ASA12: Arts and aesthetics in a globalising world

Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India, 3rd-6th April 2012


Exploring the aesthetics and meanings of contemporary Indian fashion: from craft to the catwalk

Location Convention Centre Auditorium I
Date and Start Time 04 April, 2012 at 08:30


Tereza Kuldova (University of Oslo) email
Mail All Convenors

Short Abstract

The panel explores the realm of relationships between the social and the material through the focus on Indian fashion, zooming on contemporary Indian society through the lens of its manifold relationships with fashion, from craftsmen to designers, production to consumption, tradition to modernity.

Long Abstract

The proposed panel sets as its objective to explore the realm of the relationships between the material and the social, taking as its point of departure clothing and fashion. These are the materials closest to our bodies, materials shaping our selves and reflecting the society around them at the same time as their production and consumption gives shape to the very society around them. Clothing and fashion in India is a topic of daily talk and preoccupation, it employs millions and preoccupies minds of even more, and yet anthropological explorations of Indian society through the lens of material culture and particularly clothing and fashion are still very marginal and limited (though there are notable exceptions). This panel therefore invites contributions investigating these relations further and bringing new perspectives on a range of related topics: aesthetics, hierarchy, femininity and masculinity, seduction versus modesty and respectability, tradition and modernity and so forth. This panel is also open to explorations of contemporary fashion system in India and invites papers on various crafts and their market, as well as relationships with designers and other professionals, juxtaposing vernacular with capitalist economy and addressing the relations of production and consumption and their dialectics.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


Modernity, Fashion and Style as Cultural Constructs in India

Author: Nita Mathur (Indira Gandhi National Open University)  email

Short Abstract

This paper addresses three critical issues: how does tradition juxtapose with modernity; how are fashion and style negotiated in the new middle class which constituted the largest section of the population India; and how are modernity, fashion and style imagined and locally constructed by the people at the grass-roots.

Long Abstract

Modernity, fashion and style have been the subject of much deliberation in both academic and general discussions. The situation is of particular salience in contemporary Indian society given the deep roots of tradition that embeds the ideals of modesty, austerity and voluntary poverty that contrast sharply with indulgence and ostentation that are often associated with modernity and consumer culture. This paper addresses three critical issues: how does tradition juxtapose with modernity; how are fashion and style negotiated in the new middle class which constituted the largest section of the population India; and how are modernity, fashion and style imagined and locally constructed by the people at the grass-roots. The objective is to arrive at a meaningful understanding of modernity, fashion and style that is informed by subjective interpretation of the social and economic implications and contribute sto the current debate on FDI retail policy in India.

"Haute Couture:" the making of an aesthetic category through Indian fashion

Author: Meher Varma (UCLA)  email

Short Abstract

This paper explores how the category of “haute couture” is established and maintained through examining various production and consumption practices in Indian fashion. It will thus show how the construction of this aesthetic establishes boundaries of socioeconomic class in contemporary India.

Long Abstract

This paper examines the adoption of the category of "haute couture" in the contemporary Indian fashion industry. Drawing on multi-sited ethnographic fieldwork with designers who create "haute couture" clothing as well as middle class and upper-middle class women who are the target consumers of fashion, this paper asks: what aesthetic, consumption or production practices are necessary in labeling a garment "haute couture" within the contemporary Indian context? How do "traditional" practices that are pervasive in the middle class-- such as the hiring of personal tailors to design custom-made clothing -- relate to the purchasing of garments that are created by fashion designers and labeled "haute couture?" This paper proposes that these middle-class practices of custom-made clothing negotiate and challenge the widely accepted and borrowed definition of haute couture as expensive, high-skilled dressmaking.

By investigating the distinct practices that come to label a garment "haute couture" this paper asks how this aesthetic category comes to be established as new, luxurious and lucrative. At the same time, this paper proposes that custom-made clothing by tailors can productively be thought of as a practice which resonates with "haute couture," but is nonetheless considered "traditional," affordable and accessible. Thus, by drawing on ethnographic research of events such as "Couture Week" and "Fashion Week," as well as various localized production processes, this project examines how the establishing of "haute couture" as a distinct and new category becomes a way in which divisions of socioeconomic class are produced and reproduced in contemporary India.

Textile Crafts and their contribution in Indian Fashion

Author: Toolika Gupta  email

Short Abstract

This paper explores how the crafts that were being lost to time were revived with the help of leading design institutes and design studios and are a major contributing factor in contemporary Indian Fashion.

Long Abstract

India has a strong history of crafts and craft traditions. These craft traditions especially in the Indian Textile sector led to India being one of the top most countries when it came to textile exports even before the British Raj, and probably leading to it.

Due to modernisation and mechanization a lot of crafts were slowly beginning to get lost in history, but the love of craft, design and tradition helped the revival of Indian Craft Industry. It has now become the USP of Indian designers. The Surface design is the major contributing factor in value addition when it comes to Indian designers, Ritu Kumar, Rohit Bal, J J Vallaya are to name but a few. This has attracted the domestic as well as international designers towards the Indian textile crafts. It moves the designs from mundane to special and has become the backbone of Indian Fashion Industry.

Design intervention in terms of latest trends, technical knowhow and contemporary fashion needs have helped the crafts and craftsmen gain a foothold in the Indian Fashion Industry. This paper is a study of the rebirth of these dying crafts as pillars of Indian Haute- Couture.

Crafting textile and cultural narratives: The Sari as a garment and a fashion construct

Author: Janaki Turaga (Jawaharlal Nehru University)  email

Short Abstract

This paper explores the Sari as a tapestry of textile and cultural narratives on the female body.

Long Abstract

The Sari is still the most ubiquitous garment that clothes the female body in India. It maps multiple narratives, diverse production and technological processes and systems, complex social and economic networks across the country. An exercise in the deconstruction of the Sari, reveals a critical historical narrative of a country. The creation of a handloom sari involves a complex interplay of consumption and production, cultural and symbolic systems, as well as marketing linkages. There were as many different kinds and types of handloom saris with specific weaving techniques, motifs, dyes, colour patterns, and production mechanisms, as there were communities that wore them in different regions.

This paper proposes to address the issues in the handloom sari sector in South India and the consequent impact on the consumers of the saris. Saris once popular, declined in production and currently are being revived through significant government, fashion industry and NGO efforts. The paper will examine the institutional factors such as government policy, financial support from banks, marketing linkages etc., and the socio-economic and cultural modes of production of saris. The paper looks at the larger forces of demand and supply, the systems of production and the changing social systems which enabled the production of the saris.The role of institutionally trained designers and fashion designers in the creation of different kinds of saris which build upon the known techniques of embroidery, embellishment etc., is also examined in the revival and reinvention of saris.

Doing 'Something Indian' : Designer strategies betwixt and between

Author: Janne Meier (Copenhagen Business school)  email

Short Abstract

This article maps out the field of designer fashion in India. It examines and explores how ideas and ideals of national identity shape and link commercial industry practices and strategies to moral and national developmental discourses precariously balancing 'tradition' and 'modernity'.

Long Abstract

Based on extensive fieldwork and in-depth life/career interviews with fashion designers and professionals, mainly in Delhi, this article describes the fashion eco-system in India and explores how as it has developed since the late 1980's. The field of fashion in India has been institutionalised and professionalised in tandem with rapid social change and economic reforms. The article explores how fashion designers, a new category of creative professionals negotiate their socio-professional identities, practice and manage their work in an unstable and competitive environment. How they give meaning to and balance commercial constraints and creative ideals, positioned as they are in between production, mediation and consumption. By analyzing designer work practices and narratives, and the framing of 'Indian fashion' at fashion weeks, it argues that in this field, ideas of national identity, social change and 'development' are inextricably linked to personal and commercial narratives, and that 'doing something Indian' can be a multi-purpose strategy which guides industry conventions and practices and links personal and national narratives in a moral developmental discourse of growth and social responsibility.

India in the World Fashion Fair

Author: Nilanjana Mukherjee (Shaheed bhagat Singh College, University of Delhi)  email

Short Abstract

The fashion industry in India thrives in a crucible which amalgamates tradition and modernity. A new debate is opened up when Indian fashion is studied through the analytic aperture of ‘Museology’ which can lead us back to India under British rule and early post-Independence imagination of the nation.

Long Abstract

The fashion industry in India thrives in a strange crucible which amalgamates tradition and modernity. An investigation into this, may lead us to post Independence debates and to earlier still, the British rule and the colonial era. In my paper, I shall recall the tussle between ideas of tradition and modernity in the initial years after Independence, whereby the new nation drew her symbols from pre-colonial tribal and ethnic culture, the rural landscape with its autochthonous arts and crafts emerging as the site of recovery of pristine and essential India in visual culture such as art and cinema. The Government backed propagation of the national idea domestically and abroad embraced a 'heritage industry' which promoted ethnic jewellery, crafts, textiles and motifs. The paradigm that emerges in such exhibitionary complex is a colonially inherited 'aesthetic of primitivism'. This opens up a new debate when Indian fashion is studied through this analytic aperture of 'Museology'. An important acolyte for the emerging exhibitionary complex of the nation was colonial anthropology which studied races and tribes of the colonies along with their rituals, customs, religion and habits as collectibles. Such depictions would serve as future indices for identification of the people of India. In world forums and beauty pageants/contests representations need to fit into these preformatted stereotypes, into which India readily plays into. However, it is interesting to see how the twin insinuating modalities of seduction and alienation, through which a typically urban fashion industry succeeds, are given new nuances as it copes with the onslaught of globalisation.

From social status to ethnic identity: The ethnic fashion scene in Nagaland

Author: Marion Wettstein (University of Vienna)  email

Short Abstract

This paper examines the shift that ethnic dress among the Nagas of Northeast India underwent within the last hundred years: from precisely encoding the individual social status of its wearer to a general statement of ethnic and Naga national pride.

Long Abstract

When in the early 20th century the first British administrators and anthropologists wrote their monographs about the Nagas and assembled huge collections of Naga dress and ornaments for their museums, most of these dress items had a precise meaning encoded in them: They would tell about the individual social status of the wearer, which was gained though bravery in war or expenditures in feasts of merit; inherited by birth into a clan; or linked to stages in the life cycle. The reach of the readability of such codes was geographically limited - at times even to a single village - and only in some cases had over-regional validity.

Many of these dress items are still produced and used in Nagaland today - with transformed designs and new meanings attached to them. Recently, a vibrant ethnic fashion scene has emerged in Nagaland, making strong use of traditional ornaments and textiles. But rather than a precise and detailed code of individual social status like in former times, such dresses nowadays express a general ethnic and Naga national pride. The contemporary ethnic fashion scene in Nagaland is, however, not rooted in the local clothing habits and is not following the rules of fashion industry. It mainly lives on the catwalk and through the sponsorship and active promotion by the Naga Government.

Based on field and museum research conducted over the last ten years the aim of this paper is to examine this transition of Naga ethnic dress from social status to ethnic identity.

Effect of Fashion and Media on Beauty Notions in Society

Author: Sanjana Sharma (Jawaharlal Nehru University)  email

Short Abstract

The present paper attempts to analyze the relationship between fashion industry and trends spread by the media and the notion of beauty in society. It aims to bring forth the manner in which the notion of beauty and physical appearance for both women and men changes with the changing fashion.

Long Abstract

There is an increasingly close relationship between the trends in the growing fashion industry and spread by the media and the notion of beauty in society. This paper seeks to explore the manner in which the notion of beauty and physical appearance for both women and men changes with the changing fashion trends that now reach a larger population with an increasing media penetration.

Since 1991, the year the Indian government began to open the economy to the world foreign influences have crept into India at a faster pace and this is reflected in the way the notion of beauty in India has been changing. Analysts say the shifting notion of beauty is just one of several cultural traits evolving in India today, a response, in part, to the arrival of satellite television, foreign magazines and Western fashion styles. The media, our films, advertisements etc. have a great role to play in this changing notion of beauty. The media controls the image of what is beautiful for a woman and increasingly for men too in our society and thus has a great influence over people.

The multinational companies, the fashion houses and brands brought with them, images of beauty, which were very different from what were present in India, and women's magazines internationalized their images of beauty. Today we see that reflected in the way young women look. Women, and increasingly men too, seek to replicate international beauty fashion trends on their own bodies, and broader cultural phenomena at large serve to reinforce newly imported ideas about beauty.

Embroidered Seduction, Embroidered Modesty: On Luxury Garments and Femininity in Contemporary India

Author: Tereza Kuldova (University of Oslo)  email

Short Abstract

The paper focuses on the interrelations between luxury embroidery, phantasms produced by designers and the meanings of femininity in contemporary India.

Long Abstract

The proposed research paper is based on extensive fieldwork in North India (New Delhi and Lucknow) that tries to understand contemporary India through the lens of the material, namely through relationships that emerge in the process of production and consumption of particularly high quality Chikan embroidery. This paper explores notions of femininity in contemporary India as experienced and conceptualized by upper class urban women. Taking its point of departure in the material, it inquires into the ways in which the multiple and often contradictory notions of femininity are projected on, as well as believed to dwell in luxury embroidered garments. The analysis, linking the material to the social, focuses on how the imaginary and the real, the desired and the suppressed, and the relationships of hierarchy and negotiations of status, find their expression in the women's interactions with the luxury garments. The paper addresses a range of notions, from modesty to seduction, excess and waste to the moral of simplicity and restriction, from the desire to be a little of a 'vamp' to the coterminous desire to be the ideal 'pativrata', to be 'modern' yet 'traditional'. Investigating various meanings of the luxury Chikan embroidery, from its associations with the royal courts of the Nawabs of Awadh, via its seductive appeal linked to its popularity with courtesans of the days past, to its contemporary use in the imaginaries created by haute couture designers, the article circles around liminal areas of fashion, where relationships between garments and the fantasies, sexuality and unfulfilled dreams of these women meet reality.

Dressing up for consumption: or how sex workers project themselves for the public gaze

Authors: Kalyan Shankar V (Symbiosis School of Economics)  email
Rohini Sahni (University of Pune)  email

Short Abstract

This paper uses data from the First Pan India Survey of Sex Workers to reflect upon what sex workers perceive of themselves and their bodies. It probes into their understanding of attractiveness through material display (appearance), and display of intent/availability (body language) as they solicit for clients.

Long Abstract

The 'sex worker' is a stereotype in popular imagery; provocatively dressed, with oodles of make-up and an accompanying flashiness that sets her apart as the antithesis of the 'good' woman. In this paper, we invert the gaze to explore what sex workers think of themselves. What do sex workers perceive of their own bodies and appearance, as they display themselves for the public gaze and sieve for clients in the process? To what extent does the popular imagery influence her own attempts to recreate herself in the market?

In contemporary settings of sex work, whether in brothels or on streets, hierarchies among the women are purely income-based, rather than skill or culture based (as was the case with the tawaif or the devadasi). Instead of being a participant in the cultural milieu, a sex worker today is a borrower of mass culture whether it is from popular commercial films or television - media which shape her appearance and influence her identities. With this larger narrative in the background, how do sex workers build their identity as explicit objects of desire? In this paper, we draw upon the responses from the First Pan India Survey of Sex Workers to probe into the construction of their appearances. It seeks to address how a sex worker conceptualizes attractiveness - through material display (of clothes and make-up that would make a client desire her over others), display of intent and availability (body language, eye-contact) while masking her ulterior anxieties and fear of the unknown.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.