had fashion.
A lot of people think that fashion became a thing in India only after the opening of the economy over the past few decades. But if you think of fashion as change and as the borrowing of various cultural influences, we have always had fashion.
Take the sari for example. We always think of it as traditional, in that it’s eternal and unchanging. In fact, it’s an evolving garment.
Today’s style of wearing the sari–the Nivi sari–was actually invented in the latter part of the nineteenth century in response to the changes wrought by colonialism and modernization. Women were appearing in public and in mixed company for the first time. A style of sari was devised that was modest and respectable while being identifiably Indian.
And even back then the Nivi sari was subject to the pressures of fashion—my grandmother, for example, preferred to wear chiffons over traditional handlooms because chiffons were more fashionable.
Yet even Indians seem to think Indian fashion is a recent phenomenon.
Well, we have had our history written for us. [Under colonialism] indigenous clothing was written off as “traditional” dress and presented in opposition to modern or western dress.
To add another layer of complexity, the Indian nationalist movement did a great job of identifying the sari with Indianness and everything that was spiritually superior. Today, wearing the sari has become shorthand for Indianness. We’re up in arms whenever a foreigner appropriates this part of our culture—as though we have never borrowed from other cultures!
As a result, while a person who wears Westernized dress might be seen as turning their back on their Indianness, a person who wears traditional dress in the modern workplace is seen as being less efficient, less hard-hitting.
Tell us about “Re-orientalization.”
Reorientalization is this idea of viewing one’s own culture as exotic. We are beginning to look at ourselves in the same way that we were looked upon by those who colonised us.
When researching the book, I was fascinated to read up on Orientalism and the power imbalance it created where the Orient was looked upon as being this unchanging, tribal and effeminate entity. The image was not so much based in actual reality as it was about creating a distance between the ruler and the ruled.
One of the ways in which design has come to be practiced in modern India is to convince the Indian consumer that our past and our textiles are indeed exotic. And you can see that in fashion shows, in magazine spreads, in how dark-skinned models are photographed and presented versus fair-skinned ones.
But I’m not critical of it. I don’t see it as a sign of inferiority but of strength. It’s a way of righting a power imbalance, a sign that we too can look upon ourselves this way.
For example, in designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee’s 2014 couture show titled “Ferozabad,” he set his very Indian designs against the backdrop of the elegant train journeys of the colonial era—the same first class carriages on which Indians and dogs would not have been allowed back in the day. It’s a taking back of history–an empowering, subversive thing.
Indian designers are also orientalizing other cultures. It is about putting yourself in a position of power. That kind of puts it in a different light than simply copying Western ways.
There is a sense of heady excitement in India right now at our newfound purchasing power. We are no longer apologetic for who we are and so we can turn around and borrow from all these different cultures.
You write that the sari is continuing to evolve.
Designers are continuing to think about how to adapt the sari for the globalized young Indian woman.
Designer Gaurav Gupta’s Sari Gown is a great example. There are a lot of women who feel that they can’t wear a sari to a red carpet event even though they are inherently more comfortable in one.
On one hand, there is a lot of cultural capital in wearing a Dior or Chanel, but on the other hand many Indian women don’t feel at home in these clothes—they are constantly reminded how they don’t have the right body type. Also, the setting in which Western designer wear is worn in the West is very different from the setting in which it might be worn in India—it doesn’t always translate well. That’s why the Sari Gown is so great, because it has all the trappings of a gown combined with the “shoulderness” of the sari.
Other designers are experimenting with trousers worn under the sari. They are making the petticoat [traditionally a nondescript skirt worn under the sari] the decorative element and the sari the lighter, transparent element.
There’s a lot of innovation going on.
What is your view on men’s fashion in India?
It has always been easier to sell pink shirts to men in India.
Is this because Indian men are more in touch with their feminine side? I would argue that they just don’t see things in that binary way. Feminine vs. masculine is a false dichotomy in the Indian context, just like traditional vs modernity. Our movie heroes can be seen shimmying their hips in one scene and making short work of the bad guys in the very next.
Color, embellishment, fashion—none of these are as gendered in India as in the West.
Many of the greatest craftsmen in India are men. Heterosexual salesmen confidently advise women customers on what looks good on them. I bought my first item of lingerie from an Indian salesman and neither of us thought anything of it.
While Indian men have accepted Western clothing, they have brought their own eye to it. It is completely acceptable for an Indian man to wear a pink turban, a sequined t-shirt or a bejeweled belt. To the untrained eye it may be flamboyant or camp, but to the Indian eye it is completely within the normal way of doing things.
Why is it Indian designers do not do simple clothing?
I’m always told that there isn’t a market yet for casual designer wear. Among consumers, there is still an assumption that designer clothing should be visibly designer.
And you know, designer clothing is not easily accessible. It’s not something you can just go and buy off the rack in India– unless you are buying international labels or generic ready-to-wear Indian brands.
The concept of ready-to-wear clothing in the designer segment of the market is still very much in the early stages in the Indian context.
If you go to an Indian designer store, you will often find only sample sizes. The idea is if you like it, the store will get it made for you in two weeks.
This is partly due to the easy availability of skilled labour in India. Every label can afford to have a small atelier attached. So even though an item of clothing might be sold as ready-to-wear, it is actually made-to-measure.
You say conspicuous consumption may not be a good thing for India in the long term…
My concern is that the gap between the haves and have-nots is visually much higher than it was pre-liberalization.
Even when I ask my parents—who are fairly middle class—they are taken aback by the difference between what they recall as being acceptable conspicuous consumption in their day to what you see now.
There are so many more ways now to flaunt your wealth and achievements, and they are flashy things like cars and handbags and heavily embellished designer clothing. It’s very much a part of the new culture of confidence.
It concerns me that those who are poor are more aware of their poverty than ever before. I worry as to how that will play out in terms of the anger of the masses and also attacks on women. The crime that occurs in Indian cities is a reflection of this angst.
But are there designers who are advocating for a considered—not conspicuous–consumption?
There are designers who are thinking about this. Two whom I can think of right away are Rahul Misra and Aneeth Arora of Péro.
They are both very concerned about how they use craft and approach craftsmen.
For example, Aneeth works with the same group of craftsmen across collections. She doesn’t just engage a weaver’s services for six months before moving on. Aneeth has actually had her tailors and craftsmen attend the show—not as a gimmick but as a heartfelt acknowledgment of their contribution.
Rahul Misra is also looking for a model where craftsmen can be self-sustaining and not have to rely on designers all the time. He has talked about how he won’t make something that’s against the nature of a craft. He shows an exceptional respect for the traditions and sentiments of the craftsmen he employs.